NASHVILLE – The Titans face the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.
Here's a look at six things to watch in the contest:
Protect the QB
Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill has been sacked 37 times this season, which means he's on pace to be sacked right at 50 times this year. Tannehill was sacked four times against the Jaguars, and he was hit roughly 10 times. Well, the challenge is even bigger this Sunday, and the Titans better be up for it. As a defense, the Steelers have 37 sacks, led by outside linebacker T.J. Watt's 16. Defensive lineman Cameron Heyward also has 6.5 sacks. The Titans need to protect Tannehill better for at least two reasons – his health, and the opportunity to throw the ball downfield.
Julio and Co.
It was great to see receiver Julio Jones back on the field this past Sunday, even if it was just for 32 plays. The plan moving forward is to get Jones even more involved, so he could be more of a factor this week. This much we know: Receiver A.J. Brown remains out, and he's not eligible to return until the San Francisco game on December 23. Until then, Jones and the team's other receivers, including Nick Westbook-Ikhine, Racey McMath, Cody Hollister and Chester Rogers, will need to keep the offense going through the air, along with the team's tight ends.
Run the Ball
Of course, one of the ways to keep Tannehill healthy – and to help the passing game – is to run the ball effectively. It would assist with the play action, and keep the team out of long down and distance situations. Running backs D'Onta Foreman and Dontrell Hilliard were joined by back Jeremy McNichols last week. On Sunday, the Titans hope to have success here against a Pittsburgh defense that's been surprisingly bad against the run. The Steelers are ranked 30th in the NFL in run defense (yards), allowing 139.5 yards per game. The Steelers are last in the NFL in allowing 4.97 yards per carry. The Titans, who remain 5th in the NFL in rushing yards per game (137.8) need to be able to run it.
Help at Linebacker
A familiar face returned to the practice field this week, along with a new one. Titans linebacker Bud Dupree, moved to the 'Designated for Return from Injured Reserve," practiced for the first time since suffering an abdominal injury vs the Saints. On Saturday, the Titans activated him from IR. The former Steeler should provide a boost to the pass rush on Sunday. Then there's inside linebacker Zach Cunningham, who practiced with the Titans on Wednesday for the first time since being claimed off waivers from the Texans. Cunningham practiced throughout the week and he will make his Titans debut on Sunday, Titans coach Mike Vrabel said. With both Cunningham Dupree in the mix, it's going to change the look of the defense - for the better.
Defense, Defense, Defense
No matter who lines up on defense in Pittsburgh, the challenge is clear-cut: Contain versatile running back Najee Harris, while pressuring Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, limiting his time to find the team's playmakers. Harris, who starred at Alabama, has been a big hit in his first NFL season – he leads all rookies with 1,270 scrimmage yards (873 rush, 397 receiving). Roethlisberger, meanwhile, has thrown for 3,066 passing yards, his favorite targets being receivers Diontae Johnson (81-990-6) and Chase Claypool (47-753), along with Harris out of the backfield. Steelers tight end Pat Freiermuth (45-385-7) is a dandy of a player as well. A week after recording a shutout, the challenge will be much bigger in this one.
We've all seen how turnovers can impact games. The Titans created four last week, and they cruised to a win over Jacksonville. A few weeks back they lost five turnovers, and took an L vs Houston. The reality is neither one of these teams – the Titans or the Steelers – has been very good, or at least consistent, in the takeaway/giveaway category. The Titans are a minus-3 (18-21) while the Steelers are a minis-2 (13/15). Playing in a hostile environment against a team in desperate need of a win, the Titans need to keep from giving the Steelers extra momentum by making mistakes.