For the Titans, this is a chance to defeat a quality opponent and get back on track after a very rough start. For the Steelers, it’s a chance to capitalize on momentum coming out of the bye week that they achieved by defeating the Philadelphia Eagles last Sunday.
The Steelers could and definitely should win this game. Here’s 10 keys to making that happen.
To put it quite simply, the Titans can’t stop anyone defensively. They struggle in all phases and aren’t really improving as the season progresses.
Here’s some key stats on the defensive side of the ball for Tennessee: 423.8 yards allowed per game, 279.6 passing yards allowed, 144.2 rushing yards allowed, 36.2 points per game allowed.
In short, what a mess and what an opportunity for Pittsburgh. The Steelers have a healthy Rashard Mendenhall in the backfield, Ben Roethlisberger and a corps of fast and effective receivers and a tight end that always seems to be open.
The Titans will have to put up their best defensive effort of the season by far to come away with a victory. They’re also allowed over 42 percent of third downs to be converted. The Steelers are one of the best third-down teams in the league. Again, an opportunity for the Steelers to really shine.
Now that Rashard Mendenhall is back and looking healthy, the Steelers should really be able to mix up the offensive play calls to keep teams completely off balance.
I’d expect an increase in play-action now that Mendenhall is back. He makes it effective because he’s a threat to run, cut back or catch the ball in the flat. He also makes it possible by providing effective carries on the ground. When you have to defend a guy in multiple ways, everything else becomes easier.
I’d also expect Todd Haley to use the defensive inexperience against Tennessee by crossing up its secondary with some different routes and receiver combinations. Emmanuel Sanders has shifted in and out at times and I’d expect that to happen again.
As always, Heath Miller needs to be involved, but I’d also like to see the Steelers go with four receivers and spread out the Titans. I’d also be interested to see what would happen in that formation if Roethlisberger suddenly handed off to Mendenhall.
The Steelers did better defensively against the Eagles, but they're facing a better passing quarterback this week in Matt Hasselbeck. I’m not under any illusions that Hasselbeck is better overall than Michael Vick, but we aren’t going to see him trying to carry the ball at the goal line.
The best way to put pressure on this inexperienced Titans receiving corps is to play up and be physical. This isn’t a really speedy bunch, so the Steelers should be able to stay with them. Their biggest threat is likely to be former Steelers receiver Nate Washington, who makes more plays than the rest.
Pittsburgh has been slow to adopt a more physical style from its defensive backs, but this would be a good time to experiment with it against an offense that isn’t exactly prolific.
The Steelers haven’t been nearly as good at holding off runners this season. They used to be a team that wasn’t worth running against because they’d keep even the best backs stuck in their backfields. Now, they’re not quite as staunch.
They’ll need to be tough on Thursday night. Chris Johnson, for all his failings, since signing a huge contract extension, is still a dangerous back that, if given the opportunity, can have a huge game.
Johnson hasn’t been very effective thus far, but that could change. He managed to turn it on last year after a slow start. The last thing the Steelers want to do is let Tennessee get two parts of its offense going. Forcing the Titans to be one-dimensional will open up all kinds of possibilities.
No, I’m not suggesting messing up the injury report. I am suggesting that the Steelers be smart about how they approach their banged-up players and the ones who won’t be on the field this week.
Troy Polamalu is definitely not playing this week. The Steelers will put Ryan Mundy in that spot once again, but I really think this is the game to dress Robert Golden and get him involved. I don’t see a downside, especially given Mundy’s deficiencies.
The other big trouble spot is LaMarr Woodley. He's out this week as well, and on a short week, it is probably better he doesn’t play and aggravate that injury.
Jason Worilds would be my pick to replace him. Chris Carter is not a good pass-rusher. Worilds has more skill in that department, and I feel more comfortable with him being paired with James Harrison. A rotation isn’t out of the question either, but Worilds should get the majority of the snaps.
The Pittsburgh special teams have been iffy most of the year when it comes to covering on kicks and punts. That needs to be very tight on Thursday. The Titans have actually been pretty good on special teams and have broken some big returns.
The Steelers have good legs in Shaun Suisham and Drew Butler. Both guys can pin a team back. I actually favor Suisham not kicking it out of the end zone when the Steelers can cover the kick because it gives them a chance to stop a team deeper than their own 20.
The focus here must be on field position. With a struggling offense and a defense that can’t stop an opponent, the Titans will not be able to put up a ton of points if they’re forced to go a long way for them. They also will have trouble playing catch up if the Steelers open a big advantage as they should.
Todd Haley’s offense has a predilection for long drives. I love that, and it has really helped out the defense by keeping them on the sidelines for long periods.
But against the Titans, I would turn that strategy around early and go for the early lead quickly. Back off the Titans defense by going deep on the first play. That will open up the running lanes for Mendenhall. It will get tight end Heath Miller in space.
Most important, it will put the Titans squarely on the defensive. Doing that for two or three drives successfully and building a two- or three-score advantage will force the Titans to play desperate. That’s a bad spot to be in.
Matt Hasselbeck, unlike Michael Vick, isn’t a mobile guy. He can move a bit and isn’t exactly a statue in the pocket, but he’s older and he’s slow and he doesn’t break runs. That means he’s a good target.
The Steelers did a nice job of keeping Vick in check on Sunday. They need to build off that this week and keep Hasselbeck under fire.
Whether Jason Worilds or LaMarr Woodley is manning the one outside linebacker spot, I would bring both that guy and James Harrison as regularly as possible. You don’t want to sacrifice coverage on pass plays, but with the Titans offense, the Steelers can afford a little more risk in their approach.
The more pressure they can create in the backfield and in crushing the pocket, the more chance there will be for turnovers. The Steelers have been pretty good offensively at not turning the ball over. The defense needs to get better at creating some.
This was where Pittsburgh fell short against the Oakland Raiders before the bye week. They fell into the trap of not taking a bad team seriously. One of the reasons that the NFL is so popular is that any team can win any game. We’ve seen a terrible team slay a good one year in and year out.
That cannot happen here. The Steelers are playing to catch up in their division. They got a gift last weekend when Miami beat the Bengals. The Ravens have been the best of the bunch, but they don’t look like the same Ravens that routinely spank other teams each year. They look like they can be had.
The Steelers are in the same boat. They don’t look like the yearly playoff contenders of old. They are still working on their game. This is the week to break out with a big victory on the road to take some control of their destiny again.
Mike Tomlin should have them watch the Oakland tape one more time on the trip. Maybe that way they’ll remember how embarrassing it is to lose to a poor team.
The Steelers are traditionally a good team in primetime games. This is the only show in town for Thursday, so they have the spotlight all to themselves. Pittsburgh should be able to really shine here. Everything is in their favor.
This isn’t as much a key to the game as it is a nod to this team’s history. They crave that spotlight. They’ve got it now. If they can seize it, they will be 4-2 and in a great position to build with a long week to prepare for their next game.
If they fail, it’s a really long trip home and a long week of waiting to try again. Plus at 3-3, I don’t like their chances of finishing at the top of the conference. At 4-2, they’re right there in the thick of things.