The Steelers will not take anyone lightly, with rookie Will Levis coming off a historic debut. Coming into his first road game, Levis is looking to light up the scoreboard against an undermanned secondary without Minkah Fitzpatrick. Despite questions surrounding the status of DeAndre Hopkins, Levis can sling the football as well as anyone, creating mismatches.
The key for the Steelers defense? Get to him. It’s been their bread and butter all season, but when Pittsburgh’s pass rush shows up, they win. When it does not, they generally fall flat and lose. To be fair to Alex Highsmith and T.J. Watt, there is no game this year where they have not shown up. Schematics have lessened their impact, but the tape showcased their skills, and they are one of the best units in the NFL. Now, add Cam Heyward to that for the first time since very early against the 49ers, and there is something to be said about how good this front is in the scope of the NFL.
Pittsburgh has a chance to exploit the biggest matchup in the entire game. Watt, Highsmith, and Heyward will face a rocky offensive line. They played up well against the Falcons, allowing just two sacks. But they lost Chris Hubbard for this game after he suffered a concussion. That will leave much to be desired, with Nicholas Petit-Frere at right tackle and Andre Dillard at left tackle. For reference, both players are among the lowest-graded tackles in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. The tape matches it. Both players have struggled to handle any substantial edge rusher presence.
Meanwhile, the interior is better, but not without questions. Peter Skoronski is finding his footing, though he is still a rookie. Center Aaron Brewer is a bit undersized and can get bullied in pass protection, but he is an athletic center. Daniel Brunskill has played well. So, their interior is a bit of an upgrade, but it’s no better than the league average.
This is where the game will be won and lost. The Steelers’ secondary has been unable to stop a cold this year. Even though Tennessee’s receivers are far from impressive outside of Hopkins, Pittsburgh has not slowed down many players, and without Fitzpatrick, that task becomes steeper. The pass rush can play lights out and disrupt Levis. They have done it before in games, especially against the Browns and Raiders. Those splash plays must be maximized, and the team could move the guys around up front.
“That’s why you do it. You do it to try to get him away from the double teams and giving him an opportunity to rush one-on-one,” defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said on moving Watt around. “They don’t know where he is. I think we talked about this last week. If he lines up and they know where he’s going to be every snap, then it’s easy to set up the protection plan against him. But if they don’t know where he’s going to be, then you put some uncertainty into the offense. Like I said, our goal is to try to get him at different spots and get him to different places to rush and affect the game, and I thought he rushed well last week, and we’ve got to keep it going Thursday.”
Pittsburgh has a chance to pull out the stops against the Titans. Tennessee has struggled to contain high-end rushers, but with the highest rate of 12 personnel in the league, they will go to max protect looks and chip those guys to help. Pittsburgh now has to counter that to give those guys clean looks. The X-Factor of the game defensively is the pass rush, and it could be where the game is won and lost.