8:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Pittsburgh -6
In what at first glance may not seem like the most entertaining matchup, plenty is on the line for at least one of these teams as the Pittsburgh Steelers travel to Tennessee to meet the flailing Titans. Riding high from a three-game winning streak, the Steelers (6-4) came crashing back down to Earth last weekend in the Meadowlands in a disappointing 20-13 loss to the beleaguered Jets. In a debacle in which they truly were their own worst enemy, Mike Tomlin’s charges simply could not get out of their own way, committing a sloppy four turnovers, including three on their first five drives of the game. Thirty minutes into the game, they found themselves trailing 17-3, which ultimately proved to be too big of a deficit to overcome. After playing out of his mind in the previous two outings, Ben Roethlisberger completed 30-of-43 passes (69.8%) for 343 yards, a touchdown and a pair of interceptions, though the majority of those yards came in an effort to rally back. However, the visitors were completely one-dimensional, rushing just seventeen times for a meager 36 yards, which simply hasn’t been a recipe for success in Pittsburgh this season. In the end, it was an opportunity passed by; with that loss, the Steelers fell back to third place in the competitive AFC North, after working in first the week prior. Then again, this has been a team that has largely played to the level of their competition this season, losing to the likes of the Buccaneers and Jets, whom hold a combined record of 4-16 (.200).
The biggest problem with this team is their identity (or lack thereof), which seems to change on a weekly basis. One week they look like a juggernaut, the next they look like an inconsistent mess. Are they a power-running team, or a spread-passing team? Or do they play conservatively and let their defense win the game? For Mike Tomlin and his staff, the answer to that query has rarely been the same from week to week, leaving many to ponder just who the Steelers really are this season. At different points of the campaign, they have resembled the Steelers of old, particularly in the running game; Pittsburgh has rushed for 110.8 yards (15th overall) on 4.1 yards per carry thus far (16th overall), with Sophomore Tailback Le’Veon Bell emerging as one of the league’s best, racking up 747 yards (4.6 yards/attempt) and a touchdown. However, it’s been a very uneven performance in that regard, for Tomlin has seen his offense break the 100-yard plateau on five occasions this season, averaging 151.4 yards in those instances opposed to 70.2 yards in the other contests. Furthermore, their record when they’ve rushed for at least 100 yards is 4-1 to this point, compared to 2-3 when held below that threshold. Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley has been criticized to great effect throughout his tenure in Pittsburgh due to his play-calling habits, but when you have a Quarterback that has played as well as Roethlisberger has this season, why would’t you put the ball in his hands? For all intents and purposes, Big Ben, at the age of 32, is having his best season by far, completing 68.5% of his attempts for 3,063 yards (8.0 yards/attempt), 23 touchdowns and five interceptions, with a Total QBR of 72.3, the highest such figure of his eleven-year career. Before last weekend’s loss, the veteran Quarterback put together a historic stretch, tossing six passing touchdowns in back-to-back games against the likes of the Colts (51-34) and Ravens (43-24), throwing for a combined 862 yards in the process. In fact, his 522 passing yards versus Indianapolis ranked as the fifth-highest total in NFL History. The recipient of many of those balls has been Antonio Brown, who has developed a special rapport with Roethlisberger, hauling in 79 passes on 112 targets, for 1,070 yards (13.5 yards.catch) and eight touchdowns. During that particular stretch, Brown reeled in 21 of the 29 passes sent his way, for 277 yards and three scores. But with all that said, it’s been difficult for Haley to find some kind of balance offensively, akin to having too many toys and not enough time to play with them all. Case in point; the Steelers rank seventh overall in passing attempts (38.4) but just seventeenth in rushing attempts (26.7), making for a 56-44 Pass-Rush Ratio. Skewing a bit more to the run would definitely help the defense, which has sustained a mounting number of injuries thus far, with Linebacker Jarvis Jones (wrist), along with Defensive Backs Troy Polamalu (knee), Ike Taylor (arm), and Cortez Allen (thumb) all expected to miss tonight’s game.
Meanwhile, the first year of the newly-minted Ken Whisenhunt Administration has gotten off to very slow start, as the Titans (2-7) have struggled in these early rebuilding stages of the franchise. Whisenhunt, the former Steelers’ Offensive Coordinator was hired in the offseason after doing a tremendous at that same post in San Diego last year, helping reasirect Philip Rivers and the Chargers, sending them to their first postseason since 2009. Renowned as one of the better play-callers in the league, and well-respected for his work with Quarterbacks such as Rosthlisberger, Rivers, and Kurt Warner, Tennessee made him their Head Coach with designs on finally settling the situation under Center, which has been influx over the past three years. However, with half the season in the books, there seem to be more questions than answers; since upsetting the Chiefs in the Opener, the Titans have dropped seven out of their last eight games, including three in a row. Fresh off a Bye Week to collect themselves, the traveled to Baltimore, where after earning an early 7-0 lead, saw the hosts pull away oduding the second half of the 21-7 defeat. For the third time in the last four outings the offense was held below 300 yards, and for the third game in a row committed a pair of turnovers. The biggest problem has been the lack of any running game, as Tennessee has averaged just 62.3 rushing yards over their last four tilts, including a scant 67 against the Ravens
So needless to say, there is a lot of work to be done on this side of the ball, but Whisenhunt has proven that he’s up to the task given the job he did in Arizona back in 2008, in taking the downtrodden franchise to a Super Bowl appearance. Through nine games the Titans have been dreadful offensively, averaging just 16.0 points (30th overall) on 322.1 yards (31st overall), including 224.8 yards through the air (27th overall) on 6.2 net yards per attempt (20th overall), and another 97.3 yards on the ground (23rd overall) on 4.3 yards per carry (11th overall). With no ground game to support them, any of three Quarterback that Tennessee has trotted out onto the field has struggled; Jake Locker, Charlie Whitehurst, and most recently Zach Mettenberger have each taken their respective lumps, with none showing the ability to carry the offense to this point. Locker, the injury-prone former First Round Pick, was benched after a 33-7 loss to the Bengals before briefly resurfacing to give away a potential victory over the Browns in which they led by 28 points at halftime. Plain simple, the fourth-year veteran has regressed, completing just 58.0% of his passes for 764 yards (6.8 yards/attempt), five touchdowns and five interceptions, leading Whisenhunt to effectively close the door on the Jake Locker Era. However, it’s not like Whitehurst has been any better; the well-traveled veteran backup has thrown for just as many yards (764) and touchdowns (5) with fewer picks (2), but has amassed most of those numbers during garbage time. So enter Mettenberger, the Second Round Pick in last May’s Draft, who probably would’ve gone higher had he not suffered a torn ACL towards the end of his collegiate career. The big, strong-armed Rookie has potential, but has gone through the requisite growing pains associated with the position, completing 61.6% of his passes for 494 yards (6.8 yards/attempt), three touchdowns and as many interceptions. Making is third straight start tonight could problematic, particularly against Pittsburgh, who has traditionally ravaged Rookie Quarterbacks with their complex zone blitzes and coverages.