Tennessee Titans (9-4, 8-5 ATS) at Pittsburgh Steelers (6-6-1, 5-8), 1 p.m.
Brolley’s Titans Stats and Trends
The Titans snapped a three-game ATS skid with their shutout victory over the Jaguars last week.
The Titans shut out the hapless Jaguars but the result is a bit hollow with the Titans battling to a stalemate in yards per play (3.8 to 3.8) with Jacksonville’s pitiful offense.
D’Onta Foreman has the slight leg up in this backfield after posting 13/47/1 rushing and 2/15 receiving on a 32% snap share against the Jaguars. Most of his work came when the game was still competitive in the first half, as he saw just two carries in the third quarter before they rested him in the blowout victory. Jeremy McNichols led the backfield with a 38% snap share but most of his work came late and he finished with just 8/16 rushing. Dontrell Hilliard posted just 6/13 rushing on a 34% snap share. Dalvin Cook became the first player to run for 200+ yards this season against Pittsburgh’s Swiss cheese run defense last week.
Ryan Tannehill failed to hit 19+ FP for a fifth consecutive game and he’s now failed to throw for multiple TDs in 11 of his 13 games. The Titans are still undermanned at receiver with A.J. Brown (chest, IR) still out of the lineup, and Tannehill is averaging a seven-year low 7.1 YPA this season. Pittsburgh is giving up the 11th-fewest FPG (18.2) to QBs this season.
Julio Jones returned to the lineup last week, but they eased him into action with just a 45% snap share in a non-competitive matchup with the Jaguars. He finished with 4/33 receiving on six targets so he still hasn’t reached double-digit FP since Week 2, which was his only performance with more than 9+ FP. His workload should increase some this week in a game line under a field goal, but they’re unlikely to fully unleash him with all the hamstring issues he’s had this year and throughout his career. Both Justin Jefferson (7/79/1 receiving) and K.J. Osborn (3/83/1) got home in this matchup last week.
Brolley’s Steelers Stats and Trends
Pittsburgh is 2-6 ATS in its last eight home games.
The Steelers are 5-2 toward unders in their last seven home games.
The Vikings outgained the Steelers by a whopping 5.6 yards per play (8.1 to 2.5) and they sacked Big Ben four times in the first half last week.
Najee Harris got off to a shaky start like the rest of Pittsburgh’s offense last week, but he turned it on late to finish with 20/94/1 rushing and 3/10/1 receiving against the Vikings. He’s back to seeing 20+ touches per game after a two-game lull in Weeks 11-12 as he now has 20+ touches in nine of his last 11 games. The Titans are giving up the second-fewest FPG (19.3) and only 3.9 YPC to RBs.
Ben Roethlisberger hadn’t hit 18+ FP in each of his first eight games, but he’s done it three times in his last four games after posting a season-high 25.8 FP in Week 14. He completed 28/40 passes for 308 yards (7.7 YPA), three TDs, and one INT, and he nearly had a fourth TD pass at the end of Pittsburgh’s frenetic comeback attempt against the Vikings. Tennessee’s defense picked off Trevor Lawrence four times last week, but the Titans owned a combined turnover differential of -9 in two humbling losses to the Texans and Patriots before their Week 13 bye.
Diontae Johnson reached double-digit targets for the 10th time in 12 games last week, and he posted 5+ catches for the 11th time this season. Diontae just missed out on a massive game against the Vikings with a dropped TD pass in tight coverage, and Big Ben threw just wide of him on an end-line pass for another potential TD. The Titans are giving up a league-high 15.4 catches per game to WRs.
Chase Claypool has been crushed this week for his selfish performance against the Vikings, but he had his best showing since Week 5 with 8/93 receiving on nine targets. He did play a nine-week low 59% of the snaps after getting benched for a personal foul penalty and for blowing some blocking assignments, and it wouldn’t be surprising if James Washington stays a little more involved with Claypool in the doghouse. The Titans are giving up a league-high 197.6 receiving yards per game to WRs.
Pat Freiermuth found the end zone for the sixth time in his last seven games, which has helped him to double-digit FP in six of his last eight games. He’s topped 45+ receiving yards just once this season and he’s seen four or fewer targets in three straight games. Muth had seen 6+ targets in five straight games before his current three-game run with 11 combined targets. The Titans have given up three TDs to tight ends this season, and Jack Doyle was the last one to score against them in Week 8.
Barfield’s Pace and Tendencies
Pace (seconds in between plays): 29.4 (25th)
Plays per game: 65.1 (13th)
Pass: 54.6% (28th) | Run: 45.4% (5th)
Pace: 25.3 (2nd)
Plays per game: 66.6 (5th)
Pass: 63.5% (11th) | Run: 36.5% (22nd)
All pace / play data is from the last eight weeks.
