Thursday Night Football: The Quants’ View (Week 6)

Expecting the Steelers to blow out the Titans on Thursday Night Football? Read what numberFire has to say about the game.

Chris Johnson has been bad. I don't mean, "Oh boy, the Titans sure could use a better running back, har har." I mean, "Why?!?! I'm looking upon the face of pure evil!" Other than the now infamous Outlier Game, where he was benched in roughly two-thirds of ESPN fantasy leagues, Johnson has put up seven total fantasy points (FP) on the season. In those four games, he averaged 1.4 yards per carry. And through five games, he has a grand total of zero touchdowns. If Johnson was playing the Pittsburgh Steelers circa 2008, I'm not sure he would make it out of LP Field alive.

But these aren't the Steelers circa 2008. In fact, they're far from it. The Steelers currently rank as numberFire's #26 opponent-adjusted defense so far this season, a ranking bolstered by giving up 30+ points to numberFire's #20 offense (Oakland) just two games ago. Even though the Titans are only numberFire's #21 opponent-adjusted offense, and quarterback Jake Locker is still likely to be out for the game, I wouldn't count out the Titans offense going off for some points on this aging defense.

If you want numberFire's full outlook on this game, including our picks against the spread, on the totals line, on the moneyline, and straight up, you will need to subscribe to numberFire's premium service. But since we're nice and like to give you a taste of the action, here's three key stats we're looking at for tonight's game.

The Real Titans' Offense

The Titans have played five games so far this season. Of those five games, they have scored 14 points or less and been blown out four times. The other time, they scored 44 points en route to capturing an overtime victory over the 1-3 Detroit Lions. Was that one game just an outlier, or was it indicative of their potential?

Judging by numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP) formula, the clear answer seems to be "outlier". Even including Chris Johnson's one solid game, he has been absolutely putrid in big situations so far this year. His total -28.28 NEP rushing is the worst of any single player in the NFL, about three points worse than the Law Firm in Cincinnati. That means, on average, the Titans have lost 5.66 expected points per game by giving Johnson the ball rather than converting a simply league-average play. Among backs with at least 30 carries, Johnson's -0.39 NEP per rush is second-worst in the league; only Arizona's Ryan Williams (-0.42 NEP per rush) can touch his level of putridity, and he's now out for the year. The Titans don't have anywhere to turn either; all other Tennessee backs combined have only eight rushing attempts on the season.

It's hard to believe, but the numbers for the passing attack as currently constituted are almost as bad. Matt Hasselbeck has been thrust into a bad situation with Jake Locker's injury, but he's not exactly passing the test with flying colors. Hasselbeck's -12.63 total NEP passing is the second-worst in the entire NFL; only Blaine Gabbert's terrible -28.30 NEP passing is worse. Perhaps this would be a good time to tell you, though, that Gabbert accomplished that number in 161 pass attempts as compared to Hasselbeck's 84, and Hasselbeck's -0.15 NEP per pass is very similar to Gabbert's -0.18 league-worst rate. Even with my personal mancrush Kendall Wright at receiver, he just does not look to have the total targets to get it done.

The Pittsburgh-Houston Connection

On our numberFire team pages, in that lower-right hand corner, we give the most accurate historical comparison from the past 12 years for each team according to the numbers. For this Steelers team, that comparison is the 2009 Houston Texans, which they match with 93.53% similarity. The similarities between the two are obvious. Both have a talented but not elite quarterback (Roethlisberger/Schaub). Both have very little running game to speak of (Mendenhall/Chris Brown as lead backs) but talented receivers (the Wallace/Brown duo and the Andre Johnson/Kevin Walter duo). Both had solid, but unspectacular defenses that struggled at times as well (the Steelers too old, the Texans too young) and gave up lots of points to bad teams on occasion (the Texans gave up over 20 points twice to a 7-9 division-rival Jaguars team).

So how would the Texans do against a team with a profile like the Tennessee Titans? numberFire has the Titans finishing with a projected 5.9-10.1 record based on their schedule the rest of the way. That year, the Texans played four teams that ended the season with six wins or worse: the Bills, Raiders, Rams, and Seahawks. And against those four teams, they dominated the competition, with a combined 4-0 record, including a 3-1 record against the spread. The only one of those games even moderately close was the Houston-St. Louis game in week 15 that season; Houston was favored by 14 points but only ended up winning 16-13. Every single other game against an eventual six-win-or-worse team, the Texans scored at least 29 points and won by at least 20.

Big Ben Time

Ever since Jerome Bettis retired, the Steelers' rushing attack has taken a few cues from their baseball-playing neighbors at PNC Park: they have become completely invisible. Increasingly over the past couple seasons, then, it has fallen on Ben Roethlisberger to shoulder an increasingly heavy load to keep this team afloat. Lucky for Steelers fans, he's been pretty effective at it so far this season.

Using the same NEP metric mentioned above, we have Roethlisberger as the #4 MVP candidate so far this season based on his efficiency, only behind Matt Ryan, Matt Schaub, and Tom Brady. Sitting at 56.87 NEP, he has singlehandedly added 14.22 NEP of value per game to the Steelers, a number that even tops Mr. Presumed MVP Ryan by a few decimal points (he got his 70.59 NEP over five games).

And as you can see in our fantasy projections from this week, we don't think that production from Roethlisberger is going anywhere. numberFire has Roethlisberger projected to get 266.98 yards, 2.04 TDs, and 0.60 INTs this weekend against the Titans' #30 opponent-adjusted defense. And those numbers could mean big things for Big Ben. Since the start of 2010, the Steelers are 10-3 when Roethlisberger throws for at least 2 touchdowns (although two of the three losses are this season against Oakland and Denver). And since that year, Pittsburgh is also 12-2 when he does not throw a pick (although, for the cautious, one of those two losses was Oakland this season).