The Titans and Steelers both missed the playoffs last season in spite of Tennessee winning five straight games at one point and Pittsburgh winning four in a row.
Their seasons took divergent paths, however, with the Steelers struggling early in 2022 and the Titans fading late.
Could the 2023 season offer the inverse scenario? The Steelers started 4-2, and the Titans 2-4. But Week 8 appeared to change the vector for both teams, specifically at quarterback -- and possibly elsewhere.
With Ryan Tannehill ruled out due to an ankle injury, the Titans started 2023 second-rounder Will Levis in his place, and the rookie delivered a four-touchdown performance in an important win over the Falcons Sunday.
The Steelers, meanwhile, lost at home to the Jaguars, and Kenny Pickett left early due to a rib injury, but he told reporters this week that he “for sure” will play Thursday and he has no injury designation for the game.
Levis' debut gives the Titans hope that their season can be saved, even with Jacksonville currently in control of the AFC South. A win on Thursday would square the Titans' record at 4-4 and keep them in the running. Then again, they’re 0-3 on the road to start this season.
Can a dinged-up Pickett deliver a big performance on a short week? If not, the Steelers will be back to .500 overall, and 2-3 at home. Pittsburgh has never finished a season below .500 -- overall and at home -- in 17 seasons under head coach Mike Tomlin.
The last time Pickett and Levis faced off against each other, only one played in the game. It was back in 2019, when Pickett valiantly tried to lead a Pitt comeback at Penn State only to come up just short. Levis, then a freshman QB for the Nittany Lions, didn’t take a snap that day. He transferred to Kentucky the following season.
This time around, the question is if Levis can steal the show this time in Pickett’s stadium.
Here are four things to watch for when the Titans visit the Steelers on Thursday night on Prime Video:
- Kenny Pickett will play Thursday, but can he avoid a slow start? In 19 starts for the Steelers, Pickett’s exhibited great toughness. He’s only missed one start since earning the job -- last year at Carolina due to a bone bruise. Quarterback injuries have been an unending story around the NFL this season, but Pickett’s proneness for injury in a short span has become concerning. Also troublesome: Outside of some big fourth quarters, he’s been highly inconsistent as an NFL starter. Prickett's propensity to take too many hits and sacks is one bugaboo; starting games too slowly holds merit, too. In first quarters this season, Pickett has completed 19 of 37 passes for 204 yards, with one TD, three interceptions and six sacks. Jeffery Simmons, Arden Key and Harold Landry lead a strong pressure unit in Tennessee. The Titans have an NFL-worst two interceptions and will give up some pass plays, so it could be a big day for Pickett and receivers George Pickens and Diontae Johnson. But Tennessee also plays elite red-zone defense (34.6% TDs allowed) and thoroughly dominated the Bengals offense in Week 4.
- Will Levis tries to back up terrific debut on a quick turnaround. You’ll often hear that NFL coaches want to raise a young quarterback’s confidence, often by calling high-percentage passes. The Titans, however, took the opposite approach with Levis in his NFL debut: They chucked it deep, baby. Over and over again. Incredibly, through one game, Levis now has three of the 10 longest TD passes this season by air distance, according to Next Gen Stats. All went longer than 50 yards, with two of them going to DeAndre Hopkins. Prior to Levis starting, the Titans had zero deep TD passes in Weeks 1-7. Hopkins was the biggest beneficiary, catching his first three TDs of the year last week and his two longest catches of the season. But this approach is also a double-edged sword, as Levis was less effective when he was forced to play traditional quarterback more, completing 6 of 9 third-down passes but only converting two of them into first downs. Levis’ checkdown-or-touchdown approach worked in Week 8, although even against a limited Steelers defense, he likely needs to broaden his horizons more to be effective on Thursday. T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith can heat up the edges in a hurry, especially with the status of reliable offensive tackle Chris Hubbard (concussion) in doubt.
- Steelers’ defense will be shorthanded without Minkah Fitzpatrick. The Steelers will be in a bind on Thursday with Fitzpatrick (hamstring) out. According to Next Gen Stats, the Steelers are far worse with him off the field this season, allowing a 71.7% completion percentage and 8.4 yards per attempts, than they are when he’s playing (57.2%, 7.4 YPA). Fitzpatrick was the Steelers’ Joker -- he could man multiple spots in Pittsburgh’s three-safety alignment -- and there’s no one-for-one replacement on the roster. This season, the Steelers have used him more close to the line of scrimmage, either in the slot or the box as a run-force player, tight-end eraser and blitzer. That should help Levis quite a bit, as the guessing game of what Fitzpatrick might do on any play is now gone. This also clearly aids Titans running back Derrick Henry, who has come on lately (363 rush yards since Week 4, with a 5.3-yard average). It might also help get tight end Chigoziem Okonkwo going. Despite a slight uptick in recent usage, Okonkwo has been off to a slow start, but this is about the point last season when he started heating up.
- Titans struggle on the road, but Steelers up and down at home. The standings say the Titans are 0-3 on the road, and that’s technically true. But they’re actually 0-4 away from home, losing a hard-fought game to the Ravens in London where the Titans were designated the “home” team. In fact, they’ve lost seven straight away from Nissan Stadium. Their last true road win was just over one year ago at Green Bay -- coincidentally, also a Thursday night game. Their biggest problem in those seven straight losses: points. They’ve averaged only 18 ppg, and five of the seven losses were by one possession. But the Steelers haven’t exactly set the world on fire at home. Sure, they delivered season-preserving divisional victories over the Browns and Ravens, but they also lost by double digits at home to the 49ers and Jaguars. The Steelers were 4-4 at home in 2022: Mike Tomlin’s worst season mark as head coach. And as with Tennessee on the road, the Steelers’ home troubles have come down to scoring as they have surpassed the 20-point mark only twice in their past 12 games in Pittsburgh. It’s no wonder many feel this game could be low-scoring, although the QB situations likely have a lot to do with that.