Tennessee Titans vs. Pittsburgh Steelers: Storylines, prediction for game with defensive star power

The Pittsburgh Steelers try to save their playoff hopes against the Tennessee Titans on Sunday. Can T.J. Watt strengthen his DPOY case?

The Tennessee Titans face the Pittsburgh Steelers during the early slate on Sunday. Pittsburgh desperately needs a win to remain in playoff contention in the AFC. The Titans would require an epic collapse down the stretch to lose out on the division. The Colts would need to somehow get a game clear of the Titans because Tennesse won both heads-up games.

Tennessee Titans vs. Pittsburgh Steelers storylines

The Titans have been ravaged by injuries in 2021. But can Ryan Tannehill carry this team with some momentum into the playoffs in time for reinforcements to arrive? Does Ben Roethlisberger have enough left in the tank for a final playoff push? I’ll be intently watching T.J. Watt and Jeffery Simmons, two players who should be first-team All-Pro candidates.

Can Ben Roethlisberger make a final playoff push?

In the first three quarters of games, the Steelers rank 27th in dropback EPA/play (-0.065/play.) In the fourth quarter and overtime, they rank 12th in dropback EPA/play (0.138/play). That is a massive difference. It’s so noticeable when watching games that I specifically searched those splits.

Big Ben is an old man. That shouldn’t be perceived as a slight. It’s simply the truth. He’s well over the hill at this point, but we’ve still seen times where he turns it on. The issue is, it only seems to happen late in games. Is he subconsciously conserving energy for those late-game situations?

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Somehow, the future Hall of Famer will have to find the strength to push offensively through four quarters if this team makes a run at the playoffs. We’ve watched the flame of a legend slowly fade away the past few seasons. That’s no way for a legend to die. Hopefully, he goes out with a blaze of glory, slinging the pill around until his shoulder falls off.

And when it’s all over, he may rest.

Ryan Tannehill must carry the Titans’ offense

This is far more problematic than we may realize. Whether or not we want to admit it, Tannehill is not the no-doubt top-10 quarterback he’s looked like analytically over the past few seasons.

He’s still a solid NFL quarterback, but he does require more situational help than others. I admit that in the past, I’d had A.J. Brown and former Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith fool me into thinking Tannehill might be on the precipice of the second tier of NFL QBs.

I was wrong.

Tannehill doesn’t see the field how one would expect a nine-year veteran to see it. That doesn’t even include seeing bait or poach coverages; we’re talking about base reads against spot drop zone concepts like Cover 3. We’re talking levels concepts working from outside/in and deep/short.

Again, that does not make Tannehill a lousy quarterback. He’s simply leaving some meat on the bone right now. The issue is, he needs to do more right now as the rest of his offensive depth chart suffers on IR or wounded like Julio Jones.

How does Tannehill thrive?

Tannehill is at his best when the Titans are running the ball incessantly from heavier personnel groupings. He can take advantage of isolated vertical concepts and deep crossing patterns with little trash around to clog his vision.

Tennessee’s offense forced opposing defenses to bring linebackers onto the field and safeties into the box — then they ran play-action off the most run-heavy attack in the league. Tannehill is not an advanced dropback passer built to pick apart defenses. He lives off his intermediate and downfield accuracy to areas devoid of clutter.

But without Derrick Henry in the lineup, he needs to do more. And when/if Henry returns healthy enough to be a factor in the playoffs, the Titans will return to being a legitimate contender in the AFC. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if they made a run if Henry could again handle a heavy workload in January.

Jeffery Simmons and T.J. Watt are must-watch defenders

Broadcast angles stink. Safeties may as well live on another continent (or be in a Gregg Williams defense) because you can never see them. Half the time, we can’t see receivers running routes until the replay (if they show one at all). That’s okay for this game because #98 for Tennessee and #90 for Pittsburgh are showstoppers.

Both Simmons and Watt should be All-Pro players this season. Watt is undeniably a first-teamer, while Simmons must make an argument down the stretch that outdoes the one Jonathan Allen makes in Washington.

Simmons is a blend of everything

One of my first pieces ever at Pro Football Network, back in July of 2020, prophesized the emergence of Simmons as one of the game’s best interior defensive linemen. Only an ACL tear allowed Tennesse to have a shot at a top-three player in his draft class.

He’s powerful, athletic, and plays with his pants on fire. It’s not uncommon to see him making plays well outside of the tackle box. His 10 sacks are only 2 off of noted superhuman Aaron Donald, and his 41 defensive stops (tackles that result in a “failed” play by the offense) lead the league.

He’s got the strength and density of an elite run defender while still possessing the ability to pressure the QB more than everybody in the NFL not named Donald or Jones.

Watt might be the league’s most valuable defender

There is a significant difference in the Steelers’ defensive performance with and without Watt on the field. I believe that Myles Garrett is the most dominant pass rusher in the NFL. His athleticism, power, bend, and technique are unrivaled. He is a mutant.

However, Watt might be more valuable to his team because Pittsburgh relies almost solely on Cam Heyward without him. And for as good as #97 is, he can’t do it himself. Garrett’s defense in Cleveland is chock-full of talent. But what has really impressed me over the past two seasons watching Watt is how much he’s improved as a run defender.

Watt has also been incredibly fortunate to finish a lot of sacks despite having an overall pressure rate that’s far lower than the likes of Maxx Crosby, Micah Parsons, and Garrett. That’s not meant to diminish his accomplishments this season; it’s meant to add context to why he isn’t simply a runaway for Defensive Player of the Year.

Watt, Garrett, and Parsons are all deserving candidates. But if Watt can continue on his torrent sack pace and the Steelers somehow make a run at the playoffs, he could run away and hide with the award.

Tennessee Titans vs. Pittsburgh Steelers betting line and game prediction

  • Spread: Steelers -1 (Odds courtesy of DraftKings Sportsbook)
  • Moneyline: Steelers -125, Titans +105
  • Total: 43

Honestly, I wouldn’t touch this game with a 10-foot pole aside from maybe taking the under. The better play might be to tease it a few points into a parlay. There are just so many variables in this matchup that don’t make a ton of sense, including having little idea how good either team is in their current form.

Titans vs. Steelers Prediction: Steelers 21, Titans 17

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