Titans Staring Down Steelers' Stout Defense in Thursday Night Clash of AFC Playoff Contenders

If Steelers WR JuJu Smith-Schuster plays the slot, he'll have more than 50 yards receiving against the Titans. If he lines up on the outside, chances are he'll have fewer than 35 yards.
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Previewing Tennessee Titans at Pittsburgh Steelers on NFL Week 11 Thursday Night Football...

Both the Titans (6–3) and the Steelers (7–2) rely on strong rushing attacks and defense. On offense they'll go with heavy personnel—extra tight ends, a fullback, a sixth O-lineman, etc.—but they also incorporate the occasional gadget design. For the Steelers, it's either Martavis Bryant on an end-around, or some form of wide receiver screen (an extension of the running game). For the Titans, lately it has been Marcus Mariota and star corner Adoreé Jackson on multi-option designs.

Mariota is at his best on timing and rhythm throws down the seams. Expect to see tight end Delanie Walker align to the short side of the field. In other words, if the ball is on the left hash, Walker will line up on the left. The Steelers often play landmark zone coverage to that side (their matchup zone concepts tend to come on the wider side of the field). There will be opportunities for Walker to work the 15- to 18-yard seam routes. 

Defensively, both are stingy, but different—a surprise to some given that the Titans are coordinated by longtime Steelers defensive czar Dick LeBeau. In Tennessee, LeBeau has become a more matchup-oriented play-caller, with man coverage as the team’s foundation. They deployed it against the Bengals last week, shadowing A.J. Green with Logan Ryan and adding a double-team whenever possible. Chances are, they’ll try to do that again against Antonio Brown.

Current Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler talked this offseason about playing more matchup coverages, but even with the arrival of ex-Browns corner Joe Haden (who was having a stellar season before breaking his leg last week), this has remained a predominantly Cover 3 zone unit. 

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Both defenses have prominent blitz packages. The Steelers employ theirs less than almost every other NFL team, but when they do rush five (and with Butler and LeBeau, it's almost always five, rarely six), it's with a defensive back off the edge. The two things Butler wanted most entering this past offseason were a true edge rusher and a slot blitzer. First-round rookie T.J. Watt has provided the edge pressure; perhaps more importantly, undrafted second-year corner Mike Hilton has provided outstanding slot blitzes.

For Tennessee, the blitzes often involve some sort of gap exchange (i.e. a twist or stunt). Brian Orakpo, Derrick Morgan and Jurrell Casey are all flexible here. It's a good thing, too; as talented as these three are, Tennessee's straight four-man rush is perplexingly ineffective much of the time. 

Bold Prediction: Steelers fast-rising second-round rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster will have over 50 yards receiving if he predominantly plays the slot, and under 35 yards if he predominantly aligns outside. In the slot, Smith-Schuster will face Brice McCain. Outside, it'll be sterling rookie Adoreé Jackson, an intriguing perimeter cover artist who can also take away slants.

Score Prediction: Steelers 21, Titans 16