The Steelers have come out of their bye and lost three of their last 4, but at least their offense has seemed to look better, right? They put 37 on the Chargers and 28 on the Vikings, which seems good! However, a deeper look into the numbers shows that this is still the same exact, mediocre offense we’ve come to know. Over their last four games, the Steelers have scored on 37% of their possessions – which is the same exact scoring rate they had in Weeks 1-9 before the bye. Their strong showings in the box score against both the Vikings and Chargers were the result of being down by three or more scores in each game and having to throw a ton late to stay competitive. Pittsburgh’s failing defense has given up 41 (vs. Chargers), 41 (vs. Bengals), 19 (vs. Ravens) and 36 (vs. Vikings) since the bye and that’s why Ben Roethlisberger has had to throw it 40+ times in three of their last four outings.
Meanwhile, the Titans are doing the best they can to sustain drives without Derrick Henry… but it’s not really working. They’ve played ball-control offense – which works when they force four INTs like last week against the Jaguars – but it isn’t sustainable over the long run. Outside of Week 11 in sloppy conditions against the Texans, Ryan Tannehill has only dropped back to pass 30, 29, 23, and 31 times in his other four games with Henry sidelined. The “RBs Don’t Matter” group can spew whatever nonsense they want and try to twist any angle they can, but the fact of the matter is that the Titans are averaging -0.11 EPA per play without Henry. The Detroit Lions are also averaging -0.11 EPA per play on offense this season, which ranks 31st.
The Steelers defensive collapse is the only thing keeping the lights on for the Titans to put up a big score and for this game to be a shootout.
Huber’s Key Matchup Notes
Travel back to Ben Roethlisberger’s prime years, you’ll find a version of Roethlisberger that stood as the very best QB in the NFL against the blitz, and when under pressure. With a 56.6 passer rating under pressure this season, only seven other QBs have manufactured a lower number – three of those are rookies.
Removing the last two weeks and Week 11 when Big Ben covered value, when defenses sent a blitz, he responded with a 71.7 passer rating, 5.6 YPA, and one TD vs. one INT. In those three games we removed, he’s excelled with a 126.0 passer rating (43% improvement), 9.0 YPA (38%), and three TDs vs. zero INTs. An entirely different player.
Ryan Tannehill and Julio Jones were two of my most significant misses of Week 14. I’m unable to quite put my finger on it, but Julio just doesn’t appear to be right at the moment. He’s had his moments, of course, but, off the top of my head, Jones has submitted the best examples of the Julio of old when A.J. Brown was on the field. Lucky enough for Tennessee, Tannehill, and those of us who subscribe to the AJB-is-a-top-five-WR newsletter, Brown will be eligible to return from IR in Week 16. Even with Joe Haden on a path toward another absence, I have little faith in Jones.
Dolan’s Vantage Points
“If we exclude a few games from 2020, when Johnson suffered an injury in the first half, and that one game he was inexplicably benched for drops, then…)
Johnson has now seen double-digit targets in an astounding 20 of his last 22 games with Ben Roethlisberger under center. Over this span, he averages 11.9 targets and 19.5 FPG. Over the past two seasons, those numbers would rank best and 3rd-best among all WRs.
This year, Johnson ranks 1st in targets per game (12.5), 5th in air yards per game (115.4), 2nd in end zone targets per game (1.1), 6th in deep targets per game (2.2), 1st in XFP/G (22.0), and 6th in FPG (18.4). He has not only seen a notable improvement in target volume, but his role has dramatically changed, leading to a massive improvement in target quality. In comparison to last season, he’s seen a significant increase in air yards per game (up +50%), end zone targets per game (+81%), and deep targets per game (+71%).”
Here’s Jake Tribbey from DFS Early Look with a look at Diontae’s matchup, which is pristine:
“Johnson has been remarkably consistent this season, and it’s thanks to high-end WR1 levels of volume. He’s averaging 10.8 targets per game, 22.1 XFP per game, and 18.4 FPG – marks that rank 2nd-, 1st-, and 4th-best among slate-eligible WRs. Johnson has 10 games with 10 or more targets this season, behind only Cooper Kupp (11). And Johnson and Davante Adams are the only WRs to have scored double-digit fantasy points in all their games this season. So, yea, borderline-unrivaled consistency.
