Thursday Night Preview: Who Comes Out on Top in This Battle of Red-Hot Teams?
The last three weeks, we haven't been treated to some great football on Thursday night. Starting in Week 8, we saw the Miami Dolphins lay an egg, followed up by the Buffalo Bills laying an egg, and then a pretty non-descript contest last week between the Seattle Seahawks, who lost Richard Sherman for the rest of the season, versus the Carson Palmer-less Arizona Cardinals.
But this week's contest could be a good one.
The Tennessee Titans, who sit a mere 21st in our current power rankings but are 6-3, hit the road for a key AFC tilt with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who our metrics ranks as football's fifth-best squad. Both teams -- Pittsburgh at 99.6% and the Titans at 72.4% -- have a great chance to make the playoffs, per our models.
Who can take one step closer to that playoff berth and challenge for the top seed in the AFC? Let's dig in and find out.
This matchup features two quarterbacks who have been pretty average so far in 2017, according to numberFire's advanced analytics. Among the 36 quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs this year, Ben Roethlisberger ranks 12th in Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back (0.15). In terms of Passing Success Rate -- the percentage of drop backs which result in positive NEP -- his 47.00% mark slides him back to 15th.
In spite of those languishing marks, Big Ben has thrown the deep ball well. Looking at the NFL's Next-Gen Stats, Roethlisberger ranks fifth in average intended air yards (IAY) at 10.4 yards per attempt. Stud wideout Antonio Brown has been the biggest beneficiary of that vertical passing game, as he sits among the league's best with a Average Targeted Air Yards mark of 14.0 yards.
On the other side of this matchup is Marcus Mariota, who has struggled this season. Among quarterbacks with 100 or more drop backs, Mariota clocks in 18th in Passing NEP per drop back (0.10), but he scoots up the ranks -- to 10th -- in Passing Success Rate (48.08%).
Running Back Play
In Pittsburgh, Le'Veon Bell is the man, and he dominates the workload out of the backfield. Bell leads the NFL in carries with 220, but that that heavy workload means that he hasn't been the most efficient back -- among 34 runners with at least 75 carries, Bell ranks 16th in Rushing NEP per play (-0.04). Bell touched the rock 31 times last week for 112 all-purpose yards, but his 3.1 yards per carry shows he hasn't been all that prolific with those touches.
The Titans employ a two-headed monster in their backfield. Derrick Henry has been the more efficient running back, besting DeMarco Murray both in terms of Rushing NEP per carry (-0.04 to -0.08) and Rushing Success Rate (42.55% to 33.94%). However, Murray appears to be the primary goal-line back (he scored on two short runs in Week 10), and he caught four passes out of the backfield to Henry's zero last week.
These defenses are in two very different spots -- the Steelers have been solid all season long, ranking 13th (per our schedule-adjusted numbers), while the Titans have struggled, ranking 21st.
The black and gold have been very good against both the run and the pass -- they check in 11th versus the ground attack and 14th defending the air. The Titans, meanwhile, have been roasted through the air, ranking 28th against the pass, while shutting down many ground games, ranking 2nd against the run. To show how good the Titans have been against the run, Jay Ajayi's 77 rushing yards on October 8th are the most for any individual rusher against Tennessee this year, and only two other runners besides Ajayi have eclipsed 50 rushing yards (Marshawn Lynch, Lamar Miller) against Tennessee.
In looking at Football Outsiders' adjusted sack rate -- which displays sacks (plus intentional grounding penalties) per pass attempt adjusted for down, distance, and opponent -- the Steelers have been great, while the Titans need to improve significantly with their pass rush. Pittsburgh has sacked opposing passers 25 times on their way to an an adjusted sack rate of 7.6%, which ranks 11th. Tennessee, who has notched only 14 sacks this season, comes in at 29th.
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