The Pittsburgh Steelers return home to Heinz Field to square off against the Tennessee Titans, a team that is eerily similar to the Steelers. They will play Thursday night both nursing four game winning streaks, and both leading their divisions. Ironically the Titans have helped the Steelers over the last month, as three of their last four wins have come against AFC North teams. This has allowed the Steelers to amass a three-game lead over the Baltimore Ravens, who are still in the hunt for a wildcard spot. Here’s the main points in the week 11 Pittsburgh Steelers what to watch.

Know Your Enemy…

Both Titans head coach Mike Mularkey and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau spent time with the Steelers. Mularkey was an offensive coordinator for the Steelers from 2001 to 2003 before moving on to take the Buffalo Bills head coaching job. LeBeau has had multiple stints with the Steelers. He was the defensive backs coach from 1992-1994, defensive coordinator from 1995-2000, and again the defensive coordinator from 2004-2014. During those tenures he built and coached multiple Super Bowl caliber defenses and won two Super Bowl rings in three trips.

To make things even more interesting, LeBeau’s linebackers coach during that last stint was Keith Butler, the Steelers current defensive coordinator. LeBeau knows some of the older Steelers intimately. He knows their skill sets, their strengths and their weaknesses. However, billing LeBeau against Butler as teacher against student is somewhat misleading.

The Difference

When LeBeau was with the Steelers he had huge immovable defensive linemen like Casey Hampton. He ran a 3-4 defense, but it was a two-gap system. This means the defensive linemen were asked to control two gaps in order to keep blockers off linebackers. In return, the linebackers made the majority of the plays, especially when it came to run defense.

Butler has gone with a one gap system, hence, each player is responsible for only one gap. This has allowed the Steelers to implement schemes involving defensive lineman causing more disruption. Look at Javon Hargrave’s playing style compared to Hampton’s; there’s a big difference.

Disruption. But At What Cost?

The Steelers can’t afford to be disruptive at the expense of losing their gap integrity against the Titans. With Marcus Mariota, DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry, the Titans are probably the most run oriented offense the Steelers will face all season. They will run Mariota on zone reads and other designed quarterback runs which the Steelers will get gashed by if they aren’t gap responsible. The Titans line is healthy and balanced.

The Steelers defensive front is probably the best unit on the team at the moment. Hargrave, Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt have shown flashes of dominance throughout the season. They have the ability to stop the Titans three-headed rushing monster in the backfield before it even gets going.

Hopefully the Steelers will have James Harrison active for this game. Even if it isn’t to rush the passer, he’s a veteran that won’t get lured out of his gap or supplanted by pulling blockers. Something that both starting outside linebackers, T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree have struggled with at certain points throughout the season.

The OTHER Dynamic Duo

As speculated in the Last Word On Steelers podcast, Chris Hubbard was observed being moved out to a blocking tight end with the return of Marcus Gilbert at right tackle. While Le’Veon Bell had some of his best games last year with this heavy formation, Hubbard has not worked much with Vance McDonald, the new tight end the Steelers acquired from the San Francisco 49ers. He is a major upgrade over Jesse James when it comes to run blocking. Not to mention he caught a touchdown last week against the Indianapolis Colts.

Getting Hubbard and McDonald on the same page in the running game will be important. The question mark here lies with McDonald, who showed up on the Steelers injury report and did not practice Tuesday. Apparently, he has an ankle injury. He and Hubbard will have to have success against the Titans defense in order for the Steelers running game to thrive. The Titans are currently ranked sixth in the NFL in run defense giving up 91.9 rushing yards per game. But don’t look for the Steelers to shy away from running the ball. Still expect Bell to see around 30 touches.

All Eyes On…

The reason for Bell’s pending 30 touches is the Steelers loss of Joe Haden and possibly Mike Mitchell in the secondary. Running the ball will help the Steelers win the time of possession battle throughout the game, and keep the defense off the field. Coty Sensabaugh is an underrated player. He played well in replacing Haden after his injury in Indianapolis. The only drawback is he’s a little undersized to play outside, especially against bigger receivers. There was even speculation that he’d play the nickel corner when he was initially signed. However, Mike Hilton eventually claimed the nickel corner.

Sensabaugh has a short week to get acclimated to the defense and communication. To make things more complicated Mitchell, the free safety and main communicator amongst the secondary, may not play given the short week. Also, the Titans three main receivers; Rishard Matthews, Eric Decker and Corey Davis are all six feet or taller. Will Sensabaugh be able to cover these bigger men? Or make the tackle when needed? Watching on Thursday will tell a lot.

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