Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Steelers Game Day 5 Preview - @ Tennessee Titans

Who doesn't love Thursday Night Football? Well, if you are like my and try to put together a preview for the games it really isn't the greatest thing in the world. Does it give me a few extra days to throw together a recap? Sure, but condensing all of this information in two days isn't fun. Whatever.

Thursday night games usually aren't that good and as you read this you aren't going to be convinced that this is going to be a good game. The Titans aren't a good team and they are coming off a really ugly loss to the Vikings last week. THey lost their starting quarterback the week before and there just isn't much talent there.

The Steelers, however, are coming off a pretty nice win over the Eagles and despite some poor play for stretches they are 2-2 and only one game back of the Ravens for the top spot in the AFC North. The start to the season hasn't been great for the Black and Gold but the situation could be a lot worse.

There really isn't much else to say about this so lets just get into the preview:

The stats:

Last Week:

Pittsburgh 16, Philadelphia 14
Passing: Roethlisberger: 21-37, 207 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT
Rushing: Mendenhall: 14 car., 81 yards, 0 TD
Receiving: Brown: 7 rec., 86 yards, 0 TD

Minnesota 30, Tennessee 7
Passing: Hasselbeck: 26-43, 200 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT
Rushing: Johnson: 15 car., 24 yards, 0 TD
Receiving: Wright: 9 rec., 66 yards, 0 TD

Offense (rank in NFL)

Total Offense
Pittsburgh: 347.8 yards/game (18th)
Tennessee: 305.0 yards/game (26th)

Pittsburgh: 265.0 yards/game (11th)
Tennessee: 239.6 yards/game (16th)

Pittsburgh: 82.8 yards/game (26th)
Tennessee: 65.4 yards/game (30th)

Pittsburgh: 23.3 points/game (16th)
Tennessee: 17.6 points/game (29th)


Total Defense
Pittsburgh: 280.0 yards/game (5th)
Tennessee: 423.8 yards/game (29th)

Pittsburgh: 184.8 yards/game (4th)
Tennessee: 279.6 yards/game (25th)

Pittsburgh: 95.3 yards/game (11th)
Tennessee: 144.2 yards/game (28th)

Pittsburgh: 22.3 points/game (16th)
Tennessee: 36.2 points/game (32nd)

All-Time Record vs. Tennessee: 41-29 (3-1 Playoffs)

Last Five Meetings
October 9, 2011 - Pittsburgh 28, Tennessee 17
September 19, 2010 - Pittsburgh 19, Tennessee 11
September 10, 2009 - Pittsburgh 13, Tennessee 10
December 21, 2008 - Tennessee 31, Pittsburgh 14
September 11, 2005 - Pittsburgh 34, Tennessee 7

Hit the jump for the rest of the preview


When Titans second year quarterback Jake Locker went down with a shoulder injury a few weeks ago that put a pretty big chink in his development as a quarterback. Locker didn't get a bunch of playing time in the first year and when he did he struggled. This season while the Titans were playing some pretty bad football Locker really wasn't all that bad. He was completing over 63% of his passes and threw four touchdowns and limited his turnovers to only a pair of picks and a fumble.

All told when most teams would be just killed going to their backup quarterback the Titans actually have what could be one of the better backups in the league in Matt Hasselbeck. Through his 14 year career Hasselbeck has been through all the highs and lows of being in big time games and leading teams. He's thrown for over 33,000 yards and has completed over 60% of his passes for 197 touchdowns.

While Hasselbeck has had a good career he really hasn't been too sharp through his short playing time with the Titans this season. The game against the Steelers will be his fourth appearance and his second straight start. He was decent in a blowout loss to the Texans where he relieved Locker as he went 17-of-25 for 193 yards and a pair of touchdowns (to go along with a pair of picks) but the Texans really ran away with the ballgame and it is tough to go off game stats when the quarterback comes into the game in the second quarter when they are already trailing 14-0. Last week he attempted 43 passes and only threw for 200 yards for a pretty poor 4.65 yards per attempt (YPA). He threw a touchdown an an interception but didn't complete a pass for more than 18 yards.

