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Titans-Steelers Preview: Can The Steelers Shut Down Derrick Henry?

Talk about one gigantic clash of the titans, no pun intended.

Seriously though, when was the last time football fans have been able to enjoy an early season treat like this? 2 undefeated teams, both fighting for AFC supremacy this early on in the year?

It just doesn’t get better than this.

Let’s break it all down.

Major Storylines Heading Into The Game

The First Matchup Between 2 Undefeated Teams This Late In The Year Since 2015

Having an undefeated team or two this late into the year isn’t uncommon in the slightest. We’ve seen numerous teams get 6,7, even 8 games deep into the year without a blemish on their record.

The most extreme case was the New England Patriots back in 2007, when Bill Belichick’s team rode an undefeated record all the way to the Super Bowl. If you’re a sucker for football history, you should know how that classic game between New England and New York played out in the end.

However, in this day and age of surprises arising from week to week, you just don’t see matchups between undefeated teams this late in the year.

At this point during a regular NFL season, most teams have already been handed at least one loss. Even if some teams  that haven’t tasted defeat just yet remain, it’s rare that they stay undefeated until they somehow end up playing against each other, let alone stay undefeated.

It’s why this game is such a treat for true fans of the game, and also a reason why you shouldn’t take these games for granted.

So drink it in football fans, you deserve this exciting matchup after all the hell you’ve been through in 2020.

Stout Defense vs. Explosive Offense

If you’ve been following along this season, you’d know the strengths of these two teams are the exact opposite of each other.

The Steelers have went back to their Steel City roots, opting for the suffocating nature of their defense over the all too familiar high flying offense of modern football. Sliding into the top 5 in a number of major defensive statistics, no team has been able to easily score points against Mike Tomlin’s defense this season.

TJ Watt, Cameron Heyward, and Bud Dupree have picked up where they left off last season, destroying any opposing offensive line that dares to stand in their way.

It’s not just the defensive line that’s stolen the show either. Although the Steelers’ secondary hasn’t been the best, it’s been put into some great positions to make plays due to the stellar play from the Steelers’ defensive line.

However, even with all the success the Steelers’ defense has had this year, they haven’t faced off an offense as potent as Tennessee’s.

Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry have combined to make one of the NFL’s most exciting and productive duos, with Tannehill being the more consistent of the two so far this year. In reality though, the skillsets of these two players go hand in hand, in other words — they both play some exceptional complimentary football.

With those two stars leading the pack, the Titans have turned into one of the league’s highest scoring offenses, coming in at 2nd in scoring, averaging just over 32 points a game. It’s a number the Titans as a franchise have never even come close to approaching in years, which truly speaks volumes about the work this organization has done to rebuild itself after a couple of dark, dark years.

It’s going to be a great game between two teams with conflicting styles of football. Watching it all unfold should bring you nothing but joy as a football fan.

Matchups to Watch

Titans Rush Offense vs. Steelers Rush Defense

I usually roll with player specific matchups for this category, simply because there’s more details to dive into when it’s just a specific battle between multiple players.

However, I’ll have to throw that sort of norm away for this preview.

Everyone with a brain knows the potent rushing attack Derrick Henry leads for the Titans. He’s currently tops in the league in terms of rushing yards, and isn’t all that far behind first in terms of rushing touchdowns. And while Henry wasn’t the most efficient back before his explosive 200+ yard game against the Houston Texans, he’s still managed to contribute in more ways than just running the football.

Looking ahead to Pittsburgh, it’s pretty difficult to say how Henry will look against this stout Steelers rush defense. Although the Steelers have been great against the run all year, giving up only 66 YPG on the ground, it’s fair to say this run defense hasn’t taken on a challenge quite like this one.

I’m not saying Henry will explode for 200 yards like he did last week, but I don’t think it’s entirely reasonable to say Henry will be completely shut down.

Titans Offensive Line vs. Steelers Pass Rush

You can’t get through a preview like this without discussing the Steelers’ relentless pass rush. TJ Watt and Bud Dupree make life a living hell for healthy opposing offensive lines. So imagine the chaos they can cause when they’re facing off against a backup left tackle in Ty Sambrailo, filling in for the usual Pro Bowler in Taylor Lewan?

Yeesh.

In all fairness though, Sambrailo has proven to be a competent option at left tackle for the most part. But he’ll have his hands full, as he’ll be tasked with at least limiting the damage Watt and/or Dupree can do as pass rushers.

Good luck.

X-Factors

Pittsburgh Steelers: LB Robert Spillane

With Devin Bush now out of the lineup, attention turns towards his replacement, Robert Spillane. The previously undrafted linebacker has found a home in the Steel City, carving out a role as a backup linebacker and special teams regular.

But he’ll be thrown into the fire this week, with his first career start coming against his old team. You might not know, but Spillane used to reside in Nashville as a Tennessee Titan. Spillane fought his way onto the Titans’ practice squad in 2018, before eventually appearing in 2 games, mainly as a special teamer. Spillane found himself in Pittsburgh the next year, and has remained there ever since.

Now, as a starting linebacker, Spillane’s first test will come against one of the league’s most potent offenses. He’ll be tasked with filling in run gaps, but he’ll also be baited a good bit by Tennessee’s infamous play action game.

If the Titans catch him out of position off run fakes and get a hat on him in the run game, Spillane’s first career start could go sour extremely quickly.

Tennessee Titans: WR Adam Humphries

The secondary hasn’t been an achilles heel for Pittsburgh this year, but it certainly hasn’t been an overwhelming strength either. Joe Haden has continued to play good football, but his running mates in the back end haven’t been able to grasp the consistency Mike Tomlin has been seeking from his guys.

Inconsistent corner play against a young, talented wide receiver core like Tennessee’s is a nightmare waiting to happen. AJ Brown, Corey Davis, and Adam Humphries all have the smarts to take advantage of any lapses in coverage that might appear in front of them, and it’s likely they’ll face some with Mike Hilton out for this game.

Hilton is an excellent blitzer and cover man from the slot, but without him, the Steelers will rely on Cameron Sutton. Sutton isn’t the blitzer Hilton is, and he just doesn’t appear to be the corner Hilton is either, which spells trouble for Pittsburgh and signals the wonderful idea of opportunity for Adam Humphries.

Humphries won’t see those WR2 snaps with Corey Davis back, and it remains to be seen how many snaps he’ll truly get since the Titans pass on using 3 WR sets most of the time on offense. But when they do, Humphries will have a matchup he can most certainly win.

Prediction

This Titans team is the best one we’ve seen in years, the same goes for the Steelers. While I do think the Titans’ run game won’t meet an untimely demise, there’s too many concerns about the pass protection for my liking.

I’ll take the Steelers in a little bit of a high scoring matchup, but it’ll be a close one that’s for sure.

Titans: 30

Steelers: 32



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