I might need to stop making score predictions for these games, reader. The last two weeks, I’ve gone against my gut feeling in an attempt to let logic prevail.
No more. Officially phoning-in common sense.
It’s all bowels and no brains for this writer.
Speaking of bowels, how about those Browns? Cleveland (4-2) came into Heinz Field and REALLY stunk up the joint, leaving Pittsburgh (5-0) with a 7-38 drubbing and, after Sunday, hopefully some spare ribs.
Here’s how each of Cleveland’s drives ended Sunday:
Interception, punt, punt, punt, interception, touchdown, punt, punt, downs, downs, downs, punt.
12 drives and only seven measly points to show for it. Doesn’t help that those seven points were aided by two Steelers penalties that gave the Browns a new set of downs. This was seriously ugly no matter how you spin it, Steelers unfortunately included.
In the aftermath of a big win, Pittsburgh must continue their pursuit of the Lombardi Trophy without 2019 first-round pick linebacker Devin Bush, who tore his ACL in the second quarter while trying to tackle Browns running back D’Ernest Johnson.
What’s on my mind leading up to Sunday’s matchup of the AFC’s unbeatens?
Dethroning the King
If the Pittsburgh Steelers want to remain undefeated, there’s an aforementioned foe they have to stop first: Derrick Henry.
2019’s NFL rushing leader hasn’t been a consistent menace yet this year, having been held under 3.75 yards/carry three of his first five games. But, as last week’s 264-yard performance against the Houston Texans demonstrated, Henry can take over a game and dictate play single-handedly. Literally.
However, Henry has a tall order in Week 6. The Steelers grade out as the most efficient run defense in the NFL through six weeks. Part of that grade has to be attributed to sideline-to-sideline thumper Devin Bush. Without him, Pittsburgh will look to Robert Spillane, who filled in well for Bush. They say it takes a village to raise a child. It’ll also take a whole village to dethrone the King. The Black & Gold will need all hands on-deck in run defense this week. The Titans offense starts and stops with their regal romper. Can the Steelers contain him? Their chance of winning improves tremendously if they can.
This is undoubtedly THE matchup to watch in this game.
How Do the Steelers Attack the Titans on Offense?
Last week, we saw Pittsburgh punish Cleveland on the ground, rushing the ball 37 times and leaving Big Ben with, by far, his fewest passing attempts this season (22). But, don’t let the numbers fool you. The Steelers simply ran away from the Browns quickly on the scoreboard and didn’t need to throw. That should change in Nashville. Roethlisberger will have a full cadre of weapons at his disposal. Receiver Diontae Johnson is off the status report after a back injury kept him out against the Browns. Right guard David DeCastro is also back after a one-week absence.
The Titans, like most teams, have gotten off to a slow start on defense, scoring particularly poorly in pass defense, ranking near the bottom-third of the league in Football Outsiders’ metrics. Even with Juju Smith-Schuster struggling to get going this season, the Steelers still boast one of the best pass-catching groups in the league. Pittsburgh, like most teams, will want to find some semblance of offensive balance. Nevertheless, look for the deep passing game to be the hero. The Titans will want to control the clock and scoreboard with their ground attack. With Chase Claypool giving the Steelers more downfield striking ability, I think they’ll take their shots early against a vulnerable Titans secondary. If they can gain an early lead, their chances of making quarterback Ryan Tannehill drop back to pass improve, and their league-leading sack machine can pin their ears back and force some mistakes.
I’ll also be keeping an eye on target distribution numbers. Now that Johnson is back in the mix, Big Ben has his go-to receiver from BCE (“Before the Claypool Era”). My decision to drop Diontae Johnson in fantasy football for Chase Claypool has panned-out beautifully thus far. Believe it or not, a healthy Diontae COULD change that as defenses start to hone in on Claypool and open up the middle of the field.
- With Diontae Johnson back, what happens with Juju if he continues to see passes go elsewhere? I’ve seen this nonsense floated around. Count me out on any Juju trade speculation. The Steelers are legit, and I’m not sure Smith-Schuster’s market value right now, even with his pending free-agency, would dictate parting with him mid-season, whether his team is cash-strapped in 2021 or not. Besides, whatever the Steelers COULD get now would be close to what they’d likely get in a compensatory pick a year later, anyway.
- The Titans really screwed the Steelers, regardless of this game’s outcome. Not only do they have to play for at least 13 straight weeks, but Tennessee’s COVID-19 outbreak also resulted in the division-rival Baltimore (5-1) getting their BYE week moved from Week 8 to Week 7, giving them extra time to prepare for a critical matchup after what could be a Nashville slug-fest for Pittsburgh.
- Nickelback Mike Hilton being out this week is a big deal for the Steelers. With 27 solo tackles, three sacks, a fumble recovery, and an interception, he’s been a solid contributor and chess piece in Keith Butler’s defense. Cameron Sutton will make for an intriguing substitute.
- On the flip-side, the absence of Tennessee left tackle Taylor Lewan might just be the edge Pittsburgh needs. Underwhelming replacement Ty Sambrailo could be in for one doozy of an afternoon. I imagine Bud Dupree is licking his chops.
- I’m officially reprimanding my criticism of James Conner. He may not impress in the 40-yard dash, but I’ll be damned if he doesn’t do everything else right. I still doubt he’s in Pittsburgh’s long-term plans (see “cash-strapped” above), but he’s a fine example of the success a running back can have when they do a lot of things right. He runs with great vision, decisiveness, power, and always follows his blockers, fighting for extra yards and looking for contact. He’s a fine example of what this organization wants to see from its players.
- If Tennessee gets the win, I’m thinking it’ll be in significant part due to Jonnu Smith. The Titans will likely need the short-to-intermediate passing game more than usual in this one, and Smith could play a larger role in the Tennessee game plan with Devin Bush going down less than a week ago. Tannehill will need a safety net against this pass rush, and if Robert Spillane is caught with coverage duties, he will certainly be tested.
Score Prediction: Steelers 34, Titans 21
My gut is feeling good about this one. The Titans have had some close game scares against bad teams this season. Today’s odds may have Tennessee as one-and-a-half point favorites, but I just don’t see it. The Titans are getting a pissed-off team (see COVID-19 delay) seemingly beginning to hit its stride offensively, and the loss of Taylor Lewan hurts. Also, despite Derrick Henry’s greatness, I’m just not convinced enough holes will be there for him; and while Tannehill has had a great stretch of football dating back to last year, he is NOT the same quarterback when having to do most of the heavy lifting himself. Certainly not when it matters most — see last year’s playoffs, if you don’t believe me.
The Steelers forge on and remain undefeated.
Smell ya later, Steelers fans! You must still reek of the Browns. My advice? Tomato bath.
(Featured Image Credit: Steelers.com)