The football gods are obviously on the side of the television networks heading into Week 11. There is at least one marquee game between playoff contenders in every time slot: Rams-Vikings early Sunday; Patriots-Raiders late Sunday; Eagles-Cowboys on Sunday night; Falcons-Seahawks on Monday night; and it all starts with a game that should be too good for Thursday night, the Titans at the Steelers.
Tennessee (6–3) and Pittsburgh (7–2) are both riding four-game winning streaks, and both are relatively healthy having had their byes in recent weeks. The Steelers’ run has given them a three-game cushion in the AFC North, and this game starts a stretch where they play four out of their next five at Heinz Field. The Titans, on the other hand, are tied atop the AFC South with Jacksonville despite the winning streak, and they are on the road for four of their next five.
The way these teams have been winning also indicates that this one could be a nail-biter. The Steelers have done just enough to win their last two games, winning 20–15 at Detroit and 20–17 at Indianapolis. Likewise, the Titans beat the Browns in overtime 12–9, then held off a Ravens rally to win 23–20 two weeks ago, and last week rallied late to edge Cincinnati, 24–20. Can they make it a clean sweep of the AFC North?
Tennessee at Pittsburgh
Kickoff: Thursday, Nov. 16 at 8:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC/NFL Network
Spread: Steelers -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Titans' run game vs. Steelers' run defense
At first glance, one might think attacking the Steelers on the ground is the way to go; after all they rank second in the NFL against the pass, have allowed just eight touchdown passes through nine games (third in the NFL) and are allowing 4.2 yards per carry, which ranks 22nd. But a closer look indicates that in seven of nine games, the Steelers have been every bit as dominant against the run. In Pittsburgh’s seven wins, it has allowed 471 total rushing yards — just 67.2 per game. In losses to Jacksonville and Chicago, Pittsburgh allowed 453 rushing yards (226.5/game). Are the Titans capable of that kind of big day on the ground? On paper, yes, but they have been inconsistent. Tennessee is in the NFL’s top 10 in rushing yards and yards per carry and has four games this season with 168 or more yards on the ground. Only one team has more rushing touchdowns. But the Titans also have five games with fewer than 100 rushing yards, and they’ve lost three of them.
2. Mariota will be tested
Titans’ quarterback Marcus Mariota (above, right) has never faced the Steelers, and his first taste of Heinz Field could be an interesting one of the early weather forecast for 15 mph winds holds. That kind of wind doesn’t help when you are facing the NFL’s No. 2 pass defense. Pittsburgh will be without starting corner Joe Haden, who broke his left fibula last week, but expect Mariota to be under duress as the Steelers also rank second in sacks. Mariota has cut his sack percentage in half since his rookie season, but he’s been taken down seven times in his last two starts after being sacked just five times in his first six. Pittsburgh comes at passers from all angles as well, boasting four players with at least 4.0 sacks this season.
3. Is the Steelers' offense getting a bad rap?
There is a lot of hand wringing going on in Western Pennsylvania as fans wonder why the Steelers have scored more than 20 points only once in the last five games. Is Ben Roethlisberger finally slowing down? Did Le’Veon Bell’s holdout set him up for a down year? The fact is that the Steelers still rank 10th in the NFL in total offense despite not hitting on all cylinders. There’s also this: Last season around this time, Pittsburgh was 4–5 and struggling to run the ball, averaging 76.5 yards per game during a four-game skid. The Steelers then won nine in a row while averaging 143.8 yards per game on the ground to reach the AFC title game. Tennessee is tough to run against (sixth in the NFL in rushing defense), but Bell and the Steelers could bust out at any time.
If it’s a cold and windy night at Heniz Field, the Titans are as equipped as anyone to grind it out on the road with solid run defense and the two-headed backfield of DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry. But winning this kind of game at home is what the Steelers do best, and all it will take is a couple Roethlisberger big plays to Antonio Brown or JuJu Smith-Schuster to tip this one Pittsburgh’s way.