AFC's last two undefeated teams duke it out in Nashville
Sunday, two of the last three undefeated teams in the NFL square off when the Pittsburgh Steelers head to Nashville to face the Tennessee Titans. The two squads have a lot more in common than just their 5-0 records. Both teams feature high-scoring offenses orchestrated by their outstanding quarterbacks. Ben Roethlisberger, the more grizzled veteran at 38 years old, is looking mostly like the Big Ben of years past, and Ryan Tannehill, 32, is turning into one of the league's most efficient passers.
Each side is looking to overcome injuries to star players at key positions. Pittsburgh will be without stud inside linebacker Devin Bush and Tennessee's offensive line has a huge hole to fill without left tackle Taylor Lewan. And while both clubs are undefeated, neither has faced much of a schedule thus far. Both have only defeated one team with a winning record, three teams with just one win, and the 2-3 Denver Broncos.
Sunday's matchup should serve as a true measuring stick for both teams. It also could be a preview of what's to come in the postseason.
Pittsburgh at Tennessee
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 24 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Steelers -2
Three Things to Watch
1. Steel Curtain still dominant
The Titans have one of the most balanced and potent offenses in the NFL. They're the best red zone unit in the league, getting points on 78 percent of such possessions, and overall are second in both scoring (32.8 ppg) and scoring drives (54.7 percent). Derrick Henry again leads the NFL in rushing (588 yards, 6 TDs) and Ryan Tannehill (13 touchdowns, 113.5 passer rating) is playing like a top-five quarterback. But this Titans offense has yet to face anything like this Steelers defense, a unit that's given up the fewest points this season (94) and is surrendering only 18.8 points per contest.
The Steelers' defensive dominance starts with their pass rush. Last week, Pittsburgh sacked Baker Mayfield four times and intercepted him twice, including a pick-six. It was the sixth straight game (dating back to 2019) that the Steelers recorded at least three sacks and an interception. Mayfield was pressured on 52 percent of his dropbacks, finishing the day with only 119 passing yards and a measly 54.9 rating.
The performance against Cleveland was indicative of Pittsburgh's season thus far as the Steelers lead the league in sacks (24), hurries (36), and pressures (79). Their pass rush is a constant barrage from all angles, blitzing on a league-high 46 percent of dropbacks and getting pressure on 38 percent. A lot of that pressure comes from the edges, where outside linebackers Bud Dupree (5 sacks) and T.J. Watt (4.5 sacks, 9 TFLs, 13 QB hits), and even cornerback Mike Hilton (3 sacks), wreak havoc. That's bad news for a Tennessee offensive line that's been among the best groups at protecting their quarterback (6 sacks), but will be missing their starting left tackle in Taylor Lewan.
The other bad news for the Titans is the Steelers' secondary is starting to play like they did in the second half of last season. After shaky start to 2020, Pittsburgh's defensive backs have found their groove, picking off eight passes (tied for second in league) and shutting down receivers after the catch (403 YAC, first). Last week, cornerbacks Joe Haden and Steven Nelson locked down Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, allowing the supremely talented duo only five total catches on nine combined targets for 65 yards, and star safety Minkah Fitzpatrick had a pick-six in the first quarter.
2. Titans' secondary vs. rejuvenated Big Ben
After elbow surgery forced him out of the final 14 games of last season, Big Ben is back, and so is the Steelers' high-scoring offense from years gone by. Currently, Pittsburgh is fourth in scoring, averaging 31.2 points per game. The 38-year old Roethlisberger is putting together an impressive season so far, completing nearly 70 percent of his passes with 11 touchdowns, one interception, good for a 109 passer rating (sixth in NFL).
Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner has done a great job of designing his offense around the aging Roethlisberger's physical limitations. With Roethlisberger's arm strength and mobility waning, the Steelers are a more run-focused, quick-hitting passing team — and it's working. Roethlisberger has taken to the more balanced and moderate approach rather well. He's getting the football out of his hand quicker than anyone else in the league (2.33 seconds) and is spreading it around to his top-notch receivers. Five Steelers have at least 15 catches so far this season. And although his yards per attempt is currently at a career-low (7.1), that should still play well for Roethlisberger and his receivers against Tennessee. Last week, the Titans allowed Deshaun Watson to complete 21 of his 25 passes that were fewer than 10 air yards for 174 yards and three touchdowns.
Roethlisberger faces a Tennessee secondary that has been shaky for some time now. The Titans are 28th in total passing yards allowed (1,364) and 30th in touchdown passes (13). Last week, Watson torched them for 350 yards and four scores. Last Tuesday, Stefon Diggs burned them for 10 receptions and 106 yards on 16 targets. The game before that, it was Minnesota's Justin Jefferson with seven catches and 175 yards. You get the picture.
The bottom line is, with no real pass rush of which to speak, the Titans are going to have to rely on their shoddy secondary to make plays against a Pittsburgh offense designed to make them suffer for long drives. JuJu Smith-Shuster (23 receptions, 193 yards, 3 touchdowns) and Chase Claypool (19.7 ypr, 4 touchdowns) could be in for a big game.
3. Coming for King Henry
Sunday in Nashville, an immovable force and unstoppable object will collide. That immovable force is the Steelers' second-ranked rushing defense and the unstoppable object is reigning rushing champ Derrick Henry.
The Steelers are first in the NFL with just 331 rushing yards and 14 first downs on the ground allowed so far this season. Their 3.3 yards per carry and the three rushing touchdowns they have surrendered rank second. Last week they held Cleveland's Kareem Hunt to just 40 yards on 13 carries.
For the Steelers D, it starts up front with defensive tackle Cameron Heyward. With Heyward leading the charge, the Steelers are the best in the league at stuffing runners at or behind the line of scrimmage. Pittsburgh's linebackers and defensive backs also are vital to this effort with their vaunted run blitz scheme. They rank third in the league in second-level yards allowed — between five and 10 past the line of scrimmage — where Henry does so much damage to undersized defenders.
But Pittsburgh will be without one of their best run-stoppers in inside linebacker and play-caller Devin Bush (torn ACL) for the rest of the season. The loss of Bush could open up holes created by the Titans' zone-blocking scheme for Henry to run, especially in between the tackles where they'll be without Lewan on the left side. Last week, Henry had 212 yards and two touchdowns on the ground against the Texans. Most of the damage (177, both TDs) came on carries between the tackles.
Immovable force, meet unstoppable object.
This game could go either way between these two evenly matched squads. The Titans' offense is as good as the Steelers have seen all season. And the same goes for the Steelers' defense for the Titans' offense. Give me the Steelers and their defense, by a hair, in what could be a classic.
Prediction: Steelers 31, Titans 28
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.