Thursday night will mark rookie quarterback Will Levis' second career start, as Ryan Tannehill remains out for Tennessee. Levis and Co. defeated the Atlanta Falcons in the Kentucky product's debut, and will be looking for another victory here. Meanwhile, the Steelers are fresh off a loss to another AFC South squad, having been downed by the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday. Pittsburgh needs to bounce back to remain in the thick of the AFC playoff picture.
Can Levis make it back-to-back wins, or will Pittsburgh deal him the first loss of his career? We'll find out soon enough. Before we break down the matchup, here's a look at how you can watch the game.
How to watch
When the Titans have the ball
We have just a one-week sample size on second-round quarterback Will Levis, who made his NFL debut last week and completed 19 of 29 passes for 238 yards and four touchdowns in a victory over the Falcons. The four scoring throws each came from at least 16 yards out, and three of them were from 30 yards or more. In total, they accounted for 157 of his 238 passing yards, meaning Levis was otherwise 15 of 25 for a mere 81 yards.
It's hard to parse what to make of a debut like that. On the one hand, two of the touchdowns were legitimately fantastic throws: the 33-yard loft to Nick Westbrook-Ikhine that traveled all the way across the field after Levis rolled out to his right was a thing of beauty, and the 61-yard bomb to DeAndre Hopkins on a double-move was extremely pretty as well. But the first score came on a throw Levis left way too far inside and saw Hopkins get away with a rather obvious pass interference, and the second was a short crosser that Hopkins took to the end zone by speeding away from the nearest defender and then spinning through a tackle at the goal line.
Throw in the fact that he averaged just over 3 yards per attempt on his other 25 throws, and it starts to seem more complicated than just, "Levis threw for four touchdowns and therefore he was amazing." Obviously, throwing for four touchdowns in your debut is fantastic work, and the Titans will take it any day of the week. But we should be clear about how those scores came about when we're trying to project how Levis might do going forward, and in a different matchup.
Luckily for Tennessee, the Steelers defense has been uncharacteristically vulnerable to the deep ball this year. No team has allowed more completions on throws of at least 16 yards downfield, according to Tru Media. Steelers opponents have connected on 28 such throws -- four per game. That's where Levis is at his best, using his monster arm to uncork a laser down the field. The opportunity will be there for him to take those types of shots in this game.
There could be a bit of an issue when it comes to pass protection, though. Pittsburgh's pass rush has been unusually average so far this season, with the Steelers generating pressure on 36.2% of opponent dropbacks. But the Steelers will get Cameron Heyward back for this game, and he, along with T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith up front, have the potential to wreck games. Levis was pressured on over 40% of his dropbacks in his first start by an Atlanta defense that ranks in the bottom third of the league in pressure rate.
Of course, we know that the Titans would prefer to run the ball down their opponents' throats with Derrick Henry. Pittsburgh enters this game with the league's 14th-ranked rush defense, per FTN's DVOA, but again, the Steelers have been without Heyward for most of this season. Meanwhile, the Titans haven't been particularly good at getting designed yards out of their run game. They rank just 25th in the NFL in yards before contact per carry, according to Tru Media. They put a lot of pressure on Henry and rookie Tyjae Spears to break tackles and create yards themselves -- which, to their credit, they have done. But Pittsburgh has been a top-eight tackling team this season, and has yielded an explosive run on only 6.6% of opponent carries. It could be tougher sledding than usual on the ground.
When the Steelers have the ball
The Steelers offense remains depressing to watch. Pittsburgh has topped 17 points in only three of seven games this season, and has gained more than 300 yards just twice. Offensive coordinator Matt Canada simply does not put players in position to succeed, while the offensive line doesn't clear much room for the backs and both Kenny Pickett and Mitchell Trubisky (when filling in due to injury) have been inaccurate (14.2% off-target throw rate is the sixth-highest in the league, per Tru Media) and unable to generate explosive plays (19 completions of 20-plus yards, 10th-fewest in the NFL).
Pittsburgh theoretically wants to be a running team, but doesn't have the personnel to accomplish that goal. Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren are working from far behind the 8-ball, as the Steelers are clearing the way for just 0.97 yards before contact per carry -- a mark that checks in ahead of only the Buccaneers and Texans. Against a Titans team that has allowed just 3.8 yards per carry, Pittsburgh seems highly unlikely to findmuch in the way of success on the ground here.
Instead, this will be about whether Pickett (who has no game status after leaving last week's game with a ribs injury) can beat a Tennessee secondary that was already vulnerable and traded away Kevin Byard last week. Titans opponents have completed 69.6% of their passes at an average of 7.9 yards per attempt, though they have thrown just 7 touchdown passes. Tennessee does allow its opponents to get the ball downfield, with 8.8% of dropbacks turning into gains of 20 or more yards, per Tru Media. As mentioned, though, that has been a weak point for Pickett and Trubisky.
The return of Diontae Johnson should, in theory, allow the offense to function better. Johnson and George Pickens are a solid 1-2 punch when each working at the peak of their powers, though that has rarely happened at the same time. With Johnson healthy, Pickens returned to running a bunch of clear-out routes last week and saw his target share crater. The design of the offense does not help the pair shine simultaneously, as if there is only room for one player to actually be featured in the scheme at a time.
Honestly, it will likely be hard for the Steelers to move the ball. They make it hard on themselves to begin with, and their quarterback is mere days removed from an injury that knocked him out of the game.
Prediction: Steelers 17, Titans 14
The Titans might honestly have better matchups in this game. But the Steelers tend to play weird games to begin with, and taking a rookie quarterback making his second career start to beat a Mike Tomlin-coached team on a short week seems foolish.
I'm pretty confident in my pick, but if you want another opinion, Sportsline gambling guru R.J. White is on a 59-29 roll on his picks involving Pittsburgh and he has locked in another confident against the spread pick for Steelers vs. Titans. We can tell you he's leaning Over the total, but he knows a crucial X-factor makes one side of the spread a MUST-BACK! You ABSOLUTELY need to see what it is before locking in any picks of your own.