Hope in the Tennessee Titans’ 2023 campaign is undeniably renewed following Sunday’s magical debut of the Will Levis era. In case you live under a rock, Levis completed 19-of-29 passing attempts for 238 yards, four touchdowns, and zero interceptions in Sunday’s 28-23 victory over the Atlanta Falcons. Levis, and like the Titans of old, are now tasked with following up that performance with another quality showing versus the Pittsburgh Steelers on a short week.
Titans head coach Mike Vrabel, as he’s often done throughout his six-year tenure in relation to his young talent, downplayed Levis’ showing, offering credit to those around him as opposed to the catalyst himself. It’s true that DeAndre Hopkins’ three-touchdown game was equally as electric. It’s also true that Levis is unable to launch deep ball after deep ball if the offensive line, which has largely been spotty throughout the course of 2023, didn’t hold up.
Deep developing routes require time. Will Levis and the Titans have that much time against a Steelers defensive line that’s significantly more fierce than the one in Atlanta? That’s the challenge posed as the major on-paper roadblock to Levis repeating Sunday’s success.
The Steelers have recorded 22.0 sacks this season. That’s seven more quarterback takedowns (15.0) than the Falcons have managed this season. Pittsburgh sacked Trevor Lawrence on three occasions Sunday despite losing 20-10 to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The threats screaming off the edge are in another stratosphere. Alex Highsmith and T.J. Watt have combined for 11.0 sacks this season, with Watt being responsible for 8.5 of them. Watt ranks third in the league in sacks, trailing just Danielle Hunter (10.0) and Josh Allen (9.0). As a duo, they rank near the top of the league in production and efficiency.
Watt (32) and Highsmith (28) have combined for 60 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. As a team, the Steelers have a pass-block-win-rate of 58% through eight completed weeks. That ranks 12th in the NFL, per ESPN Stats & Information.
Potentially making matters worse, the Titans are expected to reshuffle their offensive line. Chris Hubbard exited Sunday’s victory with a concussion check. It’s extremely unlikely that Hubbard clears concussion protocol by Thursday. That likely means Nicholas Petit-Frere, who started Sunday at left tackle, will be the right tackle. Andre Dillard, who was recently benched, will reenter the starting lineup at left tackle. Hubbard has been Tennessee’s best tackle this season (not that that’s saying much), so his presence would be missed.
NOT ALL HOPE IS LOST…
I’ve dissected the concerns and challenges the Titans face versus the Steelers. It’s certainly not doom-and-gloom. If protection reasonably holds, the Titans should feel outstanding about Levis’ opportunity to punish a defense through the air for a second consecutive contest.
Even with Watt and Highsmith enjoying successful seasons as potential game wreckers, the Steelers haven’t stopped a nosebleed through the air. A once vaunted secondary is allowing a 24th-ranked 245.4 passing yards per outing. They’re not better as a run defense, having given up a 28th-ranked 137.1 rushing yards per contest. Derrick Henry and setting up the play-action passing game should be fruitful.
Patrick Peterson and Levi Wallace have been among the worst starting corners in the league. The aging Peterson has allowed 20 receptions on 34 targets this season, according to Pro Football Focus. Peterson is allowing 15.3 yards per catch, and opposing quarterbacks have a passer rating of 115.6 when targeting the future Hall of Famer.
Wallace has a PFF coverage grade of 49.0. The former undrafted free agent out of Alabama is allowing 14.2 yards per reception. Wallace and Peterson have combined to allow eight touchdowns in eight games.
Regardless of that turnover-worthy success, it should be bombs away for Levis, Titans offense, if things go well.