When: 8:30 p.m. ET Monday Where: LP Field, Nashville TV: ABC
The Pittsburgh Steelers are a serious playoff contender that has looked, at times, to be as good as any team in the NFL.
The Tennessee Titans are stuck in a major rut, trying to groom a rookie quarterback and appearing in a nationally televised game for the first time this season.
In advance of the game, ESPN Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky and Steelers reporter Scott Brown discussed the big storylines.
Kuharsky: Will the Steelers go blitz-heavy against rookie Zach Mettenberger or try to confuse him with the way they play people in coverage?
Brown: I would say a mixture of both. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's success against rookie quarterbacks is well-documented -- the Steelers are 17-2 against them since 2004 -- and LeBeau will do everything he can to confuse Mettenberger by disguising blitzes and making the LSU product think pressure is coming when the Steelers are dropping extra players into coverage.
Mike Tomlin lavished praise on Mettenberger earlier this week -- as he did the rest of the Titans -- and said Mettenberger can make every throw. That bodes well for his future, but I’m not sure how he will hold up against the Steelers if they go after him early and often. Mettenberger is a much better matchup for the Steelers than Jets quarterback Michael Vick, whom they had trouble containing even when they did generate pressure last Sunday. Mettenberger is most effective in the pocket and the Steelers had success pressuring Indianapolis' Andrew Luck and Baltimore's Joe Flacco, who are much more in the mold of the quarterback that Pittsburgh will face on Monday night.
Is Mettenberger up to the challenge of playing a LeBeau-coached defense and do you think the Titans have found a quarterback around whom they can build?
Kuharsky: It’s too early to say, but the Titans really like Mettenberger and plenty of people outside the organization think he has a skill set that can translate into a successful career as a starter.
He has a big-time arm, plenty of confidence and the personality of a starting quarterback. He’ll stand in against the rush, sometimes for too long. It’s clear Ken Whisenhunt loves him and that he is just the sort of big-armed pocket passer the Titans want. Two games in, we are seeing growing pains. And he’s a victim of two positions not panning out the way it appeared they would in the preseason. The offensive line is the biggest disappointment on the team, and the receivers have not been the playmakers they appeared to be in the preseason.
The Steelers looked like the best team in the history of the league in back-to-back games, then came up with a dud against the Jets. What went wrong? Which version of the team do you buy more?
Brown: I’m guessing "I don’t know" would not suffice as an answer to the second question, so let me start with the first one. The Steelers somehow managed to commit four turnovers against a team that had three takeaways in its first nine games. That and the fact that the Steelers did not have any takeaways of their own is what coach Mike Tomlin said led to the loss against yet another team that the Steelers should have beaten.
Tomlin is right, but I’m not sure it is as simple as that, either. The Steelers were totally flat and they spotted the Jets a 17-0 first-quarter lead. Sure some strange things happened in the game, such as Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown losing two fumbles and normally reliable kicker Shaun Suisham missing a 23-yard chip shot. That still doesn’t explain why the Steelers allowed a 1-8 team to take it to them from the outset -- and dictate what the Steelers did on offense after averaging 41.3 points in their previous three games. The Steelers are better than that and I think they still are a double-digit win team, provided they beat the Titans. If they lose this game they are in trouble.
Paul, I saw that general manager Ruston Webster and coach Ken Whisenhunt recently received a vote of confidence from the owner. That surprised me, especially with Whisenhunt since he is in his first season. Are things that bad with the Titans? If not, to what do you attribute that somewhat unusual move?
Kuharsky: Well, president and CEO Tommy Smith’s first big move was hiring Whisenhunt. Two wins in a season in which the team looked to have upgraded talent and coaching and play an easier schedule certainly wasn’t what Smith, Whisenhunt or Webster were expecting. So it was a natural question when Smith spoke for the first time all season. It’s not as though he went out of his way to offer the votes of confidence, he was just answering a question.
No, heads aren’t going to roll. But yes, things are that bad. This team has been losing badly. It’s ugly. There isn’t anything it can hang its hat on as being particularly good at. And progress is slow, slow, slow.
How has the Steelers' offensive line developed and improved as the season has gone along, and how much credit does former Titans head coach Mike Munchak get for that as he coaches the group?
Brown: The line has gotten better although it took a step back in the loss to the Jets. New York defensive linemen Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson had a lot to do with that, but the line did not provide Le'Veon Bell with much running room and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger received only stretches of good protection.
The line has largely been a strength this season and Munchak is the right coach to pull everything together on a unit that starts two former first-round picks and two former second-round picks. The players love him and I think they will play with a little extra juice Monday night considering the Titans fired Munchak as their head coach. I also think Munchak will challenge his players to seize control of the line of scrimmage so the Steelers can run, run and run some more against a defense that is allowing 136.6 rushing yards per game.
What has to happen for the Titans to pull off the upset and beat the Steelers for the third season in a row?
Kuharsky: They need to find a consistent run game to allow the offense to be balanced, so too much doesn’t land on Mettenberger. They did that for two great series at the start of last week’s game against the Ravens but then fizzled. Mettenberger has to lead the offense to a good day on third down, something the Titans have been terrible at.
The Titans haven’t scored on defense or special teams, and the defense doesn’t have a takeaway in the two games since Mettenberger became the starter. I think it’d be very difficult for them to spring an upset if they don’t get turnovers and turn them into something.