While Hasselbeck has been good in his career he isn't favored so well in the advanced metrics that the boys over at Football Outsiders use. Hasselbeck has a defensive-adjusted yards above replacement (DYAR) number of -54 which gives the value of the players performance compared to replacement level, adjusted for situation and opponent and then translated into yardage. That ranks him 26th among qualified quarterbacks which isn't good considering that only 33 quarterbacks qualify. He ranks just above Mike Vick and Mark Sanchez but behind Ryan Tannehill. He also has a defensive-adjusted value over average (DVOA) of -20.8% which represents value, per play, over an average quarterback in the same game situations. The more positive the DVOA rating, the better the player's performance. Negative DVOA represents below-average offense. The simple version of the two is that DYAR represents a player with more total value and DVOA represents a player with more value per play. Last year Hasselbeck was pretty good for the Titans as he ranked in the middle of the pack (around 15th-17th) in terms of quarterback play but this season he hasn't been able to get back to that point now. Granted he was really thrown in to the fire and probably needs a game or so to get his legs under him. Make no mistake though, he only threw 18 touchdown passes last season and nearly matched that with 14 picks. This isn't a passing team and if they try to get into a pass happy offense I really think this could benefit the Steelers.

Running Back

In 2009 the toast of the running back town was Titans running back Chris Johnson. He broke on to the scene in his rookie season with 1,228 yards and then became CJ2K with 2,006 rushing yards on only 358 carries in 2009 and lead the league. He was just an absolute monster that couldn't be stopped and during that season he has 12 100 yard performances and went over 130 yards eight times. The Steelers did hold him to only 57 yards on 15 carries in week one if you were interested.

Johnson followed the 2,000 yard season with 1,364 yards in 2010 and there was no reason to think that he was going to slow down. He has a ton of speed and while he isn't the type of back that likes to get hit (in my opinion) he just has that one thing that you can't teach (speed). Last year, however, things got back. CJ held out because he wanted to get paid and whether it was that or the league getting caught up with him he struggled in a big way. He dean for only 1,047 yards and averaged only 4.0 yards per carry which was the lowest mark of his career. He broke the 100 yard barrier only four times and was held under 50 yards on six different occasions.

This year is much of the same for Johnson as he currently only has 210 yards on 73 carries through five games. He hasn't scored a touchdown yet and has a long carry of only 19 yards. Johnson, and the offensive run game as a whole, has been just dreadful for the most part. Aside from a 25 carry, 141 yard, effort against the Texans in week four Johnson has only accumulated 69 yards in four other games with rushing totals of four, 17, 24 and 24. Johnson has really just been a shell of his former self and it might be deemed a slump if he wasn't near this bad last season.

Among qualified running backs (30 of them) Johnson ranks 27th with a -52 DYAR and 26th with a -25.6% DVOA. Woof. It was only two years ago that Johnson led the league in DYAR and was the sixth most productive back in terms of DVOA but oh how the nightly have fallen. Last season he ranked 49th in both categories so here is to hoping the Steelers can continue that poor play from Johnson and the Titans running game.

Moreover Johnson's success rate is poor along with his other advanced metrics standing at only 40%. Success rate is the number represents the player's consistency, measured by successful running plays (the definition of success being different based on down and distance) divided by total running plays. This number get correlated with the DVOA to see if the player is a consistent runner or just a home run hitter. With Johnson ranking 28th in success rate you can just say that he has been bad overall in everything.

Johnson is a big part of the offense but clearly he is not the only part. As a whole the Titans are just awful at running the football. They average just over 65 yards a game on the ground and they rank dead last as a team with a rushing DVOA of -40.4% which is amazingly poor.

I wish I could write more about guys that can spell Johnson who someone else they might see as a change up but literally there is nobody else. Jake Locker has eight rushes this year but he won't play and Hasselbeck and Darius Reynaud each have four carries and have combined for 23 yards total. Yikes.


The Titans don't have that go to receiver that most teams do but they have a couple of guys that can make you pay in the passing game if Hasselbeck can get time and has a decent feel then the Titans can push the ball down the field.

The leading receiver for the Titans is a familiar name for Steelers fans because that man is good old Nate Washingtong. It seems like forever ago that he was a part of the Steelers organization but it was only back in 2008 that Washington was playing for the Steelers before signing a free agent contract with the Titans. Since going to the Titans Washington has been solid but never really put up the big numbers. Last season was by far his best year with 74 catches for 1,023 yards seven touchdowns and is off to the team-leading start this season. So far he has 14 catches for 274 yards and a pair of touchdowns averaging 19.6 yards per catch. He has really only had one great game this season with a three catch 112 yard performance against the Lions in week three but 71 of those yards came on one catch. He had four catches last week (for only 46 yards) and hasn't had more than three catches in any other game.

