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Tennessee Titans vs. Pittsburgh Steelers: Prediction and Preview

Tennessee Titans vs. Pittsburgh Steelers Prediction and Preview

The AFC South-leading Titans head east to square off with the desperate Steelers

The Tennessee Titans head to the Steel City this weekend looking to lock up a playoff spot and perhaps the AFC South crown with a win against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Titans (9-4) are tops in the AFC South with hopes of the franchise's first back-to-back division titles since their Houston Oilers days in the early 1960s. With a win against Pittsburgh and a Colts loss to New England, Tennessee would have the divisional title locked up with three weeks remaining in the regular season and the tie-breaking edge against Indy.

Pittsburgh (6-6-1) has taken itself out of the playoff conversation with their dramatic loss last week against Minnesota. The Steelers find themselves in last place in the AFC North as they've gone just 1-3-1 in their last five contests. Depending on how things shake out with the Browns and Bengals this week, a win against the Titans would keep the Steelers' postseason hopes alive for one more week. A loss, however, will be all she wrote for the 2021 campaign and likely Ben Roethlisberger's career.

Tennessee (9-4) at Pittsburgh (6-6-1)

Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 19 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Titans -1.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Is the Titans' running game… alive?
To quote Charles Dickens, "The Titans' running game was dead, to begin with." Well, dead as soon as Derrick Henry was ruled out indefinitely early last month with a foot injury that required surgery. Then the running game felt dead — and it looked dead too.

After the Henry injury, the Titans signed relative unknown D'Onta Foreman and an aging Adrian Peterson. Foreman and Peterson averaged a combined 67.5 rushing yards over the next two games, and they let Peterson go after just three games and 27 carries. The Titans stuck it out with Foreman and added another unknown to the backfield in Dontrell Hilliard.

On paper it looks as if Foreman and Hilliard have clicked, averaging 158 yards per contest in the last three games. Sounds great, right? Well, meh — kinda, sort of. Yes, the Titans have picked up more than 100 rushing yards in each of their last three games. And yes, they did rush for 270 yards against the Patriots. But the Titans also lost that game against New England because their backs coughed up three fumbles and only scored once. And despite reaching the century mark against the Texans and Jaguars, the Titans' running backs averaged only 3.5 yards per rush in those two contests, almost a yard under league average, and just 15 first downs against two pretty bad defenses.

This week, Foreman and Hilliard have another opportunity to do some damage, as the Steelers are pretty darn bad at stopping the run. Pittsburgh ranks 30th in rushing yards allowed (1,813) and dead last in yards per carry (5.0). Last week, the Vikings, led by Dalvin Cook, steamrolled the Steelers to the tune of 242 rushing yards.

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2. Big Ben, the last hope
Last week, I wrote that the only hope the Steelers had of making a playoff run was with Roethlisberger playing lights out for the rest of the season. Well, Big Ben is doing his damndest.

Since reports came out a few weeks ago that Roethlisberger was allegedly planning to retire at the end of this season, he's been playing very well. He's had a passer rating of 100-plus in four of the last five games, and his stats have been impressive in the last two outings: 69 percent completion rate, five touchdowns, one pick, and a 109.1 rating. Roethlisberger was exceptional last week against Minnesota leading the comeback charge from a 29-point deficit, producing 28 points in less than 15 minutes.

Roethlisberger is playing well despite the offensive line in front of him not playing so well. Last week, he was sacked five times against Minnesota, and he still ranks among the most sacked (30) and blitzed quarterbacks in the AFC.

Big Ben faces a Titans defense fresh off their first shutout in three seasons as they blanked the Jaguars 20-0 last week. Tennessee did a great job of getting to Trevor Lawrence, intercepting him four times and forcing him into a comical 35.5 rating. With linebacker Bud Dupree likely back in the lineup, that gives the Steelers' offensive line another weapon (and a familiar face) to worry about alongside edge rusher Harold Landry III (team-high 11 sacks) and defensive linemen Jeffery Simmons (7.5 sacks) and Denico Autry (6 sacks). If the Steelers are to have any chance on Sunday against the Titans, their offensive line has to keep the quarterback on his feet.

3. Help on the way?
Historically, when we think of the Steelers, we think tenacity, physicality, toughness, and defense. From greats like Mean Joe Greene, Kevin Greene, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, Rod Woodson, Troy Polamalu, and James Harrison to modern-day stars like T.J. Watt, the Steelers have always been built around great defenses. But not this season.

By and large, it has been a very disappointing year for the typically stellar Steelers defense. They rank 27th overall, 30th against the rush, 14th against the pass, and 22nd in scoring. Injuries have absolutely decimated their front seven, preventing Pittsburgh from controlling the line of scrimmage like we've come accustomed to.

But hope may be on the way and just in the nick of time. Hopefully this week the Steelers will welcome back defensive linemen Carlos Davis (knee) and Isaiah Buggs (ankle) to give some much-needed assistance to the outstanding Cam Heyward. Watt, who missed most of last week against Minnesota with a groin injury, should also be back with his league-leading 16 sacks. And on the back end, cornerback Joe Haden (foot) should return after a four-game absence.

With the Steelers' front seven getting healthier, it will be worth noting if defensive coordinator Keith Butler calls for more blitzes against a Titans offensive line that has really been struggling to protect Ryan Tannehill. Tannehill's 37 sacks are third in the NFL, and he was brought down four times last week against the Jags. With A.J. Brown still out of the lineup and Julio Jones yet to prove he's still the game-breaker he once was, Tannehill has really been struggling throwing the ball. His 77.1 passer rating since the Henry injury is proof that he can't do it all himself. If Watt is healthy enough, he might just have a field day on Sunday afternoon.

Final Analysis

Despite their lack of weaponry, somehow the Titans have found ways to win some games the last month or so, mainly because of their opportunistic defense. But Tennessee also is notorious for playing poorly against lesser teams, as evidenced by their losses to the lowly Jets and Texans. Sunday just kind of feels like a trap game for the Titans. I'll take the bait.

Prediction: Steelers 26, Titans 20

— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.