Steelers Opponent Preview: Dick LeBeau and the Titans Come to Town

Photo via Can you tell I’m loving the color rush unis?

The title of the article pretty much sums up the feel of this game. Many of the Titans coaches have played or worked for the Steelers at one time, including Mike Mularky, Deshea Townsend, and of course Dick LeBeau. It goes the other way, too. Starting corner Coty Sensabaugh was drafted by the Titans. But perhaps the big name here is Offensive Line coach Mike Munchak, who played for the Titans, coached in a variety of capacities for them, and was their head coach for three years. Bob Labriola of pointed out that there are more Steelers/Titans connections than there are between the Steelers and the Cardinals, and that’s saying something.

But once the “hail fellow well met” greetings are over on the sidelines, the battle lines are drawn up, and what we have is a game between a 7-2 and a 6-3 club. Both would very much like to win it. For the Titans, it would represent a sweep of the AFC North, as they’ve already beaten the other three teams (barely.) And they would naturally like to hold on to their lead in the AFC South. For the Black and Gold, it would represent another step towards a bye week and home field advantage in the playoffs.

So let’s have a look at the Titans and how they match up with the Steelers. Not that this seems to mean anything at all this season, but hey, I’ve set myself this exercise, and I find it strangely interesting. So here we go, with the combination of Football Outsiders numbers and Pro Football Focus player ratings.

I generally begin with the defenses, and given that defensive guru Dick LeBeau is on the opposite sideline, it only makes sense to continue to do so. Here are the numbers from Football Outsiders (henceforth FO):

Team Defense: (for defensive DVOA, lower is better:)

  • Titans: 7.2%, No. 23 (rush rank No. 14, pass rank No. 24)
  • Steelers: -15.6%, No. 4 (rush rank No. 4, pass rank No. 5)

And before you ask, these rankings are after Sunday’s games. Yeah, I’m mystified too…

Defensive Lines:

  • Titans: No. 17 in run blocking, No. 29 in pass protection.
  • Steelers: No. 4 in run blocking, No. 4 in pass protection.

Team Offense: (for offensive DVOA, higher is better:)

  • Titans: -0.2%, No. 16 (pass rank, No. 24, rush rank No. 4)
  • Steelers: 13.1%, No. 6 (pass rank No. 6, rush rank No. 12)

Offensive Lines:

  • Titans: Run blocking, No. 7; Pass blocking No. 15
  • Steelers: Run blocking No. 11, Pass blocking No. 1

None of this is much of a surprise at this point. The book on the Titans offense is that they have struggled in the passing game, but have two power backs that have racked up a lot of yards. In fact, between them they have almost as many yards as Le’Veon Bell. But they have been very effective. In the meantime, quarterback Marcus Mariota has apparently recovered from the injury that was slowing him down and is once again a threat to take off and run. The Titans’ line has given up 20 sacks—the Steelers’ 11.

Defensively, despite having a couple of scary pass rushers, Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan, they aren’t really getting the quarterbacks down that much—they have something like 14 sacks. (Okay, I looked it up, and the Titans are tied for No. 28 with 14 sacks, the Steelers tied for No. 2 with 29.) But those two players have a tremendous number of quarterback pressures between them, which is perhaps why one of their defensive backs has some absurd number of interceptions. (Okay, I looked this up too. The Titans have 9 interceptions as a team, the Steelers 8. But 6 of the 9 for the Titans are by Kevin Byard, which leads the league.)

Let’s see what PFF has to say about the individual players:

Free safety Kevin Byard is the aforementioned DB with lots of interceptions. Not too surprisingly, he is the highest-rated player on their defense. But really, it’s a pretty strong defense when you consider the various players. DE Jurrell Casey is the next-highest rated player, The weakest player, according to PFF at any rate, is SS Jonathan Cyprien. If I were Ben I think I would throw it to his side of the field. Just a suggestion.

As far as the Steelers D goes, PFF clearly thinks that Robert Golden and Coty Sensabaugh will be playing, and of course they are almost certainly correct. Both those players are graded well by PFF. In fact, the lowest-graded player on the defense is Sean Davis, which I find baffling. But then I’m not an expert.

