Steelers vs. Titans: 10 Keys to the Game for Tennessee
Coming off of big losses to Houston and Minnesota in the last two weeks and facing a tough Steelers defense with an aging, backup quarterback, the Titans will need to play a near-perfect game if they hope to come away with the win.
While it may be asking a lot from a team that has struggled to even remain competitive in four of its first five games, Tennessee will need to do the following 10 things if it hopes to walk out of LP Field as the victor.
1. Establish the Running Game
With Matt Hasselbeck struggling to get the ball downfield with his arm, the Titans will need Chris Johnson to find a way to have some success on the ground if Tennessee hopes to put enough points on the board against Pittsburgh.
After struggling to get Chris Johnson into the open field for the fourth time in five weeks against Minnesota, the Titans offensive line will need to provide Johnson with the holes needed to establish the run game early on.
With the Titans losing the time-of-possession battle week after week, a successful run game will allow the Tennessee defense to stay off the field and remain rested enough to hold up in the final 30 minutes of the game.
2. Throw the Ball to Jared Cook Early and Often
With Kenny Britt still not 100 percent and Matt Hasselbeck lacking the arm strength to take advantage of Nate Washington's and Kendall Wright's speed downfield, Jared Cook is the Titans' biggest and most important receiving option if Tennessee hopes to develop a passing game with Hasselbeck under center.
Despite not being targeted in the first three quarters of the Titans' loss to the Vikings in Week 5, Cook was still able to finish the game with five receptions for 37 yards and a touchdown.
Following the loss, both Hasselbeck and head coach Mike Munchak mentioned that the team needs to work to get Cook more involved in the offense, and that will definitely need to be the case against a Steelers defense that will be missing its biggest playmaker.
3. Put Pressure on Ben Roethlisberger
Despite spending much of the offseason talking about how they would fix the Titans pass rush, Tennessee's coaching staff has failed to put the players in a position to consistently get to the quarterback through the first five games.
Ben Roethlisberger is one of the best quarterbacks in the game when it comes to shedding tacklers and sliding around in the pocket to open up passing lanes and extend the plays.
If the Titans hope to win this game, they will need to not just get to Roethlisberger, but also take him to the ground. Whether it's by rushing four or sending extra defenders, Tennessee cannot allow Roethlisberger to have the amount of time that nearly every quarterback has had in the pocket against them this year.
How will the Titans fare against the Steelers?
4. Avoid Getting Beat by the Deep Ball
With one of the fastest receiving corps in all of football, Pittsburgh presents a difficult challenge for every secondary.
The Titans' disappointing safety play has been discussed at length throughout the season, but Michael Griffin, Jordan Babineaux and Robert Johnson will need to be able to keep the receivers in front of them and allow their cornerbacks to be aggressive if the defense hopes to get off of the field.
Though both Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown's average yards per reception is significantly lower than their career numbers, they still represent two of the top deep threats in the league and will put plenty of pressure on the safeties to play fundamentally sound football.
5. Limit Heath Miller's Receptions
Though the Titans had their most success of the season against tight ends in their game against Minnesota, Kyle Rudolph still managed four receptions and a touchdown against Tennessee.
Heath Miller has reached the end zone in three of the Steelers' first four games and continues to be Ben Roethlisberger's top check-down option.
With the safeties likely spending much of the game preventing the Steelers receivers to beat them over the top, it will be up to the linebackers to cover the middle of the field and prevent Heath Miller from beating them consistently on third downs.
6. Protect Matt Hasselbeck
Though the strength of the Titans offensive line has always been its ability protect the quarterback, with an immobile Hasselbeck under center, it's more important than ever to provide him with a clean pocket.
The Steelers, while battling injuries, have always found creative ways to get to the quarterback, and Thursday will almost certainly be no exception.
Whether it's using play-action passes, utilizing draw plays and screens or simply getting the ball out quickly, the Titans will need to call plays that will force Pittsburgh defenders to think twice before pinning their ears back and just trying to attack the passer.
7. Utilize Creative Defensive Play-Calling
Throughout most of the season, the Titans have run primarily basic defensive plays involving the safeties playing deep and only rushing their four defensive lineman.
With Colin McCarthy getting healthier and Zach Brown taking over for Will Witherspoon at weakside linebacker, the Titans are finally healthy on the defensive side of the ball and need to begin bringing safeties and linebackers closer to the line of scrimmage in an attempt to force mistakes in the passing game.
After spending much of the offseason working on developing the lineman and linebackers into better pass-rushers, the time is right for the team to start taking advantage of that fact and begin moving Akeem Ayers around the field in an attempt to create mismatches across the line of scrimmage.
8. Give Receivers Chances to Make Plays After the Catch
With Matt Hasselbeck at quarterback, the Titans will have a limited number of shots down field against Pittsburgh.
In order to overcome this, offensive coordinator Chris Palmer needs to put the Titans receivers in a position where they can create their own big-play opportunities.
Using quick routes, wide receiver screens, end-arounds and reverses, the Titans will allow Kendall Wright and Nate Washington, two of the quickest players on the team, a chance to make their defender miss and extend drives.
9. Score Touchdowns in the Red Zone
While the Titans' red zone opportunities have been fairly limited in the last two weeks, the team is currently scoring touchdowns on just 40 percent of its trips inside the opponent's 20-yard line.
Against a team like the Steelers, where points will be at a premium, it is important that the Titans take advantage of every scoring chance they get and punch it into the end zone when the opportunity presents itself.
With a struggling running game and a physically-limited quarterback, it falls on the coaching staff to find ways to create space for the players even as the field gets shorter.
10. Press the Steelers Receivers at the Line of Scrimmage
While Jason McCourty and Alterraun Verner have been solid on the outside, they have continually shown an unwillingness to come up to the line of scrimmage and meet the receivers as they begin their route.
Giving Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace free releases will allow them to use their quickness and game-breaking speed to either get down the sideline or beat the Titans corners consistently on quick out and slant routes.
McCourty and Verner both have strong hands and are quality tacklers, but they will need to rely on the presence of the safeties over the top to come up and attempt to physically manhandle the Steelers receivers.
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