My family and I are not having the best health week, but I’d be remiss not to share some thoughts on a big game in the AFC.
The Steelers are 5-0 for the first time since 1978, which remains the gold standard Pittsburgh team, and that means it’s the first time in my lifetime they’ve started this well. The Titans, listed as a 1-point favorite on Sunday, are also 5-0 and ahead in the tie-breakers for the No. 1 seed.
This is only the fifth time since 2001 where two undefeated teams 5-0 or better are meeting, and it wouldn’t have happened if not for COVID-19 (game was originally scheduled for Week 4 when they were both 3-0):
Would most people still pick the Chiefs and Ravens as the best teams in the AFC over the Steelers and Titans? Probably, but it’s been fun starts for these teams and this is an interesting matchup.
The Steelers (and the 2020 Seahawks) are now on a list of 16 teams in the Super Bowl era who scored at least 26 points in each of their first five games:
There are a lot of really great offensive teams in that list — think 2013 Broncos, 1998 Vikings, 2018 Chiefs — but the 2020 Steelers don’t strike me as one of them yet. This is mostly because they’ve been able to produce this without establishing a real offensive identity.
We only saw six quarters of Ben Roethlisberger in 2019, but it was obvious then that this offense was not sure how to replace the departure of Antonio Brown. Roethlisberger was throwing a ton of short passes and they weren’t pushing the ball down the field like they used to. Then once Roethlisberger went out for the season, the offense really lacked talent and production. But since he’s returned this season, Roethlisberger still is feeling his way back into the game and throwing a lot of short, quick passes again. JuJu Smith-Schuster is only averaging 8.4 yards per reception this year and has seemingly been surpassed by rookie Chase Claypool as the new #1 receiver.
From his first catch on MNF against the Giants, Claypool has looked fantastic. He can make the deep sideline catch, make an 84-yard TD look effortless, he’s shown a little YAC ability, and they’ve even worked him into the goal line package with rushing plays for a pair of scores. I’m really fascinated by him so far, but I’d like to see more refined roles for JuJu, James Washington, and Diontae Johnson. It’s hard to say what the plan is with JuJu these days, but Washington should still be an outside deep threat and Johnson would be better in the slot while Claypool and JuJu can move around more.
Of course the Steelers always want to run the ball well, but that’s been hit or miss with James Conner this year. He’s ripped off several big runs, but sometimes the offensive line, which has gone through a few replacement starters already, just doesn’t open up anything for him.
So it’s still not clear if the Steelers want to be a shotgun dink-and-dunk offense, a big-play offense, a smash-mouth meets play-action (just kidding, they never use it) offense, or what mixture exactly. Maybe the fact that they’ve produced these results without having a clear identity is a good thing and they can only grow and get better as Roethlisberger works his way back from a year out, Claypool learns, Eric Ebron gets more comfortable at tight end, the line gels, etc.
Meanwhile, the Titans are back to a pretty clear offensive plan: get Derrick Henry his 20+ rushes, use a lot of play-action, and Ryan Tannehill has been very accurate and safe with the ball while also drastically cutting down on his sacks from 2019. The Titans just racked up 607 yards of offense in a 42-36 overtime win over Houston, though that was really the first game this year where Henry was unstoppable. I think the Steelers, an elite rushing defense by most metrics, will have bigger problems stopping the passing game this week than Henry.
The key injury news in this game is that LT Taylor Lewan and LB Devin Bush both tore their ACL, ending their seasons. It’s not good news for either team, but I think both will be able to replace them without much of a noticeable decline. It’s bigger news this week for the Titans as Pittsburgh’s aggressive defense led by T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree on the edges will be coming after Tannehill. The Steelers would be worse off if those guys (or Cameron Heyward) were out for the year than Bush. But I still want to see how the Steelers perform against a good passing offense. The Browns were scoring a lot of points coming into last week, but Baker Mayfield was not having a big season. The Steelers rattled him early into his worst statistical game, and it was one of the best performances by the Steelers defense in years. They’ll be dealing with a tougher quarterback this time around.
But are the Titans a bit overrated? Outside of the Buffalo game, the Titans have four wins by 12 points. Tannehill’s only the second QB ever (1966 Charley Johnson on the Cardinals) to lead four game-winning drives in his team’s first five games, but that’s rarely a recipe for later success in the season. Those 1966 Cardinals (8-5-1) still missed the playoffs, though it was at the expense of losing Johnson for five starts.
Even in the 42-16 win over Buffalo, the Titans had TD drives of 16, 30, 12, and 18 yards. That’s 28 points on 76 yards of offense. So if you don’t hand them the short fields, you have a decent shot. The Titans (3) and Steelers (4) have two of the lowest giveaway totals this year.
At the end of the day, I’m going with the home team. Homefield doesn’t mean what it used to in 2020, but the Steelers have played their last four games at home. This is a step up in competition for both teams, but I think this is a game where the Steelers offense will have to be sharp and productive. I don’t think all that highly of a mediocre Tennessee defense that’s already allowed 30 points three times this season, but they have come up with 9 takeaways to match Pittsburgh’s total.
The game likely comes down to which QB handles the pass rush and protects the ball better. As much as I’d like to pick the Steelers in this one, I just think it’s the kind of game they historically lose, either by a bad turnover day on offense, or the defense blows the lead late.
Stat to consider: Since 1993, the Steelers are 1-36 in road games against playoff teams that scored more than 21 points (1-18 with Ben Roethlisberger at QB). The only win was in 2013, 38-31 over a Green Bay team that started Matt Flynn in place of an injured Aaron Rodgers. If you believe the Titans are of playoff caliber at 5-0 and it’s going to be a shootout, then I’d go with Tennessee. If you think the Steelers kick their ass on defense, then that’s their path to victory in this one.
Final: Titans 27, Steelers 24
2020 NFL Week 7 Predictions
Here are the rest of my picks for the week.
With the new COVID protocols this feels like a week where things could be really stacked against some teams if they have a unit almost entirely wiped out over virus concerns. The tight ends for Buffalo are going through that, but fortunately they aren’t the engine in that offense and they’re only playing the Jets. I really wanted to pull the trigger on the Jets again, but I’ve already been burned five times in six weeks there this season. Similar thoughts on the Panthers-Saints game with the Saints down Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. Are they really going to play Taysom Hill out wide for 30+ snaps? Carolina’s been hit or miss this year, but that felt like a spot where I’ll hedge and take the underdog to cover. I’ve also temporarily given up on Dallas this year until Andy Dalton starts to look like he can put up points with those receivers.
Lastly, I have no idea if the Bears are any good again, but I know what their winning seasons tend to look like. The Rams are very unpredictable from week to week and I’m a little surprised the spread is that big on MNF. I think the Bears could get a return TD in that game and force Jared Goff into mistakes to win that one.