So let’s have a look at the offenses. The weak point in the Titans’ O-line, at least according to PFF, is left guard Brian Schwenke. But he isn’t particularly bad. The line looks pretty solid overall. I’m hoping their grades will look a bit lower next week after meeting with Messrs. Heyward, Hargrave, and Tuitt. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves…

The Titans’ highest-rated offensive player is TE Delanie Walker. And with good cause. PFF has him at No. 3 among all tight ends. So I hope the Steelers’ D is on their Ps and Qs. Marcus Mariota is also well-ranked (he’s the second-highest rated player on the offense.) Rishard Matthews is the best of the WRs, or so it would seem.

For the Steelers, the highest-ranked offensive player is now David DeCastro, who leads all guards in the league. Next is AB, who also leads all wide receivers in the league. Ben Roethlisberger has finally managed to get into the green rating area (above average). The lowest-rated player is Roosevelt Nix (at 41.0,) followed by Jesse James (at 44.7). Ramon Foster is the lowest-ranked O-lineman, at 64.2. Le’Veon Bell is graded at a relatively pedestrian 77.1, good for only 22nd in the league. I find this fascinating, as he is ranked at No. 5 by Football Outsiders. However, I believe the explanation is that PFF is now primarily focused on fantasy football, and what makes a good fantasy back isn’t necessarily what makes a good back in team terms.

Well, it’s a short week, so that’s about all I’ve got, other than the injury report, which is a great deal longer for the Steelers than the Titans, I fear:

  • Out: Steelers: Joe Haden. Titans: N/A
  • Doubtful: No players on either team
  • Questionable: Steelers: James Harrison, Vance McDonald, Mike Mitchell. Titans: N/A

Yes, you got that right. The Titans aren’t missing anyone at all. Well, that’s life in the NFL, Next Man Up, The Standard is the Standard, [insert favorite cliché here.] Let’s go, Steelers!


  • There should always be a caveat with statistics, just like there should always been bacon and cheddar with your burger.

    The caveat here is that Mariota has been playing hurt – he was badly hobbled and couldn’t run – which, in turn, hobbled their offensive capabilities for a couple of games. He’s had an extra week to heal.

    The Steelers are on a short week, banged up in the secondary, up against a good team with a division leading record. And a team with 347 assistant coaches with “Steelers” on their resumes. That spells trouble.

    Of course, the Steelers are at their worst against bad teams, and at their best against good teams.

    So you figure it out. Homer is giving the points, based on the KC game and a good-teams bad-teams hunch.


    • cold_old_steelers_fan

      Bacon and cheddar is great on a burger but sometimes a slice of tomato and chopped sweet onions is just the ticket.


  • hello friends! an old acquaintance to some of you here. i used to be a regular on another steelers site where some of you may remember me as agentorange. i had quit that site a long time ago, and never realized that this one existed until yesterday! so grateful to find some thoughtful steelers community.

    what an interesting year to be a steelers fan. i am at once filled with excitement and dread. which team will show up tonight? i agree with Homer’s analysis in the above comment…will we play below standard because we are a bit beat up and tired? will the offense once again look like they are stuck in wet indiana clay? will we default to the lowest common denominator in the secondary? or will the team rise up against a division leader and play like the 7-2 record would indicate?

    i’ve never been so unsure about what to expect from a steelers team. i’m not a betting man, but if i was, i say the steelers have a big night, albeit with some struggles in the secondary. steelers 27-17. educated guess or unbridled optimism? who knows…

    one more thing: thursday night football is so weird. i kept trying to tell myself that yesterday was saturday, just so today would feel like gameday. i’m a pastor at a methodist church, so it is strange for me not to have a full morning of worship services before the game. but, i’m representing in the office today with my steelers gear, and hoping for a friday that is marked by joyful exhaustion rather than the other kind.


  • Usually I like Thursday foot because, well, I love football. But since I take the Steelers so personally this week makes me realize how unfair and frankly dangerous the short turn around is for the players (most of whom seem to dislike it).


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