By Kevin McGuire
The Thursday Night Football schedule can be hit or miss during the course of the season, but this week looks like a winner. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Tennessee Titans will face off in western Pennsylvania in a clash of AFC division leaders with two of the top quarterbacks in the league. In what could be a possible playoff preview, the Steelers will hope to start on a better foot on a short week after a sluggish showing against Indianapolis on Sunday.
Titans put winning streak on the line
After coming back in the fourth quarter to defeat the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, the Titans will look to keep their winning streak going this Thursday night. The Titans, winners of four straight, have been just 2-2 on the road this season. Tennessee has relied on a steady running game and some heroics by Marcus Mariota to get the job done this season, and they will need that to continue to be the case against a tough Pittsburgh defense.
Steelers have their own four-game winning streak
Something will have to give this week. Like the Titans, the Steelers are putting a four-game winning streak on the line as well. During that streak, the Steelers have held their opponents to 17 or fewer points in each contest. The defense has had to step things up a little because the Steelers offense has not quite been a well-oiled machine during that streak. The Steelers have averaged just 20.6 points per game, and they have won three of those games scoring 20 or fewer points.
Roethlisberger vs. Mariota
In Pittsburgh, Ben Roethlisberger has hinted at the idea he may be coming down the final stretch of his playing career, which makes sense given this is his 14th season in the NFL. But he remains on track for 4,000 passing yards and 20+ touchdowns this season despite his long tenure in the league. Big Ben got off to a slow start last week against the Colts, but he stayed confident and helped lead a second-half rally to get the win.
Mariota is not playing at full strength right now and he has been banged up a bit this season. But when he is healthy, he shows glimpses of being a great quarterback in the NFL for years to come. In his third season now, Mariota is playing with improved confidence and is becoming a player the Titans can rely on in the clutch. Mariota takes the Titans into Pittsburgh having led the team to a victory in a back-and-forth game against the Bengals.
Will Le’Veon Bell go off?
The Steelers running back has been effective, yet not explosive the past couple of weeks. But he’s not that far removed from rushing for 130+ yards in back-to-back games against the Bengals and Chiefs. Bell may be due for a big game on the ground, but this week it could be difficult to do so. The Titans have the NFL’s sixth-ranked rushing defense. The Titans have allowed just four rushing touchdowns this season.
Playing in Pittsburgh is difficult for any visiting team, and the Steelers will look to send a bit of a redemption message this week. After giving up some big plays with some sloppy defense against the Colts, look for the Steelers to buckle down and tighten things up a bit this week on Thursday night. The short week allows for a quick opportunity to forget about what went wrong on Sunday and start fresh. Knocking Mariota off his game will be challenging in itself, but playing at home with a little extra motivation to correct their issues will make the Steelers the favorite.