Scouting the Opponent: Pittsburgh Steelers

Scouting the Opponent is a weekly preview series looking ahead to the Titans upcoming matchup.

The Steelers and Titans have a bitter rivalry dating back to the days of the Houston Oilers when they shared the AFC Central with Pittsburgh. In fact, this rivalry is so heated it has its own Wikipedia page.

As the legend goes, once upon a time (during a Dec. 2008 win over Pittsburgh in Nashville), LenDale White, Keith Bullock, and Jevon Kearse unwittingly brought down a curse upon the Tennessee Titans franchise when they stomped, spit on, and otherwise disparaged “terrible towels” that had been brought by Pittsburgh fans to the stadium known at the time as LP Field.

“They came into the Titans arena waving those ugly yellow flags, and I stomped on one,” White said in a futile effort to justify his and his teammates’ terrible decision. “If they wave it again, I’m going to stomp on another one. I’m the Terrible Towel Stomper forever. If people don’t like it on this team or anywhere else, whatever. I don’t think a towel stomp makes you play more hard or less hard.”

The Titans were bounced from the playoffs in the Divisional Round, their very next game, despite holding the number one overall seed. Meanwhile, the Steelers went on to win the Super Bowl. The Titans then lost their first six games of the 2009 season. Coincidence?

Most likely, yes. That was a long time ago now, though to some of us I’m sure it seems like it could’ve been yesterday. As the 5-0 Steelers come to town this year to meet the 5-0 Titans, many wonder if the curse lingers on today…

The Stats

Both teams have been quite good this season, with the Titans ranking high in every offensive metric while the Steelers dominate the defensive stats.

Titans/RankMetricSteelers/Rank
2ndTotal Yards/G21st
11thPassing Yards/G24th
5thRushing Yards/G9th
2ndTotal Points/G4th
26thTotal Yards Allowed/G2nd
28thPass Yards Allowed/G8th
26thRush Yards Allowed/G2nd
15thPoints Allowed/G3rd
T-1st (+6)Turnover DifferentialT-4th (+5)
6th (48.3%)3rd D Conversions10th (45.9%)
12thPenalty Yardage (Fewest)17th
8thDVOA*3rd
3rdOffense DVOA9th
22ndDefense DVOA2nd
11thRush DVOA – Offense14th
2ndPass DVOA – Offense12th
16thRush DVOA – Defense1st
24thPass DVOA – Defense8th
2020 Statistical Comparison

*DVOA is a Football Outsiders metric that stands for Defense-adjusted Value Over Average. DVOA accounts for a team’s opponents.

It’s a strength-on-strength matchup between Derrick Henry and the Titans run game and the Steelers stout defensive front that held the league’s best rushing attack, the Cleveland Browns at 170 yards per contest, to just 75 yards on 22 carries in Week 6.

Key Matchups and Personnel

The Steelers are one of the best-run organizations in the NFL when it comes to the foundation of the franchise. Since 1969, only three men have coached the team: Hall of Famer Chuck Knoll, Hall of Famer Bill Cowert, and former Coach of the Year winner Mike Tomlin.

  • Tomlin has been with the Steelers since 2007, his first year as an NFL head coach after six years as a defensive coordinator. Tomlin holds as 138–74–1 regular season record and is the youngest head coach to ever win a Super Bowl. You think Mike Vrabel is a “young” head coach? Tomlin is only three years older than Vrabel, and this is his fourteenth season in charge of Pittsburgh.
  • Randy Fichtner is now into his third season as offensive coordinator after taking over for Todd Haley in 2018. He’s been with the organization since Tomlin took over, steadily working his way from receivers coach to quarterbacks coach to finally the post he holds today.
  • Keith Butler has been Pittsburgh’s defensive coordinator since 2015 and the last two seasons has helmed one of the league’s nastiest defenses. Last season, the Steelers defense carried them to an 8-8 season, narrowly missing the playoffs with Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges at quarterback.

Some key matchups to watch in this one that could help decide the game include:

  • OLB Harold Landry vs LT Alejandro Villanueva: The Steelers veteran left tackle is a two-time Pro Bowler who protects Ben Roethlisberger’s blind side. Landry has taken the majority of his snaps over left tackle this year. The Titans will need him to apply some pressure in this one.
  • CB Malcolm Butler vs WR Chase Claypool: The Steelers are well-stocked with talented receivers, but the rookie Claypool has been electric this season. Butler won’t be matched up with Claypool in man coverage very often, but he and the rest of the Titans defensive backs can’t let Claypool get behind them like we saw happen with Will Fuller last week.
  • S Kevin Byard vs TE Eric Ebron: I do expect Byard to be manned up on Ebron fairly often, especially in the red zone, where the Titans have played more man coverage. These two have a bit of a history after Ebron scored on Byard in tight coverage when Ebron was an Indianapolis Colt and then chirped about it on Twitter. Byard was outstanding against Mark Andrews in the playoffs last year. He should be up for the challenge.
  • DT Jeffery Simmons vs the Steelers interior OL: Maurkice Pouncey and guards David DeCastro and Matt Feiler will have their hands full with the Titans big defensive tackle. Roethlisberger is getting rid of the ball faster than any quarterback in the league at 2.36 time to throw, according to Next Gen Stats. Simmons, Landry, and Jadeveon Clowney will have to take advantage of opportunities to rush the passer and collapse the pocket.
  • LT Ty Sambrailo vs OLB Bud Dupree: Dupree leads the Steelers in sacks with six, just one behind Myles Garrett’s league-leading seven. He is 6th in the NFL in pressures. With Taylor Lewan out for the season, fill-in left tackle Sambrailo will be under fire. Expect the Titans to use tight ends and running backs to help Sambrailo as often as possible. The Steelers lead the NFL in sacks with 24 in five games.
  • RT Dennis Kelly vs OLB T.J. Watt: Watt is tied for fourth in the NFL in total pressures with all three players above him having played six games. Kelly has been solid on the right side, but playing across from Lewan so far this season has meant the Titans can afford to give him help. With more resources needed on the left side, Kelly will be forced to hold his own more often than usual against one of the best pass rushers in the league.
  • RB Derrick Henry vs the Steelers run defense: The Steelers interior of Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, and Tyson Alualu has been extremely stout against the run. Star safety Minkah Fitzpatrick said the key to stopping Henry was bringing him down before he gets to the secondary. If Henry can get past this stout line to the second level, he could bust some big runs, but that’s going to be quite a challenge. Obviously Rodger Saffold, Ben Jones and Nate Davis will play a key role.

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