For the first time since Week 6, when the Carolina Panthers and Philadelphia Eagles put on a fun show, Thursday Night Football features two teams with winning records. The Pittsburgh Steelers (7-2) square off with the Tennessee Titans (6-3) on NFL Network, NBC and streaming on Amazon Prime Video at 8:25 p.m. ET at Heinz Field.
What are we watching for when two of the AFC’s top teams clash? Here are six things:
1. Are the Titans really that good? They have six wins and only three losses, but when you dive into their schedule, there’s not much impressive about their resume, especially recently. There’s a 10-point loss to the 4-5 Raiders, a 43-point blowout to the 3-6 (albeit Deshaun Watson-led at the time) Houston Texans and a six-point loss to the 4-5 Miami Dolphins on their docket. There are a lot of wins, but one is over the winless Cleveland Browns (in overtime), another is over the 3-7 Indianapolis Colts, another the 4-5 Baltimore Ravens and another over the 3-6 Cincinnati Bengals. There are two impressive victories over the Seattle Seahawks and the Jacksonville Jaguars, but both those came in Weeks 2 and 3, before the calendar even began its flip to fall. The Titans don’t get a lot of respect when it comes to the big-picture analysis (they rank just 11th in this week’s NFL Power Rankings) almost exclusively because of that schedule. On Thursday night, though, they have a chance to prove they are as good as their record indicates by knocking off a talented Steelers team that currently sits atop the conference standings.
2. Which rookie from USC will impress more under the lights? JuJu Smith-Schuster has been outstanding since the Steelers essentially promoted him ahead of Martavis Bryant. In his last two contests alone, Smith-Schuster has 12 grabs for 290 yards and two scores. He has a touchdown catch in three straight games. Adoree’ Jackson, meanwhile, has been an exciting return man and a solid rookie cornerback. But he’s also been a nice gadget piece in the Titans‘ “exotic smashmouth” system, rushing three times for 30 yards last weekend and once for 20 yards in Week 9 against the Ravens. Jackson has already told reporters, per the Titans’ team website, he’s looking forward to seeing which former Trojan comes out on top this week: “I feel like we have both grown and developed from where we were in the past. I’ve seen him on film, and he is looking great out there. It is going to be great competition.”
3. The Titans drafted Corey Davis at No. 5 overall for a reason, and that was obviously to use him. Since he’s been back from his season-long hamstring ailment, he’s found plenty of playing time and plenty of targets. Marcus Mariota threw at him a whopping 10 times in last weekend’s win over the Bengals and he had four grabs for 48 yards and nearly scored his first-ever touchdown before fumbling it away at the goal line. It’s clear Tennessee would like to get him the ball and get him his breakout game. That’ll be a tough task Thursday night, however. The Steelers rank second in the league allowing just 181.8 passing yards per game this season.
4. Fantasy owners haven’t complained about Le’Veon Bell this season, and you won’t hear the first-place Steelers barking about his play either. But very quietly, Bell hasn’t seemed like his usual self. In the tailback’s last three games, he’s averaged 3.8 yards per carry, 3.0 yards per carry and 3.1 yards per carry. His patient style of running, which used to net huge gains, hasn’t sprung him for the usual big gainers that made Bell a star in previous seasons. In the last three games, Bell’s longest rush went for just 15 yards, despite having 86 total carries in those contests. Bell’s 3.5 yards per carry this year are a staggering drop off from his last three seasons when he averaged 4.9, 4.9 and 4.7 YPC. It’s been a small storyline in Pittsburgh because the Steelers are in first place and because they haven’t been on primetime much. But struggles for Bell again this week, on the national stage against the Titans, could shine a spotlight on one of the narratives Pittsburgh might need to be concerned about as they head down the stretch to the playoffs.
5. How will the Tennessee Titans‘ backfield look this week? When the Titans had things really humming on offense earlier this season, there was a coherent and enjoyable rotation between Derrick Henry and DeMarco Murray. Because of all of Murray’s ailments, though, it’s been a bit choppier. The Titans look like they’d rather use Murray as the bell cow and have Henry spell him every now and then. But with Murray constantly in and out getting a variety of injuries checked on the sidelines, the transition between the two tailbacks hasn’t been as smooth, leading to prolonged lulls with the Titans‘ offense during games. With Murray finally not getting dinged up in Sunday’s win over the Bengals, perhaps that helps the Titans figure out the rotation that worked well earlier this season. With the Steelers being so stingy against the pass this year, finding the sweetest mix of Henry-Murray could decide Thursday night.
6. Madden on your television! NBC announced last week it plans to utilize its dual SkyCam for the primary viewing of the game. Seeing how holes unfold and how routes develop from the angle behind and above the quarterback — just like the popular Madden video game — for an entire game could change the way we consume football on our televisions forever.