After a not-so-historically-heated TNF last week, we’re about to witness another chapter of a decades-long rivalry between two AFC foes.
That’s these days, however, as this one goes all the way back to the 1970s when the Titans were still the Houston Oilers and shared the same division with the Steelers. That’s not been the case for more than 20 years, but these two are still cool beating each other.
In the 80 times they’ve met, the Steelers hold a strong 48-32 lead with a solid 3-1 advantage in postseason clashes and an ongoing four-game winning streak entering TNF.
The Steelers entered this game as slight 2.5-point favorites when the initial odds were released on Monday and that has stood through injury updates.
The total was set at 37.5 initially but then dropped to an over/under of 36.5 by Tuesday, sitting there for the following days and heading into TNF. It’s a realistic but rather low projection nonetheless. Entering Week 9, Pittsburgh is averaging 16.1 points per game while Tennessee’s 18.9 are a bit higher but not gaudy.
How do the Titans and Steelers arrive at their TNF matchup?
Both of these two teams have already enjoyed their respective bye weeks. Tennessee (3-4) is still looking to win two games in a row with half of the season already in the rearview mirror. Pittsburgh (4-3) carried the momentum coming off an upset of Baltimore in Week 5 through its bye to beat the Rams in Week 7, but they couldn’t topple the Jaguars in Week 8.
Funnily enough, these two teams have put together exactly opposite records in the last five games they’ve played. Tennessee has gone LWLLW while Pittsburgh has put up a WLWWL span. And that might be the staying trend going forward, starting on TNF.
The Steelers' offense is simply broken, full stop. Kenny Pickett has struggled and left their last game with injury while none of the running backs is excelling at rushing the ball. All the Steelers could muster on offense last weekend was 10 points, their lowest figure since Oct. 1.
The Titans also lost starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill back in Week 6, but they might have actually stumbled upon their future cornerstone at the position in rookie second-round pick Will Levis, who carried the team to a 28-23 victory over Atlanta on Sunday.
Levis will start in Week 9, as the Titans look set to give their rookie QB as many in-game reps as possible to see what they have (or have not) in tow.
Whether Pickett can keep building throughout his second year as a pro is also uncertain. At this moment in time and after having crossed the halfway point of the season, however, it’s much easier to find glimmers of hope around Tennessee than it is around Pittsburgh. And that, also, is the case for the matchup between both teams on TNF.
TNF Week 9: Injury Report
As big as the injuries suffered by both Steelers and Titans players last weekend were, so were the clarifications made by both franchises’ head coaches as soon as Monday.
The earliest reports coming off Sunday’s loss to the Jaguars talked about Pickett’s status being “up in the air.” Pickett spoke to reporters on Tuesday and all but guaranteed his presence on the field come TNF’s kick-off. “I’m playing, for sure,” he said.
Pickett’s injury (ribs) will come down to pain tolerance, so expect him to be under center on Thursday.
As far as the Titans, Levis is set for his second start and that is 1) the right decision for the present and future of the franchise and 2) the obvious one with Tannehill still not fully fit to make a comeback.
Tannehill won’t be healthy enough on TNF and there is no reason for the Titans to risk a setback, let alone benching the player who doubled the touchdown production of the veteran QB in just one game.
One stat that can swing the balance
Pittsburgh has four wins, but the Steelers offense scored 12, 23, 17 and 24 points in those games. The Titans' defense has allowed the fifth-fewest fantasy points.
The Steelers have won more games than the Titans this season. However, the Steelers have scored 113 points to the Titans’ 132.
The Titans have lost more games than the Steelers this season. However, the Titans have allowed 140 points to the Steelers’ 147.
Basically, Pittsburgh can thank its defense for keeping the team’s collective head above water and winning more games than not, but the trend is reversing and the last few weeks have been awful, not to mention the offensive production in the games Pittsburgh somehow found a way to win.
The Steelers' offense ranks among the bottom-10 (or worst) in the NFL in points (29th), passing yards (25th), rushing yards (28th), passing touchdowns (29th) and rushing touchdowns (25th). The defense isn’t incredibly better (more middle-of-the-pack) but the unit has had success at sacking quarterbacks and intercepting passes. That unit should receive some help in the form of Cameron Heyward, who was activated off IR on Wednesday.
The Titans, on the other hand, have allowed just 11 touchdowns (seven passing, four rushing) through Week 8. In the fantasy realm, Tennesse has limited opposing quarterbacks to 15.5 FP/G (fifth-best), running backs to 16.0 (12th-best) and tight ends to 6.9 (6th-best). Overall, fantasy players from the seven franchises that have faced the Titans through Week 8 have scored the fifth-fewest combined points on them.
Since the start of the season, the Titans have allowed 20+ fantasy points to a single player just six times: two QB-WR pairings in Weeks 2 and 3, a running back in Week 5 and a quarterback in Week 6.
Tennessee hasn’t allowed a quarterback to pass for more than 225 yards since Week 3, it has allowed a running back to rush for more than 70 yards once all season and it hasn’t allowed a receiver to get more than 75 receiving yards since Week 5.
The Steelers’ offense is struggling. The Titans’ defense certainly won’t help them fix their issues.
One player to start, two to consider benching
Bench: WR Diontae Johnson (PIT)
The Steelers are in for a tough one on offense, but some fantasy GMs might still look at Johnson’s back-to-back 10+ fantasy-point-scoring outings and decide it’s a good time to start the wide receiver.
