Tennessee Titans: Important Player Matchups for Thursday Night Football

NASHVILLE, TN - NOVEMBER 05: DeMarco Murray #29 of the Tennessee Titans is tackled by C.J. Mosley #57 of the Baltimore Ravens during the second half at Nissan Stadium on November 5, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - NOVEMBER 05: DeMarco Murray #29 of the Tennessee Titans is tackled by C.J. Mosley #57 of the Baltimore Ravens during the second half at Nissan Stadium on November 5, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images) /

Although some remain pessimistic about the Tennessee Titans’ chances against Pittsburgh, this game should be closer than many realize. Let’s examine three important matchups for tonight’s game.

Both the Tennessee Titans and the Pittsburgh Steelers are on four-game winning streaks. Both teams sport a similar record, with the Titans at 6-3 and the Steelers at 7-2. Despite this, the Titans have not played at the same level as Pittsburgh and will need to prove themselves in this game.

When you compare the last four wins for both teams, this becomes evident. The Titans’ last four wins have come against the 3-6 Colts, the winless Browns, the 4-5 Ravens, and the 3-6 Bengals. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh defeated Detroit and Kansas City, along with Indianapolis and Cincinnati. The Titans have benefitted from a steady diet of sub .500 teams, while the Steelers have defeated a pair of playoff contenders.

This trend has caused many experts to write off the Titans in tonight’s game. However, the Titans have struggled to win games they are favored in recently, which kept them out of the playoffs last season. On the other hand, Tennessee has fared extremely well against playoff contenders, like the Steelers, since 2016. Over the last two seasons, the Titans defeated playoff contenders like Denver, Kansas City, Green Bay, Jacksonville, and Seattle. The Titans consistently play to the level of their opponent, which hurts them against lesser opponents, but against playoff-caliber teams, the Titans always play at a higher level.

The Steelers have one of the best offenses in the league, with Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, and the emerging JuJu Smith-Schuster. However, many people don’t realize that the Steelers sport the No. 2 overall defense heading into Week 11. The Steelers have a quick, rangy defense, with players like Ryan Shazier and T.J. Watt displaying the ability to play from sideline to sideline and a young secondary headlined by Sean Davis and Artie Burns that is slowly coming into its own.

The Titans have looked stronger and stronger each of the past four weeks, with Marcus Mariota displaying great poise in two game-winning drives and the secondary improving exponentially from where it was two years ago. This matchup will be a lot closer than many expect, which makes some of these marquee matchups even more important since one or two big plays could alter the course of the game.

Let’s examine three matchups that could determine the outcome of this game.

Matchup 1: CB Adoree Jackson vs. WR JuJu Smith-Schuster

WR JuJu Smith-Schuster has been one of the league’s biggest surprises as the second round pick has taken the league by storm with his celebrations and exciting play. In recent weeks, opponents have managed to limit Antonio Brown’s production, but Ben Roethlisberger has leaned on Smith-Schuster in the passing game. On the other side of the field, rookie cornerback Adoree’ Jackson will likely be tasked with covering Smith-Schuster a good amount tonight.

Jackson has proven to be a valuable asset in all three phases of the game, as he is already one of the league’s most versatile players. This week, however, his pass coverage will be his most important contribution. Jackson’s coverage ability has grown leaps and bounds since Week 1 and he has developed into a steady presence at cornerback. Unless he is able to limit Smith-Schuster, the Titans will have no chance at winning a shootout against an explosive Steelers offense.

Matchup 2: LB Ryan Shazier vs. QB Marcus Mariota

The Titans’ four-headed rushing attack consisting of DeMarco Murray, Derrick Henry, Marcus Mariota and Adoree’ Jackson succeeded at a high level last week against the Cincinnati Bengals. Quarterback Marcus Mariota has finally overcome his hamstring issues from earlier in the season, which adds another element to the offense. The Titans used a few run-pass option plays last week to great success, which really exploits Mariota’s elite speed and mobility.

When the Titans have a multi-dimensional running game with several different facets, they find a ton of success and control the clock effectively, which is the best way to win against a good defense and explosive offense. Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier is a cornerstone of this Steelers defense and he is likely the fastest inside linebacker in the league, which means he is well-equipped to limit Mariota’s effectiveness on the run. Whether Shazier can contain Mariota, Murray and the Titans running game or not will determine the effectiveness of the Titans offense as a whole.

Matchup 3: LB Wesley Woodyard vs. RB Le’Veon Bell
Wesley Woodyard, in his 10th year in the league, is in the midst of a Pro Bowl season. Woodyard’s pass coverage and tackling ability is everything you want to see in a three-down linebacker. Woodyard needs to continue his high level of play against one of the league’s best running backs in Le’Veon Bell. Bell’s unique style of running can take over games, but his pass-catching ability makes him a dual-threat on offense, which should test Woodyard’s coverage as well as his tackling.

As with any team, making an offense one-dimensional makes them much easier to defeat. As seen last week against Cincinnati, a star player like A.J. Green only needs one small mistake to pull off a game-breaking play. Woodyard needs to prevent Bell from any kind of game-breaking play for Tennessee to stand a chance.

Next: Week 11 Injury Report