The Steelers defense is currently ranked 4th in the NFL according to DVOA behind just the Rams, Jaguars, and Ravens. They’re also remarkably balanced when it comes to this metric, ranking 5th against the pass and 4th against the run — the only defense in the top 5 in both categories. Not only are their advanced metrics good, but they also rank 2nd in both points allowed per game at 16.4 and yards allowed per game at 284.4. This is the best Steelers defense since Dick LeBeau’s heyday.
There is nothing fluky about it either. They have drafted and developed talent aggressively on defense. Five of their last seven 1st round picks will be starting on defense Thursday night (DE Cameron Heyward - 2011, ILB Ryan Shazier - 2014, OLB Bud Dupree - 2015, CB Artie Burns - 2016, and OLB T.J. Watt - 2017), and they are joined by 2016 3rd rounder Javon Hargrave and 2014 2nd rounder Stephon Tuitt on the defensive line.
As you can see, a lot of that talent has gone towards building one of the best front sevens in football. On the other hand, the secondary has been far less steady for Pittsburgh despite Joe Haden coming in and playing at a very high level this year. Haden broke his leg last week in Indianapolis and obviously won’t play this week. While we all wish him a speedy recovery, the Titans need to make the Steelers feel the absence of their best defensive back.
Haden almost always manned the right cornerback position with Artie Burns sticking on the left. I think Burns is a talented guy but he’s nowhere near the corner Haden is right now and the numbers bear that out. Per PFF Haden has allowed a passer rating of 73.1 on passes thrown in his direction while Burns has allowed a rating of 98.1. DVOA numbers paint an even starker contrast. When Steelers opponents throw to the right side of the field (Haden’s side), Pittsburgh ranks 1st in DVOA. When their opponent throws left (Burns’ side) the Steelers are 31st. The signing of Haden has really saved them from what was a pretty dire situation at corner heading in to the year, but now their safety net is gone.
Replacing Haden will be a familiar name in former Titan Coty Sensabaugh. Sensabaugh had played exclusively on special teams this year until Haden’s injury, but will now get his chance to start as the Steelers appear to be more comfortable leaving undersized corner Mike Hilton in the slot. Sensabaugh is a pretty big downgrade from Haden and the Titans should have a chance to take advantage. I would expect Mularkey and Robiskie to try to find ways to get Corey Davis one-on-one with Sensabaugh early and often in this one. Davis’ physicality will be tough for him to handle.
In addition to missing Haden, the Steelers may also be without their best safety in Mike Mitchell on Thursday if he can’t suit up due to an ankle injury. DVOA also tells us that Pittsburgh has ranked 26th in the league against deep passes in 2017. That would seemingly be an even bigger liability for them without Mitchell. He is currently expected to be a game time decision.
Ultimately, I don’t think the Titans are going to be able to line up and run right at Pittsburgh’s front. They’ll need to use Mariota’s mobility and a heavy dose of misdirection to establish a ground game similar to what they did against Cincinnati. However, if there was going to be a day for a break out among the wide receivers, this would be it.