PITTSBURGH – The Titans face the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday night at Acrisure Stadium.
Here’s a look at six things to watch in the contest:
1Will Levis Encore
Titans rookie quarterback Will Levis threw for 238 yards and four touchdowns in his NFL debut on Sunday, becoming one of just three quarterbacks in NFL history with 4-plus TD passes in their first game. Levis proved he’s not afraid to chuck it – three of Levis’ four touchdown passes were 30-plus yards. Downfield success should open things up for everyone on offense if he can keep it going. Here’s an interesting stat from Next Gen Stats: 50.0 percent of Levis’ dropbacks utilized play action, the highest in a game by any player in 2023. Levis was 8-13 with 116 pass yards, two TDs and a 130.1 rating in play action. Here’s a scary stat: Rookie QBs are 1-15 in the previous 20 seasons when playing in Pittsburgh, and 0-5 all-time in primetime games.
2Protect the QB
Part of the reason Levis had success – and part of the reason starter Ryan Tannehill got hurt in the first place – can be attributed to pass protection. Levis had decent protection (he was pressured on 43.8% of his dropbacks and sacked twice) on Sunday, while Tannehill had way too many moments facing pressure (sacked 19 times in six starts) and taking hits when he was at the helm. The Titans face a huge challenge with Pittsburgh’s defense, especially with edge rusher T.J. Watt. In four home games this season, Watt has 6.5 sacks and three forced fumbles, and on the season he has 8.5 sacks, 7 tackles for a loss and 16 QB hits. After entering Sunday’s game at left tackle, Andre Dillard is expected to work on the left side on Thursday night, with Nicholas Petit-Frere sliding to the right side. The Titans are going to need to hold up to protect Levis while opening holes for the backs.
Running back Derrick Henry ran for 101 yards vs the Falcons, and he’s been a beast under the lights. In 20 career primetime games, Henry has 1,913 yards and 18 touchdowns. The 95.7-yard average leads all backs since 2000. Can Henry keep it going against the Steelers? Well, the Steelers have allowed 137.1 rush yards per game, and they’ve allowed 100-plus rushing yards in six of seven games in 2023, despite having 8-plus defenders in the box on 35.4 percent of opponent carries. Henry is aiming for his 37th game with 100-plus rush yards. Running back Tyjae Spears has given the Titans a lift, with 55-plus scrimmage yards in three of his last four games. Spears ranks 5th among rookie running backs with 318 scrimmage yards.
4Hopkins Back in Spotlight
Receiver DeAndre Hopkins has been the team’s best receiver all season, and he’s coming off an epic game on Sunday. Hopkins caught four passes for 128 yards and three touchdowns against the Falcons, and he leads the Titans with 31 catches for 504 yards. Hopkins has faced the Steelers twice in his career, in 2014 and 2017 with the Texans – he recorded 10 catches for 173 yards (86.5 ypg) and a touchdown combined in those contests. Hopkins is fifth in the NFL with 233 receiving yards on deep passes in 2023 (20-plus yards in air), and he’s currently averaging a career-high 16.3 yards per reception in 2023. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick has been ruled out for the contest, and the Steelers have been a different team when they’ve been without him.
5Defense, Defense, Defense
The Titans were swarming on defense against the Falcons, registering six sacks. Defensive tackle Jeffery Simmoms had a season-high two sacks, and a forced fumble, and linebacker Harold Landry had two sacks of his own. Landry aims for his third straight games with five-plus tackles, two tackles for a loss, and a sack. Kenny Pickett is expected to start at quarterback for the Steelers, but he’s banged up. Pickett hasn’t thrown an interception in the past three games, but he has been sacked 17 times on the season. Here’s a streak the Titans would like to end: Pickett has won each of his past five primetime starts.
6Importance on Week 8
The Titans are underdogs for the seventh time in eight games this season, as the Steelers are favored by 2.5 points in Thursday’s game. The Titans are looking for back-to-back wins for the first time this season. Since 1990, teams that started a season 4-4 have made the playoffs 32.5% of the time, won the division 12.4% of the time and won the Super Bowl 0.5% of the time. The percentages for teams that started 3-5: 9.4%, 4.7% and 0.0%. Another ominous note: The Steelers are 27-8 in home primetime games under Mike Tomlin (since 2007).