Washington might not have the raw stats but the advanced metrics are pretty kind to him as he ranks 18th with a 18.4% DVOA. His DYAR is much lower at 52 which ranks him 31st among receivers but he has the ability to make a big play and make you pay. I would expect that Ike Taylor will be glued to Washington all over the field as he does with the top receiver on every team. While Washington has that big play ability and he has done it in the past his catch rate is pretty low at 52% which gives you a number of passes to the receivers that are completed. Not good when you only get half of your passes completed to a receiver. His catch rate has never been that high although he was at 61% last year in what was, by far, his most productive year.

Two of the next three pass catchers are tight ends and the Titans have a pair of them that are preforming pretty well in Jared Cook and Craig Stevens. Cook is second on the team with 19 receptions and 237 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Stevens has 11 catches on 15 targets for 152 yards and a score. While they don't stack up gaudy numbers like some of the more prolific tight ends they can still be productive together. Stevens enters the game 13th in DVOA (17.2%) and an outstanding catch rate of 73%. Cook is a little lower in DVOA at 9.8% (18th) but is catching a lot of passes in his direction (68%) and has caught three passes of 20 yards or more. It will be interesting to see how the Steelers deal with this. Last week Lawrence Timmons put a lot of pressure on the quarterback with blitzes but with a pair of tight ends in the mix that can make plays (to some degree) it will be interesting to see if he is in more of a coverage role this week. That wouldn't be ideal, but it is something to look for.

Kendall Wright is the other receiver of note and it is really hard to see what he brings to the table. He leads the team with 27 receptions but for only 214 yards. His 7.9 yard per catch average is really low for a guy with so many targets and he only has a long reception of 20 yards this season. He has three games this season with five or more catches including a nine catch performance last week but was only able to gain 66 yards with a long of ten. Just an interesting player for the Titans as he ranks next to last among receivers (92nd) in DYAR (-72) and 86th in DVOA (-32.4%) so if I were the Steelers I wouldn't worry about all that much. Seems like he has the stats for a running back coming out of the backfield, but he's a receiver.

Offensive Line

From left to right on the Titans offensive line you go Michael Roos, Steve Hutchinson, Fernando Velasco, Leroy Harris and David Stewart. The line is a pretty experienced one as Velasco is the only one with less than six years of experience and even though he is young he has three years under his belt.

As you might expect from my talk above with Chris Johnson the Titans are just terrible at running the football. Their backs are only gaining 3.05 yards per carry but when you look at the team's adjusted line yards (ALY) they are actually worse than what the runnings backs are getting and that is not good. Tennessee's offensive line's adjusted line yards (ALY) is only 2.71 which is second worst in the entire league.

ALY takes all running back carries and assigns responsibility to the offensive line based on the following percentages:

Losses: 120% value
0-4 Yards: 100% value
5-10 Yards: 50% value
11+ Yards: 0% value

These numbers are then adjusted based on down, distance, situation, opponent, and the difference in rushing average between shotgun compared to standard formations. Finally, we normalize the numbers so that the league average for Adjusted Line Yards per carry is the same as the league average for RB yards per carry.

I usually go into a bit of detail with the offensive line as Football Outsiders have a bunch of good information about the offensive line and the tendencies but to be honest there isn't much to see with the Titans. They only rank 26th in power success which is the Percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown. Also includes runs on first-and-goal or second-and-goal from the two-yard line or closer. The Titans check in at 50%. They are also pretty dreadful in their stuffed rank which is Percentage of runs where the running back is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage. Since being stuffed is bad, teams are ranked from stuffed least often (#1) to most often (#32). The Titans rank 30th with a stuffed percentage of 27%.

When Tennessee runs the football they do it primarily up the gut or off the guards. The league average for running plays in that area is 51% but the Titans are running "up the middle" 70% of the time. They rank 26th in the league with a 3.38 ALY in that area which is bad but it is the highest ALY of any of the areas that they run to. To be honest when you look at the numbers you really start to wonder how the Titans gain any yards on the ground. They run 9% of their carries off the left tackle and 7% of the time each off the left end and right tackle and have ALY of 1.43 (29th), 0.97 (31st) and 1.87 (32nd), respectively. Yikes.

One thing you can point to and say that the Titans succeed at is pass blocking. So far this season the Titans have given up eight sacks and have an adjusted sack rate of 4.3% which ranks fourth in the entire league. Adjusted sack rate is pretty easy to explain as it gives sacks (plus intentional grounding penalties) per pass attempt adjusted for down, distance, and opponent.


