Heading into Week 7, the Steelers have their first 5-0 record since 1978. However, they face their stiffest test yet in the undefeated Tennessee Titans in Nashville. Even after a strong performance in Week 6 against the Browns, the Steelers are reeling from the loss of Devin Bush. Meanwhile, the Titans are going to be missing their best offensive lineman in Left Tackle Taylor Lewan. What are the Steelers facing as they head into an undefeated clash on Sunday?
Titans Offensive Coordinator Arthur Smith has been with the organization for nearly a decade at this point. However, he has his own unique scheme that was influenced by the former offensive coordinator and now Packers Head Coach Matt LaFleur. The Titans run out of primarily a run-based offense supplemented by play action. In fact, most of the time, this is a team that runs 12 or 21 personnel and only keeps two wide receivers on the field as a result. They have a clear brand of physicality up front that builds off of Derrick Henry and allows Ryan Tannehill to shred defenses behind the run defense as they try to slow down Henry.
The Titans only use one wide receiver here and are in 21 personnel. They love to get their tight ends involved in the passing game over the middle of the field. However, crossers, curls, digs, and other key routes over the middle of the field with their receivers are huge too. They pull out a curl here and get an easy first down as a result of the linebackers keying in on the run and vacating the space behind them. They make everything look the same and give a lot of eye candy pre and post-snap to throw linebackers off to vacate those middle of the field zones. The stress placed on those defenders in the box is immense.
In terms of running the football, the Titans run a multi-dimensional scheme. Gap and zone runs are included, but with a big back like Henry, they run more outside zone than one would expect. In fact, the Titans on average run more zone than they do gap, as the split zone and inside zone series in their playbook are extensive. Duo is another favorite of Smith’s to pull out. This play above is a spilt zone run, and they get the linebackers and safety to flare out with the tight end on that flare motion. As such, it opens up a huge gap and lane for Henry to run right through. Smith gets creative with this eye candy post-snap to create throwing or running lanes.
The last key concept in the Titans offense is space. The Steelers have a great pass rush and may be able to force the Titans into their shotgun looks and plain dropbacks as a result. In which case, that is when they rely on space and traffic to cause havoc. Much like the Steelers, they love to utilize space on the boundary out of tight splits and bunch sets. Creating traffic out of these bunch sets is a key way they often convert on third down and medium. The tight split on this play allows Corey Davis enough room to attack that leverage and get open on the out route. It gives an advantage to the receiver.
As far as the defense goes, the Titans run a 3-4 scheme with potent outside linebackers to boot. Mike Vrabel does take some influence from Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots with this defense, make no mistake. As such, the Titans are mostly a Cover 3 and Cover 2 team that likes to use their linebackers and safeties as exotic blitzers. The key to this defense is working is the disguising of coverages. A lot of Tennessee’s turnovers this season have been off of these disguised coverages, and Ben Roethlisberger has to be careful to not get trapped by one of these on Sunday.
Players to Watch
QB Ryan Tannehill
The biggest threat to the Steelers in this game, Tannehill is the guy that takes this offense to the next level. Make no mistake, while the system does fit Tannehill like a glove, he has played at an extremely high level this season. Tannehill has been smart, efficient, and more importantly, he has taken care of the football thus far on the season. With his athleticism, Tannehill can extend the play or take off when needed as well. It is his combination of smarts and precise accuracy that make him such a dangerous passer to all levels of the field.
RB Derrick Henry
If Tannehill is the guy that elevates the team, then Henry is the engine that allows Tannehill the flexibility to elevate that offense. Henry is a big, bruising back that is now for running over guys and stiff-arming them into oblivion, much like he did to Josh Norman two weeks ago. For a man so big, Henry is fast and quick as well. This is either the best or second-best running back the Steelers have faced this season, and with fancy window dressing and schematics to help him, Henry is going to be an issue.
WR A.J. Brown
A star that broke onto the scene last year, A.J. Brown is becoming an even better receiver in his second season. He lives in the middle of the field, and more importantly, Brown is a menace after the catch. With a dense frame and great contact balance, Brown is able to break tackles and evade tacklers with ease all game. His physicality allows him to separate at a high level and create space for open throwing windows. The Steelers will have to be worried about Brown all game.
S Kevin Byard
There are lots of talented players on the Titans defense, but safety Kevin Byard is a former All-Pro and a certified ballhawk on the back end of the defense. A rangy free safety, Byard allows the Titans to switch up and disguise their coverages with his rare athleticism, ball-hawking skills, and instincts. The Steelers will have to be wary of Byard at all times as he can change the momentum of a game in one play.
