Tonight’s Thursday night matchup is one that could potentially have huge playoff implications in the AFC. With the Steelers sitting 7-2 and the Titans 6-3, there is a chance that the winner of this one could end up with a first round bye in the playoffs. This game is one where offensively the teams have contrasting styles, so it will be interesting to see if the first team to get into a rhythm makes the other adjust.
Marcus Mariota to this point hasn’t put up gaudy numbers and against this Steeler defense who can get to quarterbacks, clean pockets could be tough to come by. The good news for the Titans is the Steeler secondary has had a few injuries of late, so things might be a little easier. In this game, it wouldn’t be surprising if Mariota’s top target is Rishard Matthews. Targeted 14 times since the Titans’ bye, Matthews will run a decent amount of his routes to the side of Coty Sensabaugh who figures to replace Joe Haden. Even if he sees just five or six targets, Matthews could be a decent third receiver option for this week.
Corey Davis has gotten healthier and as a result has seen an increased role in the offense seeing ten targets last week. Depending on the game flow, that volume could be there again, so Davis is another Titan who is in the mix to play as your third fantasy wideout. Delanie Walker isn’t on pace to match the past few years of Pro Bowl level production, but he still has Mariota’s trust. For potential volume, Walker should be started in the majority of leagues but the Steeler defense has had success covering the position.
Over the past handful of games, the Steelers have allowed just over three yards a carry to opposing running backs. The Titans are a run based attack, so the winner of the trenches could decide this game. DeMarco Murray on a per carry basis hasn’t had the same efficiency he did in 2016. Despite that, you can still count on him for at least 16 or so touches a game. In this matchup, Murray probably profiles as a second running back for fantasy owners but he should still be in lineups. Derrick Henry figures to become the Titans’ lead back eventually but for now in fantasy, you have to hope he scores a touchdown to ensure value. He still figures to see ten or so touches in this contest.
For all the fire power at their disposal, the Steeler offense has been underwhelming to this point. We know about their road struggles, but regardless of location they’ve yet to score 30 or more points in a single game. Through the air, Ben Roethlisberger figures to have a favorable matchup as the Titans have struggled to generate a pass rush while fielding a young secondary. Historically a player who performs better at home, Roethlisberger could have a nice return for fantasy players this week.
On the ground we already know that Le’Veon Bell will be heavily involved. The Titans have been tough to run on, but in the passing game have allowed almost 600 yards to opposing backs. Bell is averaging almost 29 touches a week, and with six or seven of those expected through the air he obviously needs to be locked into all lineups.
In the passing game, there isn’t much more you can say about Antonio Brown. He’s having another fantastic year leading the league in receiving yards entering this week, but team wide redzone woes have helped limit his touchdown total. Even if he doesn’t hit paydirt, Brown will be heavily involved and it shouldn’t require reminding to have him in your lineup. JuJu Smith-Schuster has really taken advantage of his expanded role in the Steeler offense and once again should be a hit for fantasy players. Depending on the size of your league, Smith-Schuster could give you better than expected production if he’s your third receiver. A trendy pick by fantasy players to start the year, Martavis Bryant has recorded more than 50 yards just once, and has one touchdown for the year. The big play potential obviously still exists, but he’s an extremely boom or bust option.
As a whole, I think the key to this game will be if the Titan offense will be able to establish the running game. If they can while also limiting Roethlisberger, Bell and Brown from seeing the field, it drastically changes things. I’m not confident enough that the Titans can do it or win when they’re needed to drop back for 40 plus pass attempts. My prediction is Titans 20 Steelers (-7.5) 26