The Titans offense just hasn't got the job done but in the same breath the defense has been nearly just as bad. They rank 29th with a 20.7% DVOA and are only above Oakland, New Orleans and Buffalo in that respect. They did improve from last week when they were 31st in the league but it is still pretty bad times in Tennessee.

The Titans are better against the run than they are against the past as they rank 21st in the league against the run with a -0.2% DVOA while they rank dead last in the NFL against the pass with a 42.5% DVOA. Yea, it's that bad. There is no getting around just how bad the team has been this year defensively as they are the only team in the NFL that has given up at least 30 points in each games they have played so far.

The defense has some notable names on it even though they aren't the best of names, but still names you should have heard of. Akeem Ayers you might not heard of but he leads the team in total tackles with 50 and he has a sack to tack on to that along with three passes defended from his outside linebacker position. Jordan Babineaux and Alterraun Verner are part of a secondary unit that has created some turnovers with both of those guys having three interceptions each while Jason McCourty and Ryan Mouton each have a pair of picks. Mike Martin has a team-best two sacks while safety Michael Griffin is second on the team with 35 total tackles.

None of those guys really strikes any fear in my eyes. At all.

As I said the Titans are a little below average against the run, which is actually good compared to the other parts of their team, giving up a 4.14 ALY against the run total. They rank 15th limiting team to only a 15% stuffed percentage and rank 20th with a 65% power success rate. It could be a lot worse in terms of the run defense.

Teams are having success running up the middle and off the tackles against the Titans. When teams run up the middle or off the guards they are getting a 4.52 ALY which is well above the 4.11 league average. When teams are running to the offensive left side tackle teams are getting a 4.26 ALY and when they go off the offensive right side tackle they are getting a gaudy 4.87 ALY which ranks 28th in the league. It seems if you want to run against the Titans they can be had any maybe some of the reason for the success is the shoddy pass defense that the Titans throw out there.

When I talk about the pass defense we can't really pin that all on the defensive backs as you probably know. The Titans just don't get after the quarterback as is evident by them only having seven sacks overall in five games. Their adjusted sack rate of 4.6% which is 28th in the NFL. If the Steelers can keep them at bay like all other teams have I don't think there is much to worry about in terms of getting Ben hit.

Game Thoughts:

- If one of the game thoughts isn't about injuries then you know something is wrong. Last game we know that LaMarr Woodley and Troy Polamalu left the game with a hammy and calf injury, respectively, and both were ruled out of the game early on Wednesday morning. You pretty much knew they weren't going to play with the short week and from what I heard Troy is in a full walking boot that comes up to his knee. Not good. That being said it seems as if James Harrison and Rashard Mendenhall are back healthy so that is the good thing. Who knows what might come after this short week but at least the Steelers will have some extended rest after they hopefully get out of Tennessee with a win.

-What needs to stop is the penalties. I know that coming off a bye week you are going to have some rust and you will have some more penalties than usual but the Steelers were way too out of control against Philadelphia and it nearly cost them a win. This isn't just a one game thing, the Steelers are dead last in the league averaging 9.2 penalties per game for a league worst 86.5 yards per game. Unacceptable. The Steelers need to clean it up and fast. The Titans are not a good team but what can make them better is giving them free first downs and free yardage to put them in better positions to score points.

- The Steelers need to take advantage of a bad Tennessee secondary. They have given up a bunch of yards this year and if there is something the Steelers have it is talented wide receivers and a tight end that is starting to get a lot of passes thrown his way. By no means am I saying that the Steelers should just ignore the run but you have to exploit the weaknesses of the other team first and foremost. The Titans are not a good pass rush team and they secondary is giving up yards in bunches. They are giving up nearly 300 yards a game to receivers and already have given up 18 plays of 20 yards or more and 12 touchdowns. Attack it.

- The Steelers need to jump out on the Titans and end the game early. The Steelers didn't do this against a bad Raiders team and the Raiders hung around and eventually beat the Steelers. I think the Raiders are a more talented team than the Titans but the fact still remains that in this league any team can beat any other team on a given week. The Steelers haven't been good on the road winning only one of their last five contests away from Heinz Field so it is super important to leave no doubt in this ballgame.

PREDICTION - The Titans are bad. Like, real bad. If you heard any of their sound bites from the team they are not feeling good about themselves and have all but resigned themselves that they are not going to be very good this year. The Steelers aren't one of the best teams in the AFC but they can be and if they want to have a chance to win the division they have to come out and convincingly win this game. It was really tough when putting this all together to find a ton of good things about the Titans but they are and NFL team and they can win this football game. I just don't think they will. Steelers 27, Titans 13.

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