The Pittsburgh Steelers (7-2) and Tennessee Titans (6-3) enter their Week 11 matchup in primetime on Thursday night at Heinz Field in very similar situations. Both are at the top of their respective divisions. Both teams are playing in a similar manner. That makes this week in the NFL an interesting affair. Here are key things to know about the Titans and this competition.
A mobile Mariota, offense presents a challenge
After a month of scaled-back play due to an injury earlier in the season (hamstring), mobile quarterback Marcus Mariota looks to be back in form on the move and making plays. Against the Cincinnati Bengals last week, Mariota ran for 51 yards but could not escape four sacks. On the season, Mariota has run 32 times for 181 yards and three touchdowns and likes to keep opposing defenses guessing, but he'll need his offensive line to protect him better against a Steelers defense that has a lot of strength up front and applies pressure in relentless pursuit of flipping the field and getting their own offense back on the field.
Mariota and the Titans offense will rely heavily on the run game to get things rolling their way. DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry are a dual-threat at halfback and will likely look to take a page from the playbook the Chicago Bears and Jacksonville Jaguars did against Pittsburgh earlier this season. The pair have amassed a nice set of statistics entering this week of play and are possibly the best one-two running back duos in the league this season. A successful run game would open up the offensive playbook and help take some pressure off of Mariota. The Steelers are ranked 11th in the league in run defense, so this will be a key area for both teams - especially early. The squad that wins the battle could hand the opponent a very long night.
Mariota and the Titans are very dangerous in the red zone, a place that the Steelers defense will have to be exceptional this week.
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As for the passing game, that is one area where the Steelers could take advantage of the Titans. Tight end Delanie Walker, the most consistent receiver for Tennessee and the team-leader with 43 receptions (22 catches over the last four games), is dealing with both wrist and ankle injuries. Walker returned to full participation in practice, so he will be a factor that the Steelers will have keep under control. Receiver Rishard Matthews has at least three catches in every game this season but will face a Steelers team that has allowed little wiggle room for opposing receivers and are ranked second overall in the league in defending the pass.
Titans 'D' looking to dominate Steelers
The number one goal for the Titans defense is to get Ben Roethlisberger on the ground. With 14 team sacks, they've been talking all week leading up to the game about how dangerous Roethlisberger is with Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell, JuJu Smith-Schuster, one of the very best offensive lines and a talented roster of support personnel.
"We have to corral him," linebacker Brian Orakpo said this week. "(Ben) has a Cam Newton body type, and it's difficult to get him down. You have to do a good job of gang tackling him... When (Roethlisberger) gets away and throws it out of bounds or to the play-making receivers he has, that's the frustrating part ... When you get there, you have to finish (the tackle)."
My first sack on (Roethlisberger) I hit him and had to rewrap him up to get him down. He’s a big dude ... You just have to hit him with all your force. He’s definitely a tough cookie in the pocket. - Jurrell Casey
Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is intimately familiar with the Steelers, similar to head coach Mike Mularkey, both having been with Pittsburgh for some time. LeBeau admitted that he did not know the key to stopping 'Big Ben' but said, "We're going to try to stop him and his teammates from dominating the game, keep the score in touch and give our guys a chance to win ... We'll try to disguise and try to make him read us after the snap."
Safety Kevin Byard has seven interceptions on the season thus far and would love to add another to his stats sheet. That feeling of wanting to dominate emanates from rookie cornerback Adoree' Jackson as well - a guy that has become a solid playmaker on both defense, special teams and on offense. Jackson may be something of an X-Factor for Tennessee, depending on if they use him as a decoy/distraction on the offensive side of the ball and then turn him loose in coverage against the Steelers receivers.
The Titans have one of the quickest defensive backfields that play the deep ball. The Steelers would do well to balance their offense and not try to go for big yards every play through the air. Hint to Todd Haley: Use the underneath to Jesse James and the tight ends, get Roosevelt Nix and even James Conner involved, but don't ask Roethlisberger to hit 50-yard tosses over and over again unless you want to see pick-sixes.
Since their 57-14 loss to the Houston Texans, the Titans defense has cleaned up a lot of issues and have kept all other opponents from scoring more than 22 points against them from that point forward. They will need solid play against the Steelers - from pass rush to stopping the run to tight coverage in the secondary - if they hope to pull out a win.
It’s a physical offensive line. We know the defense pretty well, and they’re No. 2 in the NFL right now. Their pass defense is their rush – you have to block these guys. They have a complicated scheme like we do. We have our hands full. - Coach M. Mularkey