Mike Tomlin had begun preaching many years ago about how the NFL was morphing into a game that was primarily sub-package football—or at least what was previously known as sub-packages. The reality is that the sub-packages of yesterday are now the base defense, and the base defense—3-4 and 4-3 fronts—are now essentially the sub-packages.
At least, that is how it often is in most weeks. The Pittsburgh Steelers and coach Tomlin appear to have their doubts about this upcoming week, going up against the Tennessee Titans and the NFL’s leading rusher in Derrick Henry, who is averaging very nearly 25 carries per game.
Technically, the Titans rank fifth this season so far in rushing yards per game at 157.8, but they are averaging nearly 180 yards on the ground per game over the past three weeks, including 263 yards in their last game, of which Henry himself had 212.
Tennessee comes into this game averaging 32.6 rushing attempts per game. The only team averaging more rushing attempts per game is Cam Newton’s New England Patriots. Newton already has 45 rushing attempts so far this season in just four games played.
“To be quite honest with you, Tennessee is not in a lot of sub-package personnel groups”, Tomlin told reporters today when he was asked about nickel corner Mike Hilton and the fact that he is nursing an injury this week.
“I don’t know what Mike’s role might be in this environment this week. They play old school-style football. I don’t know how much sub-package ball we’ll be playing on non-possession downs. That remains to be seen”.
The Titans have run 141 1st-and-10 plays this season, and only 49 of those plays have featured three-receiver sets. They have even run 23 such snaps with only one wide receiver on the field. 77 of their 1st-and-10 snaps have come with at least two tight ends on the field.
— Steelers Depot 🏆👑 (@Steelersdepot) October 20, 2020
Tennessee doesn’t even necessarily rely on three-receiver sets when they fail on first down and get into 2nd-and-long situations. Of their 52 second-down plays requiring seven or more yards to gain, only 28 of those plays, or a little more than half, were run out of three-receiver sets, and 12 of those snaps were on 2nd and 10.
When Tomlin calls the Titans’ offense old school, he means it. This is a team whose philosophy is to run the ball, and to run with power, and to build the passing game off of play action. Through the first five weeks, they have been very successful at it, but they are about to face their toughest challenge yet.
And the Steelers will also be caught adjusting on the fly, without Devin Bush for the first time since he was drafted, after the mack linebacker suffered a torn ACL on Sunday. Robert Spillane will be called upon to stand up to the task of tackling a Bud Dupree-sized ball-carrier 25 times during course of the game.