For Week 15, Johnson draws one of the best matchups of the slate. The Titans are giving up +7.4 schedule-adjusted FPG to opposing WRs (2nd-worst). And they rank 7th-worst in FPG allowed on deep passes (11.1) and 5th-worst in YPG allowed on deep throws (66.8) – an important note given Johnson averages 2.3 deep targets per game (3rd-most among all WRs) and 23% of his total fantasy production has come on deep throws.”
Scott also threw in an interesting nugget for those in deeper formats on slot WR Ray-Ray McCloud:
“Tennessee’s secondary is bad everywhere, but they’re especially bad against slot WRs, where they’re giving up a league-high 20.4 FPG. That makes Ray-Ray McCloud at least a little interesting (89% slot rate), coming off of a season-high 85% snap share in which he caught 6 of 8 targets for 32 yards. That season-high in snap share came at Chase Claypool’s expense, who was briefly benched after a personal foul penalty… In McCloud’s only other game with a snap share of at least 70% (Week 10), he caught 9 of 12 targets for 63 yards. Uncoincidentally, Claypool missed this game with a toe injury… And, I think, all of this is especially important this week, as Claypool might be benched again in Week 15. Clearly he didn’t learn his lesson last week, as, after returning to the game, a foolish celebration cost the Steelers valuable seconds (and possibly the win) to close out the game. It’s no doubt a thin — and somewhat conspiratorial play — on paper, but there are worse punts than McCloud.”
“Since Week 6, Pat Freiermuth ranks 2nd in end zone targets per game (0.88), 11th in targets per game (6.0), 9th in XFP/G (10.9), and 5th in FPG (12.3).
He has 6 touchdowns over his last 7 games, and has also hit double-digit fantasy points in 6 of his last 8 games. Keep in mind, TE Eric Ebron played in 3 of these 8 games. In the 5 games Ebron has missed, Freiermuth has averaged 13.7 FPG (would rank 5th-most), and his route share jumped from 57% to 73%.
He gets a bottom-10 on paper matchup, but matchups are fairly overrated for TEs unless at the extreme polar ends, so we still like him this week as a mid-range TE1.”
By the way, don’t suggest to Steeler RB Najee Harris that he’s slowing down because of his workload, though he does look a little sluggish on tape. Still, his workload is elite, and the Titans are a great matchup.
Najee doesn't buy RBs can only take a certain # of hits:— Brooke Pryor (@bepryor) December 17, 2021
"I don’t believe in that at all. I train to carry the load. How do you train? I work out. A lot. Stuff like this, it doesn’t really affect me. Will it affect me down the road? Idk. But right now, I’m perfectly fine."
Scott really likes this matchup for the Titans’ RBs, especially D’Onta Foreman, who looks like their lead dawg now. From XFP:
“It’s a committee backfield in Tennessee, but D’Onta Foreman seems to have the early-down role locked in. Through the first three quarters of last week’s 20-0 blowout victory, Foreman handled 13 of 20 carries and 0 of 3 targets out of the backfield (44% snap share). (Dontrell Hilliard and Jeremy McNichols evenly split the remainder of the work.)…
He’s just the 25th highest priced RB of the slate on DraftKings ($5,200). That might make him seem like a slight value in a neutral matchup, but this is no neutral matchup… The Steelers gave up a 27-205-2 line to Dalvin Cook last week (7.6 YPC), gifting him some of the biggest holes I've ever seen a RB run through. And two weeks before that Joe Mixon managed a 28-165-2 line. They rank worst in YPC allowed over the full season (4.93), and 3rd-worst in rushing YPG allowed (115.2). Over the last 5 weeks they rank worst in YPC allowed (5.47), worst in rushing YPG allowed (152.2), and 2nd-worst in schedule-adjusted FPG allowed to opposing RBs (+8.3).”
It just seems like the Titans are trying to get another win to effectively seal their division title over the Colts, while also keeping guys healthy and hopefully getting AJ Brown and Derrick Henry back for the playoffs. That was clearly their approach last week with Julio Jones — get him through the game.
The Titans clearly didn’t want to push Julio in his return from IR (hamstring), so he played just 45% of the offensive snaps in Week 14’s win over the Jags, and he didn’t play in hurry-up packages. Still, he ran a route on 23 of Tannehill’s 38 dropbacks, which was second on the team behind just Nick Westbrook-Ikhine (33), and he was targeted 6 times on his 23 routes, catching 4 passes for 33 yards. With four games to play, the Titans have what is effectively a three-game lead on the Colts for the AFC South title.
But it was good to see Julio make it through this game unscathed — he’s a volatile WR3 for the fantasy playoffs, but has another week as the Titans’ #1 since Brown isn’t eligible to come off IR until Week 16. The Steelers could get CB Joe Haden back this week from a foot injury, which would hurt Julio’s upside.