PITTSBURGH — In a Thursday night game that kicked off Week 9 with much fanfare after Tennessee Titans rookie Will Levis‘ four-touchdown debut last week, the Titans and the Pittsburgh Steelers traded field goals most of the night before Pittsburgh was able to score late and hold off a last-ditch effort by the Titans in the 20-16 win.
With 4:02 remaining in the fourth quarter, Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett found wide receiver Diontae Johnson for the 3-yard touchdown. The win allows the Steelers to keep pace with the AFC North-leading Baltimore Ravens (6-2) as Levis fell to 1-1 as a starter filling in for the injured Ryan Tannehill.
Linebacker Kwon Alexander was able to seal the win when Levis threw his first interception of his young NFL career on third-and-5 from the Pittsburgh 19-yard line with six seconds remaining.
Pittsburgh Steelers (5-3)
Call him Kenny Comeback. The Steelers’ second-year quarterback was able to deliver the game-winner to Johnson, the wide receiver’s first touchdown in 22 games.
It’s never easy for this year’s Steelers team — even on a night where the run game recorded a season-high 167 yards, and the defense held Derrick Henry to fewer than 100 rushing yards. With the win, the Steelers have an NFL-leading four wins when trailing after three quarters. The four comeback wins are also tied for Pittsburgh’s second-most in a season during the Super Bowl era.
QB breakdown: Playing with a ribs injury sustained against the Jacksonville Jaguars just four days earlier, Pickett had a bumpy start in the first half, completing just 53% of his passes. But Pickett and the offense did score a first-drive touchdown, just the Steelers’ seventh opening-drive touchdown in the last three seasons and the second with Pickett as the starter. After two three-and-outs, Pickett bounced back with a much better second half, thanks in large part to the emergence of the run game. Pickett finished completing 19 of 30 for 160 yards, including a 32-yard completion to Johnson on the scoring drive, and he had no turnovers. The third-down pass, which traveled a game-high 23 air yards, had just a 35.9 expected completion percentage, per Next Gen Stats. Pickett averaged 4.5 air yards per attempt, the second-lowest of his career, and he was pressured at the second-lowest rate of his career (20%) as a result.
Buy on a breakout performance: Broderick Jones is the Steelers’ starting right tackle. Jones, who unseated Chukwuma Okorafor, was a surprise start on a short week — especially considering he’s taken most of his reps at left tackle in games and in practice. Okorafor is the Steelers’ highest-paid offensive lineman with a $13 million cap hit this season. Jones, though, was a big part of the run game’s success Thursday. He helped pave a path for Najee Harris on the first score of the game, and he aided Harris to a 25-yard run in the second half — his longest of the season. The run game also averaged a season-best 5.5 yards per carry — well over its 3.6 average.
Troubling trend: In each of the last three games, wide receiver George Pickens has made an incredible catch — only to have it ruled incomplete because he didn’t get a second foot down. While the first two had more to do with the ball placement on the throw, the one on Thursday cost his team a touchdown. Pickett perfectly placed the ball in the end zone where only Pickens could get it, but Pickens’ second foot hit the sideline before touching down in the end zone. There was space to drag his toe, but Pickens didn’t have the awareness to get his toe down. Instead of taking a four-point lead, the Steelers settled for a field goal and a 13-13 tie late in the third quarter. Pickens entered the night with 11 receptions within 2 yards of a boundary the last two seasons, most in the league according to NFL Next Gen Stats. — Brooke Pryor
Up next: vs. Green Bay Packers (Nov. 12, 1 p.m. ET)
Tennessee Titans (3-5)
The Titans dropped a heartbreaker for their eighth straight road loss and fourth of the season. The Titans were unable to contain the Steelers’ run game, led by Harris — who had 15 carries for 72 yards and a touchdown — and Jaylen Warren — 10 carries for 85 yards.
Even though it was a loss, Levis made a case to be the starter for the rest of the season. Despite being in a rowdy environment and facing a ferocious pass rush, Levis gave the Titans a chance to win but fell just short.
QB Breakdown: Levis delivered to his receivers despite the pass rush barreling down on him consistently. His elite, effortless arm strength was on display, especially on his best throw — a layered pass to Nick Westbrook-Ikhine off his back foot as the defense closed in on him. It’s clear that he’s comfortable and confident executing offensive coordinator Tim Kelly’s system, even in a rowdy stadium like Acrisure Stadium.
Biggest hole in the game plan: The Titans took over at their 38-yard line down four. Wide receiver Treylon Burks picked up five yards on an end around and Derrick Henry‘s 1-yard run made it third-and-4. Kelly decided to call an inside run to Tyjae Spears, and it went for no gain to set up a fourth down. Despite the fact Pittsburgh’s pass rushers were able to harass Levis all game, the next playcall employed long-developing routes and a deep incompletion to Burks.
Promising trend: The Levis to DeAndre Hopkins combination has been money for the Titans. Hopkins, who finished with 60 yards on four receptions, played 12 halves without Levis this season. He had at least 50 receiving yards in just one of them. In only four halves with Levis, Hopkins has had at least 50 receiving yards in three of them. Hopkins didn’t catch a touchdown in six games before Levis started, but he now has three.
Bold prediction: Levis will have his first 300-yard passing performance next week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Tampa is 28th in the league, giving up 256 passing yards per game. Kelly will have more time to dial up deep passing plays since he won’t have Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith getting immediate pressure like Thursday. Levis has excelled at throwing deep passes (three touchdowns with 50 or more air yards), so expect to see him airing it out against the Bucs. — Turron Davenport
Up next: Up next: at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Nov. 12, 1 p.m. ET)