It’s correct that Johnson has put together a couple of good games since returning after missing all matchups played between Weeks 2 and 6 (both included), but last weekend’s 8-of-14 outcome for 85 receiving yards might be more of an outlier than something to trust.
Johnson was good against Jacksonville, but he caught six-of-11 passes for 62 yards in the first two quarters alone last Sunday with Kenny Pickett throwing passes. The rest of the Steelers went four-of-five for 11 yards in the first half.
Then, in the second half and with Trubisky passing the ball, Johnson could only haul in two of three targets for 23 yards while his teammates got a fairly similar usage and production.
If anyone on the Steelers' offense has a chance of going off, I’d bet on George Pickens before I do Diontae Johnson on TNF. Yes, even if Pickett is the starting QB and considering how much love the quarterback gave Johnson last Sunday. Remember, the Titans defense will be waiting on the other end of the field, no matter who starts.
Start: QB Will Levis (TEN)
Even if Levis doesn’t put up the numbers he reached last weekend, starting him in deeper leagues or streaming (as well as using him in DFS contests) him if only for this TNF matchup makes all of the sense.
Levis is coming off making his rookie debut for the Titans, one ending in victory, in which he completed four touchdown passes (the third QB to ever do so in his debut) and posted a 130.5 passer rating (second-highest for a debutant in history). Levis completed 19-of-29 passes, reached 238 yards, avoided interceptions and rushed the rock for 11 yards on seven carries.
The rookie was also capable of bringing WR DeAndre Hopkins back to life after the veteran had struggled mightily playing under Ryan Tannehill. Hopkins scored his first touchdown of the season on Sunday, finished with three TDs to go with 128 yards on four receptions and showcased a pinpoint-perfect rapport with Levis.
The fact that Derrick Henry will always keep defenses honest and thinking about having to stop both the opposing passing and running games also helps Levis’ case.
Bench: RB Najee Harris (PIT)
Harris caught five passes for 42 yards on Sunday. Those were all season-high marks for him. On the other hand, he failed to reach 10 carries for the first time since Week 1 and only rushed for 13 yards on seven rushing attempts.
The running back scored a touchdown (his first of the season) two weeks ago at the Los Angeles Rams, but he’s been awful all year long with minimal production and only two top-20 finishes among players at the position in half-point fantasy leagues.
Harris has yet to appear in more than 60% of the Steelers’ total offensive snaps in a single game and he’s not seen more than 17 opportunities (carries plus targets) since he last did in Week 3.
Even if Pickett doesn’t end up starting or leaves early with a setback (although that might help Harris get some more touches from the backfield if Pittsburgh doesn’t want to over-rely on Trubisky’s passing), it’s hard to see Harris producing a lot of fantasy points against a stout defense in Tennessee. Only Zack Moss has cracked the Titans' code this year rushing for more than 67 yards against them — and he needed 23 carries to get there.
We're aware that many fantasy managers don't have better options than Harris, so you're likely forced to start him. But if you somehow are loaded at RB, consider swapping him for someone with a better matchup — if not, make sure to temper expectations.
Two players to scout as prospective waiver wire pickups
Titans RB Tyjae Spears (46% rostered)
The Titans were so close to trading away Derrick Henry ahead of the deadline. So much so that some reports indicated a trade with Baltimore had been completed at the start of the week until the franchise owner vetoed it. Yikes!
At least for the remainder of the year, Henry will remain a Titans player, which is a bummer for those betting on a breakout second half of the season for rookie RB Tyjae Spears. That said, it’s still worth keeping track of the freshman and adding him to your roster if you have room for it. He might only be a stash type of addition now, but he looks like the best among those in that category.
Spears will keep sharing the floor with Henry on a (very) secondary role going forward even though the RB1 was listed as limited earlier this week. Expect Spears to keep getting around five touches per game to go with a few targets if Henry is available. No need to mention that if Henry goes down injured, Spears would instantly become a fantasy darling.
The rookie has been on the field for at least 44% of all offensive snaps taken by the Titans in six of the seven games they’ve played and a total of 212. Among fantasy players with 215 or fewer snaps played through Week 8, Spears ranks 14th in total fantasy points having racked up 159 yards from scrimmage on 26 touches including one for a rushing touchdown.
Steelers TE Pat Freiermuth (40% rostered)
Pat Freiermuth was placed on IR with a hamstring injury before Week 7 so he won’t be back until Week 11 at the earliest, depending on when the Steelers decide to activate him and move him back to the 53-man roster. It’s worth keeping an eye on him and even starting to get some shares of the tight end now (if you can stash him) or no later than the week before his return to the field.
The Steelers have struggled on offense, yes, but by the time Freiermuth is eligible to return starting QB Kenny Pickett should be fully fit and past this week’s health problems with Pittsburgh having already enjoyed its bye week.
The tight end had a bad Week 2 game but he finished as a top-10 player at the position in both Week 1 and Week 3, catching one touchdown in each of those matchups. He left Week 4 after playing only 30 snaps while having already caught three of four targets back then.
Darnell Washington has stepped up in Freiermuth’s absence, but his combined stat line in the past four games is one reception, three targets and 10 yards, while fellow tight end Connor Heyward also saw an increase in snaps but is 7-of-13 for 65 yards throughout the full season. Yikes.