The Tennessee Titans (9-4) travel to Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers (6-6-1) in a crucial AFC showdown.
This game has major playoff implications on both sides. The Steelers are fighting for their wild card lives with an outside shot at the AFC North still within reach. Meanwhile, the Titans are chasing both their division along with the 1-Seed in the conference.
This is going to be a big one so let’s dive right into what some of the most intriguing storylines are surrounding Sunday’s matchup.
Bud Dupree’s potential return to Pittsburgh
Earlier this afternoon the Titans moved starting edge-rusher, Bud Dupree, to the team’s “Designated for Return from Injured Reserve” list. This is incredible news for Tennessee as his numbers don’t tell half the story about the impact he has had on their defense.
Dupree’s presence completes a fearsome foursome upfront that allows the Titans to successfully get after opposing quarterbacks without having to blitz.
Prior to the abdominal injury that has sidelined Dupree the last handful of weeks, the combination of Harold Landry, Jeffery Simmons, Denico Autry, & Bud Dupree had accounted for 20.5 sacks this season — 19 of which have come during a standard four-man pass rush (T-1st in NFL).
The Titans generated pressure on 30% of their snaps when only four are rushing which is the second-highest pressure percentage in the entire league.
Ever since Dupree has been out, the team’s sack production has drastically fallen off — especially among the once-dominant front four.
Simmons, Landry, & Autry have only combined to produce two sacks in the entire time that Dupree was on IR. Both of those sacks came against the Jaguars last Sunday.
This game no doubt will have an emotional bearing on it for Dupree as well. The Kentucky product was drafted by the Steelers in the first round back in 2015 and had played his entire career there prior to this season.
Dupree is beloved by plenty of Steelers fans still and that was evident in the way they embraced him after he chose to sign with the Titans.
Dupree also put out an article under ‘The players tribune’ and went more in-depth on what playing in Pittsburgh truly meant/means to him.
It will be an emotional day for No. 48 now in two-tone blue, but you can assure yourself that nothing would make him happier than to once again dominate on the field where he did so for so long.
What kind of impact will the former Steeler have in his first game back? Only time will tell.
Chase for 1st place vs. AFC South crown dilemma
One of the internal dilemmas circulating around the fanbase at the moment is whether they should root for the Patriots or the Colts on Saturday evening.
Regardless of the outcome, the Tennessee Titans will be playing for something meaningful come Sunday afternoon.
If the Patriots lose, the Titans will have the chance to keep the 1-seed that they would have by default following a New England loss.
If the Colts lose, the Titans will have the opportunity to clinch the AFC South on Sunday with a victory over the Steelers.
There’s a silver lining with either outcome, but in my personal opinion, this is the one time it’s okay to root for the Colts.
A Titans and Colts pair of wins would give the Tennessee first place in the AFC along with a >99% chance to clinch the AFC South going forward.
A Titans and Patriots pair of wins on the other hand would officially clinch the division for the Titans, however, it would also significantly decrease Tennessee’s chances to get the 1-Seed because you can make a very strong argument that Indy is the likeliest team still on the Patriots’ schedule that is equipped to beat them.
Due to tiebreaker scenarios, Tennessee must finish with a better record than the Patriots if they’re going to finish with the 1-Seed.
As long as Tennessee holds their own, at minimum, they will still have a greater than 99% chance to clinch the division over the final three weeks of the season.
That’s why a Colts victory paired with a Titans victory far outweighs the combination of Titans and Patriots wins.
If everything goes to plan this weekend, Tennessee will leave Week 15 with a 10-4 record, sole possession of the 1-Seed, and with only needing ONE more Titans win OR Colts loss to officially clinch the AFC South.
Could Julio Jones’ progression lead to his long awaited statement game?
Last week Titans fans rejoiced as Julio Jones returned to the lineup. It wasn’t some spectacular performance or anything, but it was the type of day that allows him to build confidence in his hamstring going forward.
Jones only played 45% of the offense’s snaps last Sunday. Receiver coach Rob Moore said the plan was to ease Jones back into the lineup and work him back into a full games workload.
Most importantly, the future Hall of Famer suffered no setbacks on the day and said himself that he felt great and didn’t have to worry about it all game for the first time in quite some time.
The last time Jones was truly healthy this season was prior to aggravating the hamstring in the second half of the Colts game back in Week 3.
Over those six quarters of football from Weeks 2-3 that Jones was legitimately healthy, the Titans’ star wide receiver accounted for 175 yards on nine catches and was robbed of one spectacular touchdown grab.
Now that Jones has finally had a week to truly test the hamstring after resting for approximately four weeks, could this be the week that we finally consistently see the Julio Jones we all expected and have seen in spurts?
Protecting Ryan Tannehill
Titans’ quarterback Ryan Tannehill has been sacked a whopping 37 times this season. That’s not only the most of his Titans tenure, but that’s the most he’s been sacked since the 2015 season.
It’s been no secret that Tannehill has seen a drastic statistical regression in 2021. However, his evaluation isn’t as simple as just looking at a stat sheet. When evaluating his season, context must be provided such as all the injures to those around him combined with his offensive line’s inability to protect him.
Tannehill has shown over the last two years that he can be a great quarterback if you give him an adequate situation to work with. Unfortunately, it’s been far from ideal this year. Fortunately, reinforcements are slowly starting to arrive as the season progresses.
However, outside of Nate Davis, the offensive line won’t be receiving much more firepower than they already have to work with.
It’s up to this unit to start buckling down for this final stretch run of the season. They’ve shown signs of improvements throughout the year but it’s the inconsistency of it all that is beyond frustrating. Last week they allowed four sacks in a 20-0 victory over the 2-11 Jaguars.
Sacks can often be an overrated stat at times but there’s nothing overrated about allowing opposing teams to kill your drives, which is what the Titans are allowing to happen more often than not anytime teams get to Tannehill.
Last week, they scored three points off four interceptions in large part because Tannehill didn’t have time to get the ball to his playmakers to extend drives and eventually put points on the board.
If Tennessee is going to reach their ceiling this season come playoff time, pass protection must start taking a step in the right direction over these final four games.
How much will Zach Cunningham play?
Tennessee Titans fans have been thrilled about the recent addition of former Texans linebacker Zach Cunningham. The former Texans linebacker was claimed off waivers after being released for disciplinary issues.
Titans fans are familiar with Cunningham being a nuisance on the defensive side of the ball.
The Vandy product has been outstanding for the majority of his short career in the NFL. He’s one of the few people who can say they’ve forced a fumble on Derrick Henry over the last couple of years.
Last year he signed a massive four-year contract extension in August 2020 for $58 million. He ranked second in the league that year with the most total tackles (164).
It’s not often that a surging defense gets to add this type of talent to their team this late in the season. It’s hard to imagine him starting this week or even next week, but the longer Cunningham is around, the more tempting it’s going to be to throw him in the lineup in some capacity.
Cunningham completes a deep inside linebacker room that already includes David Long, Rashaan Evans, & Jayon Brown.
The Titans’ new linebacker will practice later today for the first time with his new team. How much he performs on Sunday and in what role will remain to be seen.