Thursday Night NFL Preview: QB Levis Looks to Impose Will on Steelers
While the NFL and its fans recover from a busy week of horse trading, two former division rivals square off in Pittsburgh Thursday night.
And it shapes up to be a game that football romantics might describe as young quarterbacks passing in the night.
A description that, for the less romantic among us, also applies to two young signal-callers heading in opposite directions. Pittsburgh’s QB Kenny Pickett comes into the game with banged-up ribs that kept him from playing in the second half Sunday in Pittsburgh’s 20-10 loss to Jacksonville. If he is unable to go or reaggravates the injury, Mitch Trubisky will step in, as he did against the Jaguars.
But even a healthy Pickett seems to hang onto his starting QB position by his fingernails.
The other quarterback, Titans’ rookie Will Levis, saw his era officially commence last week. His four TD passes — three to wideout DeAndre Hopkins — sparked a win over visiting Atlanta and a wave of rhinestone-glittered excitement in Nashville.
So, even though host Pittsburgh (4-3) comes into Thursday’s game with the better record, the Titans (3-4) arrive with the edge in energy and positivity. That is what a seismic performance by a new franchise quarterback can do.
For Pickett to perform well enough to stay on the field, he and the 30th-ranked Pittsburgh offense must reverse their season-long trend of absolutely miserable starts, which predates Pickett's tender ribs. Last week against the Jags was no different, as the Steelers went three-and-out on their first four possessions. This week, they line up against a pass defense, which allows quarterbacks to complete 69 percent of their passes and recorded just two interceptions in the first seven games this season.
But for Pickett or Trubisky to take full advantage of Tennessee’s shaky pass defense, the Steelers’ underwhelming running game needs to kick into gear. Pittsburg’s ground game averages 79.7 yards per game. Either QB will benefit against the Titans should Najee Harris (313 yards, 3.7 average) and Jaylen Harris (171, 3.9) make more noise from the running back position.
Whether Pickett makes it to the second half or Trubisky is again called upon, they will both look for George Pickens to make plays. The ascending WR posted two 100+-yard receiving games in October. He received much-needed help from receiver Diontae Johnson, who recorded 13 catches for 164 yards in the two games (Rams, Jags) since his return from injury.
We figure on Levis to keep looking for Hopkins, whose pre-trade-deadline grumbling subsided once he and the rookie QB became besties. In addition to posting his second career game with three scores, Hopkins racked up 128 yards receiving. Derrick Henry complemented the Levis-to-Hopkins connection against Atlanta with a season-high 22 carries on his way to 101 yards rushing. The key to Henry getting enough carries to impose himself on the game is for Tennessee to be ahead or within a single possession.
If Pittsburgh’s offense persists in its first-half awfulness, then — win or lose — Pickett’s starting role continues its week-to-week death watch. If Levis turns out another four-TD performance on the road, and on national TV, then Titans fans will again strew plaudits and flowers before him.
—TNF: Titans-Steelers facts, stats—
Location: Acrisure Stadium, Pittsburgh, PA
REFEREE John Hussey
Prime Video: Al Michaels, Kirk Herbstreit, Kaylee Hartung
Westwood One: Kevin Kugler, Ross Tucker
SiriusXM (team name linked to SXM App) TEN: 81 or 226 PIT: 83 or 225 National: 88
• QB WILL LEVIS (rookie) completed 19 of 29 atts. (65.5 pct.) for 238 yards & 4 TDs vs. 0 INTs with 130.5 rating last week, becoming 3rd player in NFL history with 4 TD passes in NFL debut (Marcus Mariota & HOFer Fran Tarkenton). Can join Steve McNair as only QBs in franchise history to win 1st 2 career starts.
• RB DERRICK HENRY rushed for 101 yards last week, his 36th career game with 100+ rush yards, most in NFL since 2016. Aims for 3rd in row with 100+ scrimmage yards. Rushed for 75 yards & TD in his last game vs. Pit. (10/25/20). Has 7 rush TDs in 6 career games on TNF, with 100+ scrimmage yards in each of past 2. Is only player in NFL with 500+ rush yards in each of past 7 seasons.
• RB TYJAE SPEARS (rookie) has 55+ scrimmage yards in 3 of past 4. Ranks 5th among rookie RBs with 318 scrimmage yards.
• WR DEANDRE HOPKINS had 128 rec. yards & 3 rec. TDs last week, his 2nd-career 3-TD game & 13th-career game with 2+ rec. TDs. Has 125+ rec. yards in 2 of past 3. Has 7+ catches in 2 of 3 road games this season. Had TD catch in his last game vs. Pit. (12/25/17 w/ Hou.). Has 50+ rec. yards in 9 of 10 career games on Thursday, incl. each of his past 8.
• WR NICK WESTBROOK-IKHINE had TD catch last week.
• DT JEFFERY SIMMONS had 6 tackles, season-high 2 sacks & 1st FF of season in Week 8, his 4th-career game with 2+ sacks. Aims for his 3rd in row vs. Pit. with PD.
• DE DENICO AUTRY had 2 PD & sack last week. Aims for 3rd in row with TFL.
• LB HAROLD LANDRY had 5 tackles & season-best 2 sacks last week. Aims for 3rd in row with 5+ tackles, 2+ TFL & sack.
• LB JACK GIBBENS had 1st-career sack in Week 8. Has 5+
tackles in each of 7 games this season.
PITTSBURGH STEELERS NOTES
• QB KENNY PICKETT aims for 4th in row with 0 INTs. Has 215+ pass yards in 3 of 4 home games this season. Has won each of
his past 5 starts in primetime.
• QB MITCH TRUBISKY passed for 138 yards & TD last week. Has 3 TD passes & 100+ rating in 2 of his past 3 starts on Thursday.
• RB NAJEE HARRIS has 55+ scrimmage yards in 4 of past 5, incl. each of past 2. Has 3 TDs in 2 career games on TNF.
• RB JAYLEN WARREN has 75+ scrimmage yards in 2 of his past 3 at home.
• WR GEORGE PICKENS had 3rd TD catch of season in Week 8. Has 5+ catches & 100+ rec. yards in 2 of past 3. Aims for his 4th in row at home with rec. TD. Aims for his 3rd in row in primetime with 75+ rec. yards.
• WR DIONTAE JOHNSON led team with season-high 8 catches for 85 yards last week. Aims for 3rd in row with 5+ catches & 75+ rec. yards. Aims for his 3rd in row vs. Ten. with 5+ catches.
• WR ALLEN ROBINSON has 5+ catches & 65+ rec. yards in each of 6 career games vs. Ten.
• TE CONNOR HEYWARD had career-high 5 catches last week.
• LB T.J. WATT had PD & half sack in Week 8. Aims for 4th in row with PD. Has 6.5 sacks, 5 PD, 3 FR & 2 FFs in 4 home games this season. Had 1.5 sacks & FR in last meeting & aims for his 3rd in row vs. Ten. with sack. Has sack in 2 of his past 3 on TNF.
• LB COLE HOLCOMB led team with season-high 11 tackles & had 1st FR of season last week. Aims for 4th in row with 8+ tackles. Has TFL in 2 of past 3. Had career-high 16 tackles in his last game vs. Ten. (10/9/22 w/ Was.)
• S MINKAH FITZPATRICK has 9+ tackles in 4 of past 5.
• S DAMONTAE KAZEE had 1st INT of season in Week 8.