PITTSBURGH — Two AFC playoff contenders will put their four-game winning streaks on the line when the Tennessee Titans visit the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday night at Heinz Field.
Pittsburgh (7-2) has built a three-game lead over the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North as it aims for a fourth consecutive playoff appearance. The Steelers are 2-1 at home this season.
Meanwhile, Tennessee (6-3) is even with the Jacksonville Jaguars atop the AFC South. A victory away from home would significantly boost the Titans’ chances of snapping an eight-season playoff drought. Tennessee is 2-2 on the road this season as it prepares for a game on three days’ rest.
“It’s a short week for both teams,” Titans coach Mike Mularkey told reporters this week. “Both teams will be well prepared in the short time. We’ve done this before.”
A spate of injuries, combined with a condensed practice schedule, will add to Tennessee’s challenge. Quarterback Marcus Mariota (1,783 passing yards, seven touchdowns, six interceptions) is battling ankle and shoulder injuries but expects to play through the pain. The third-year signal-caller never has faced the Steelers.
If Mariota is limited, the Titans could lean on a two-pronged rushing attack featuring DeMarco Murray (433 yards, four TDs) and Derrick Henry (409 yards, three TDs). Wideout Rishard Matthews (36 receptions, 513 yards, two TDs) offers the most reliable option downfield in the passing game.
For Pittsburgh, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (2,298 yards, 12 TDs, 10 INTs) could climb even higher up the all-time record books with a strong performance. The 35-year-old ranks No. 9 in NFL history with 49,112 passing yards, and he needs 214 yards to pass Warren Moon (49,325 yards) for No. 8 on the list.
Roethlisberger has no shortage of playmakers on the field. Running back Le’Veon Bell has 1,091 yards from scrimmage (840 rushing, 251 receiving) to lead the NFL entering Week 11. Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown (60 receptions, 882 yards, three TDs) and rookie sensation JuJu Smith-Schuster (29 receptions, 521 yards, five TDs) have the ability to find the end zone on any given play. Smith-Schuster has caught a touchdown pass in each of his last three games and will try to stretch it to four on Thursday.
Bell has exceeded 1,000 yards from scrimmage four times in his career, including each of the past two seasons. He has notched at least 100 yards from scrimmage in 36 career games for Pittsburgh.
On defense, veteran linebackers Derrick Morgan (five sacks) and Brian Orakpo (three forced fumbles) set the tone for the Titans. Free safety Kevin Byard leads the NFL with six interceptions.
Pittsburgh is led by defensive end Cameron Heyward and linebacker Vince Williams, who have five sacks apiece. Linebacker Ryan Shazier has shined with three interceptions and two forced fumbles.
The Steelers rank No. 10 in total offense and No. 18 in scoring with an average of 20.8 points per game. They meet a Titans group that ranks 17th in total defense and No. 23 with 23.7 points allowed per game.
On the opposite side of the ball, Tennessee’s offense is No. 19 with 328.7 yards a game. They will face a Steelers unit that boasts the No. 2 total defense and scoring defense (16.4 points allowed per game).
“Their pass defense is their rush — you have to block these guys,” Mularkey told reporters this week. “They have a complicated scheme like we do. We have our hands full.”
The Steelers will be without veteran cornerback Joe Haden, who broke his fibula last week in a win over Indianapolis. Cornerback Coty Sensabaugh will make his first start of the season in place of Haden.
“We’ll do a great job of rallying around Coty Sensabaugh and helping him prepare, and we look forward to him doing the job,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin told the team’s official website. “I know (Haden’s) injury will get a lot of attention and rightfully so, because Joe is a significant component for us and a new guy, plus he’s been playing well, but injuries are very much a part of the game.
“We’ve dealt with them all year, and we’ll deal with this one the same.”
This marks the first meeting between the teams since Nov. 17, 2014. The Steelers won that game 27-24.