The Pittsburgh Steelers will try and get back on track when they take on the Tennessee Titans on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.” The Steelers (6-4) had won three in a row before losing to the Jets last week, while the Titans (2-7) have dropped their past three games.
Pittsburgh is in the thick of the AFC playoff hunt, thanks to the NFL’s fourth-ranked offense, but the Steelers can ill afford to lose to a team they are expected to beat. Tennessee is playing more for pride and draft position than anything, but first-year head coach Ken Whisenhunt would no doubt love to see improvement and signs of growth, especially from rookies like quarterback Zach Mettenberger and running back Bishop Sankey.
The Titans have won two in a row against the Steelers, including last season’s 16-9 victory in Pittsburgh in the season opener. That game was dominated by both defenses, as Jake Locker and Ben Roethlisberger combined for just 316 yards passing and were sacked six times. Besides starting out 0-1, this game also was costly for the Steelers in that they lost starting center Maurkice Pouncey and linebacker Larry Foote to season-ending injuries. Pittsburgh would go on to finish 8-8, missing the playoffs for the second straight season while the Titans would win just six more games, resulting in the firing of head coach Mike Munchak.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Tennessee Titans
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Pittsburgh -6.5
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Pittsburgh’s Key to Victory: Don’t Play Down to the Competition
The Steelers are 6-4, including wins over AFC South division leader Indianapolis and AFC North foes Baltimore and Cleveland. Pittsburgh’s four losses have come against the aforementioned Browns and Ravens, the Buccaneers at home and the Jets on the road. There’s no shame in losing divisional games, especially in the AFC North, the only division in the NFL that has four teams with winning records. Tampa Bay and New York on the other hand are a combined 4-16. Besides the Steelers, the only teams the Buccaneers and Jets have defeated this season are the winless (0-10) Raiders and a 3-7 Redskins squad. That’s not exactly the resume of a playoff team is it? Fortunately for Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin, his team’s postseason hopes are very much alive, but the Steelers need to treat every game from here out as a must win. To be fair, it’s not like Pittsburgh was blown out by either Tampa Bay or New York. The Bucs won on a last-second touchdown pass while the Jets took full advantage of four Steeler turnovers, but a loss is still a loss and either could end up costing Pittsburgh a playoff berth. If there’s anything that stands out, statistically speaking, in the four losses it is turnovers (minus-seven) and a lack of a running game (89.5 rushing ypg compared to 125 in the six wins). However, it also should be pointed out that for whatever reason, the Steelers have had a tendency under Tomlin to not show up against what is perceived to be lesser competition. This pattern needs to end tonight, especially if Pittsburgh wants any chance of ending its longest playoff drought since the late ‘90s.
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Tennessee’s Key to Victory: Embrace the Spotlight
The Titans have just one win since beating the Chiefs in Kansas City in their season opener. And that was of the two-point variety against 1-9 Jacksonville. There have been some close calls for Ken Whisenhunt’s bunch, namely a one-point loss at home to AFC North leader Cleveland and a two-point loss in Washington. But the reason Tennessee lost to the Browns was because the Titans coughed up a 15-point fourth-quarter lead while also allowing the Redskins to go 76 yards in the final 3:14 to set up the game-winning, chip shot field goal. There also have been some blowout losses (33-7 vs. CIN, 41-17 vs. IND), which should be expected from a team that entered Week 11 ranked second to last in the NFL in both total (308.7 ypg) and scoring (16.0 ppg) offense and 26th in point differential (-8.8 ppg). Other than draft position, the only thing the Titans really have to play for at this point is pride. Tonight is the first of two primetime games for Tennessee (at JAC for the Thursday night game in Week 16), something not typically afforded teams who are already out of the playoff picture. So why not embrace the national spotlight and the chance to play spoiler? Honestly, what do the Titans have to lose at this point?
On paper, this is a complete mismatch. Pittsburgh has one of the NFL’s most explosive offenses while Tennessee has struggled to score any points of its own as well as slow down the opposition. However, the Steelers have been in this situation before, including twice this season, and have come out on the losing end. That said, there’s also some history between these two teams, and while it’s been nearly six years since the Terrible Towel stomp in Nashville, there are still a few players who were standing on Pittsburgh’s sideline when said incident occurred. One of those was Ben Roethlisberger and whether he will admit it or not, I expect Big Ben to make a statement or two of his own in the Music City tonight.