The Pittsburgh Steelers currently find themselves in a three-way tie for last place in the AFC North division after the Cleveland Browns fell to 6-4 and the Cincinnati Bengals advanced to 6-3-1. With the Baltimore Ravens idle and the Steelers set to play tonight, all teams in the division have lost or tied in four of their 10 games played.
If Pittsburgh does win against the Tennessee Titans tonight, they will not be in first place—a 7-4 record would give them a winning percentage of .636, while the Bengals are at .650—they would seize sole possession of second place heading into their bye week, and would technically be temporarily slotted into the sixth seed in terms of playoff positioning.
And of course the Steelers still have two games against the Bengals later this year. But in order for that to matter, they have to get through the Titans in their home first. They may be a two-win team, starting a rookie quarterback, but this is a team that has already lost to two teams that currently have only two wins, one being against them.
Despite struggling early and ultimately giving up 20 points, the defense played well last week, but the unit will have a variety of missing pieces against the Titans at all three levels. In the secondary, Ike Taylor remains out, leaving the cornerback unit with height deficiencies, while Will Allen will start again for Troy Polamalu. He must play with fewer mistakes this week.
In the middle, Ryan Shazier will miss his second game in a row and sixth overall, having played in only five games. In his place, Sean Spence will likely continue to take the bulk of the snaps in the base defense, with Vince Williams in the nickel to compensate for the run defense.
The new injury, or rather the recurring injury, is nose tackle Steve McLendon’s shoulder, who is being held out so that he can rest it with the bye week coming. It seems that rookie Daniel McCullers is likely to start, but the coaching staff has surprised before, and may choose to once again go with Cam Thomas at nose tackle.
The reason that they might not is because they want to limit Brett Keisel’s snaps to keep him fresh for later on in the year. If there’s enough trust in McCullers, he should see the majority of work at the nose, though Thomas will likely take some as well.
The Titans are starting a rookie quarterback, so expect Dick LeBeau to bring pressure early, often, and in a variety of ways to force him into mistakes. The Steelers failed to record a turnover for the first time in eight games, and they’re looking to get back on the plus side of the turnover differential.
One thing the Steelers must watch for is the Titans’ offensive line. While they haven’t been able to play to their potential for much of this season, the Pittsburgh had real problems against that unit in the season opener a year ago.