7 Keys to Victory in Pittsburgh Steelers' Week 11 Matchup
The Pittsburgh Steelers host the Tennessee Titans on Thursday night, hoping to extend their win streak to five games and keep hold of the top spot in the AFC. On a short week, home-field advantage is playing in their favor.
But it will take more than an advantageous locale to defeat the Titans this week. Here are seven keys to a Steelers victory in Week 11.
Exhaust the Titans' Offensive Line
A short week does neither the Steelers nor the Titans any favors. However, the Steelers have a way to use Tennessee's brief window to prepare for Thursday night's game to their advantage.
In Week 10, the Titans played a whopping 90 snaps on offense—nearly 30 more than has been typical for their team this season and a number equivalent to one-and-a-half games. Comparatively, the Steelers played 66 snaps in their Week 10 win over the Indianapolis Colts.
While not all of the Titans' offensive starters played all 90 of those snaps, six key members of the roster did: quarterback Marcus Mariota and his five offensive linemen. It's those linemen and their exhaustion the Steelers defense can capitalize on. Using their speed in the pass rush to get to Mariota should be an easier prospect than if the Titans had a full week of rest and preparation.
The Titans can try to slow down the pace of the game using their running backs and Mariota's mobility. But he will be forced to drop back to pass, and perhaps frequently if the Steelers get out to an early lead. Then, pass-rushers such as Bud Dupree, T.J. Watt and Vince Williams can capitalize on a worn-down Titans offensive line, bring pressure and make for a chaotic night for Mariota and the passing game.
Create Turnovers in the Passing Game
Bringing pressure affects decision-making and accuracy. Thus, even if the Steelers' pass rush does not generate multiple sacks Thursday night, it can still make things tough for Mariota.
Pittsburgh's defense has just eight interceptions this year. However, Mariota has thrown six picks (compared to seven touchdowns) while having attempted only 248 passes. Proper pressure, combined with disciplined play in the secondary, could easily lead to the Steelers earning a game-changing takeaway.
The secondary, though, has undergone a major change. Starting cornerback Joe Haden is out indefinitely, putting Coty Sensabaugh on the field for the first time this season.
Sensabaugh was brought aboard because of his man-coverage skills, and while he has only two career interceptions, Pittsburgh's defense matches up well against Tennessee's passing game. He could find himself the beneficiary of rushed play from Mariota.
Get over Home Scoring Struggles
The Steelers have one of the least efficient offenses touchdowns-wise.
Though the offense ranks fourth in red-zone scoring attempts per game (3.7 and 4.3 at home), Pittsburgh scores touchdowns on only 42.4 percent of those attempts and 23.1 percent at home. Granted, the Steelers have played just three games at home to date, but it's obvious that Heinz Field has not provided them with much of a home-field advantage.
There are numerous directions to cast blame: Ben Roethlisberger's accuracy; lack of contributions from receivers who aren't Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster; Todd Haley's play-calling; inabilities to convert third downs in the red zone. Improving even one of these areas Thursday would yield better scoring results.
Can the Steelers make adjustments on a short week? With a tough stretch of their schedule ahead, the offense needs to live up to its reputation.
The Steelers' struggles with tackling continued in Week 10, despite having a bye week to clean it up. Against the Indianapolis Colts, Steelers Depot's Josh Carney tallied 20 missed tackles by Pittsburgh's defense, bringing their season-long total to 117.
This cannot continue against the Titans in Week 11, especially considering the strength of Tennessee's run game. The Titans rank ninth in rushing attempts, sixth in rushing yards and third in rushing touchdowns this year and are averaging 4.4 yards per rush. And it's not just one man that the Steelers will have to worry about on Thursday.
Tennessee has a robust, three-man rushing attack, with DeMarco Murray rushing for 433 yards and four scores, Derrick Henry rushing for 404 yards and three scores and quarterback Marcus Mariota rushing for 181 yards and three scores. As a whole, the Titans offense have surpassed four times, including rushing for 180 yards against the Cincinnati Bengals a week ago. While Pittsburgh's defense has allowed over 100 rushing yards only twice this season, both of those games ended with their opponents totaling over 200 yards on the ground and the Steelers with losses.