Matchups to Watch
Malcolm Butler vs Chase Claypool
This is a matchup that will fly under the radar, but this one could be a huge advantage for the Steelers. The Titans will be without speedy cornerback Adoree Jackson, and that means if the Steelers want it, they can line up Chase Claypool on Malcolm Butler. Butler has struggled with faster receivers this year, and was burnt by Will Fuller for a big touchdown last week on a miscommunication. Claypool’s size and speed is a huge mismatch in this matchup and it would not be surprising to see an explosive play from this matchup.
Robert Spillane vs Titans Tight Ends
Tasked with covering David Njoku last week, Spillane rose to the occasion in the short zones he was asked to man. However, Tennessee attacks up the seam and over the middle, which is a place where Spillane was not tested last week. That aspect of his coverage ability is currently unknown. With Devin Bush out and the Steelers missing that athleticism, it would stand to reason that this Spillane’s audition and will be huge in determining how the Steelers approach the linebacker situation in the future.
Ty Sambrello vs Bud Dupree
With Taylor Lewan out for the season, backup left tackle Ty Sambrello will take over his spot. J.J. Watt did get a strip-sack off of Sambrello last week, but after that, Sambrello settled in quite nicely. Now, he will be tested with the explosive and powerful Bud Dupree who leads the Steelers in sacks up to this point. It will be a matchup where Dupree has the edge and in similar matchups this year, he has taken advantage of these matchups.
JuJu Smith-Schuster Delivers Meals to Seniors on Thanksgiving
With his team suddenly off, Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster spent his Thanksgiving morning giving back to the Pittsburgh community.
Smith-Schuster — along with his dog, Boujee — helped deliver meals to less fortunate seniors in Pittsburgh on Thursday.
“It’s always been a passion in my heart,” Smith-Schuster said. “I think it’s huge when people give back.”
Steelers’ JuJu Smith-Schuster delivers meals to seniors on Thanksgiving pic.twitter.com/bEClYxPvrO
— JoAnne Harrop (@joannescoop) November 26, 2020
The Steelers aren’t playing on Thursday because their scheduled game with the Baltimore Ravens was pushed back to Sunday due to a COVID-19 outbreak with the Ravens.
After the team practiced Tuesday and Wednesday in anticipation of a Thursday kickoff, head coach Mike Tomlin gave the team the day off on Thursday.
Steelers President Art Rooney II Extends Thanks, Appreciation to Fans
On the heels of such an unpleasant day for many Steelers fans, and even a day that left several players filled with bitterness and animosity because their game was postponed, Steelers president Art Rooney II issued a statement on Thanksgiving morning.
In the spirit of giving thanks and moving on, Rooney expressed his disappointment about the current situation and his appreciation for the support of all of Steelers Nation.
“Though we are disappointed that we will not get to play for our fans on Thanksgiving night this year, we look forward to many more exciting times during the 2020 season,” Rooney said. “Today gives us all a time to reflect and appreciate what we can be thankful for on this holiday. And I want to add a special note of thanks to all our frontline workers for all your tireless efforts in these difficult times.”
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) November 26, 2020
Barring no more issues, Pittsburgh and Baltimore are now scheduled to kickoff at 1:15 pm EST. Just as the game would’ve been Thursday night, it will be broadcast on NBC.
Steelers Tops Among All Teams in Pro Bowl Votes; T.J. Watt Leads OLBs
The Pittsburgh Steelers lead all NFL clubs in votes cast for the 2021 NFL Pro Bowl, the league announced on Wednesday, with outside linebacker T.J. Watt the top vote-getter at his position.
The Steelers led all teams in votes, followed by the Kansas City Chiefs, Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers and Buffalo Bills, and did so despite not having any players in the top five overall vote-getters and just two players leading at their position.
Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes has the most votes of any individual player, with 143,355 votes, followed by Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook, Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce and Arizona Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins.
For the Steelers, Watt leads all vote-getters at outside linebacker with 69,924 votes. Watt is a two-time Pro Bowler and is coming off a first-team All-Pro season in 2019. He’s currently tied for third in the NFL with nine sacks, one-half behind leaders Trey Hendrickson of New Orleans and Myles Garrett of Cleveland. Khalil Mack of the Chicago Bears paced the NFC’s outside linebackers with 47,689 votes.
The Steelers’ other top vote-getter comes at an unusual position. Long snapper Kameron Canaday leads all AFC long snappers with 48,869 votes. Canaday, in his fifth NFL season and fourth with the Steelers, has never made the Pro Bowl.
While the teams will still be selected, the 2021 NFL Pro Bowl will not be played. Instead the Pro Bowl events will be led virtually and the game will be streamed via Madden NFL 21. The game had been scheduled to be played at Allegiant Stadium in las Vegas on Jan. 31. Voting will continue through Dec. 17.