Thus, the Steelers must be ready for a lot of ground-and-pound out of the Titans. A repeat performance of last week—or of any week in which their tackling has been less-than-stellar—will do little to help get the Steelers the victory they seek on their home field.
One distinct method the Steelers may employ against the Titans both should increase their offensive output as well as help eliminate the pressures of a short week of preparation: The use of the no-huddle.
As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ray Fittipaldo points out, when the Steelers used the no-huddle in Week 10 against the Indianapolis Colts (in eight plays), it netted 65 yards of offense and averaged 8.1 yards per play; their non-no-huddle plays averaged only 4.6. That, as well as the short week, is why Ben Roethlisberger told Fittipaldo and the assembled media on Tuesday that it should see an extended run on Thursday.
Roethlisberger noted that running the no-huddle in this situation is "actually easier because that's something that’s been in since day one. So rather than install a bunch of new plays you go with what you know and have been doing for a long time."
It will also be a way for the Steelers to keep the Titans defense guessing, something that is even more important given that their coordinator, Dick LeBeau, worked in the same capacity in Pittsburgh from 2004 to 2014. LeBeau is familiar with Roethlisberger and his tricks, but may not be able to prepare proper play calls with Roethlisberger taking over the offense himself on the field.
Pittsburgh needs to employ whatever tactics it can to be effective at moving the chains with little time to prepare. The no-huddle has been a proven success when Roethlisberger has ran it in the past, and as recently as last week. It should be a focus again on Thursday; perhaps it will also be a solution to the team's scoring woes, as well.
Don't Give Up on Bell
Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell has 220 rushes for 840 yards, leading the league in both categories. He also has scored all five of the Steelers' rushing touchdowns this year. In his last four games, he's had no fewer than 76 rushing yards while seeing no fewer than 25 carries. And the Steelers should not be planning to lay off the gas any time soon.
Though the Steelers do run the risk of exhausting Bell during the crucial home stretch of the season—as well as expose him to more opportunities to suffer injury—Bell is the central focus of Pittsburgh's offense. His rushing sets up Ben Roethlisberger's passing and keeps opposing defenses on their heels. And while the Titans are a formidable rushing defense, that does not mean that Bell needs to be kept under wraps.
Yes, the Titans are a top-10 defense when it comes to rushing yards, rushing scores and yards per rush allowed. But on a short week, a good way to wear them down is by administering them a heavy dose of Bell in between Pittsburgh's no-huddle passes. Further, the three times the Titans ceded over 100 rushing yards this year, they lost the games; Bell, meanwhile, is averaging 93.3 yards per rush per game.
There is merit to the idea of protecting Bell in the latter part of the season to make sure he's healthy and ready for what the Steelers are hoping is a deep playoff run. But on Thursday, keeping him in the 25-to-30-carry range will help the Steelers put together a winning formula.
Protect the Football
Much as Pittsburgh's defense will be trying to bring pressure on Marcus Mariota, force him into making mistakes and capitalizing by way of generating turnovers, Tennessee's defense will be looking to do the same to Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
This year, Roethlisberger has thrown 10 interceptions (to 12 touchdowns), including five in a Week 5 home loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. He's avoided throwing a pick in only three games this year. While the Steelers have lost just two games, there's no question that any turnover is a bad one, and the Titans will be looking to put Pittsburgh in a bad mood on Thursday night.
The Titans defense ranks 10th in interceptions this year, with nine on the season. Six of those belong to safety Kevin Byard, the league's leader. And it's Byard who has the best chance of ruining Roethlisberger's day—safeties have had the most luck among the players who've picked Roethlisberger off this season.
Roethlisberger needs to be careful when throwing Byard's way, but he must also be wary of throws made on the move, while under pressure. These are Roethlisberger's signature plays when they go well, but they are also risky, especially depending upon whom he ends up targeting with the football.
With Dick LeBeau handling Tennessee's defense, there's no doubt he will be cooking up ways to force Roethlisberger into making a critical mistake that results in a turnover. Playing smart football will be far more important than Roethlisberger trying to make something out of nothing this week.