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Glennon's Take: Five Key Questions for the Titans

Posted Nov 14, 2017

The Titans return to primetime on Thursday, taking on Pittsburgh in a match-up of teams with four-game winning streaks. Tennessee will be looking for a sweep of the AFC North after defeating Cleveland, Baltimore and Cincinnati the last three weeks.

The Titans will march into Pittsburgh on Thursday looking for their fifth consecutive victory, which would mark the team's longest winning streak since 2009.

A win over the Steelers would also give the Titans seven victories in their first 10 games for the first time since 2008, which was the last year Tennessee made the playoffs.

Here are five key questions for the Titans as they ready for the Steelers:

What have the Titans done best during their four-game win streak? – The Titans have looked much more like the dominant run-defense unit they were last year over the last four contests.

Before the start of the winning streak, the Titans were ranked 18th against the run. But they've moved up 12 spots to sixth in the last month, after allowing 85 rushing yards to Indianapolis, 66 yards to Cleveland, 73 yards to Baltimore and 53 yards to Cincinnati.

The Titans' run defense will be tested by the NFL's most productive running back on Thursday, as Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell has piled up a league-best 840 rushing yards along with five rushing touchdowns. Bell has averaged over 117 yards per contest during the Steelers' current four-game win streak. Expect him to see plenty of Wesley Woodyard, who's averaging over 12 tackles per game this season.

Why are the Titans so successful in close games? – There are at least a couple of reasons.

One is that quarterback Marcus Mariota has found a way to raise the level of his play when the Titans most need him to. He's engineered three game-winning drives in the team's past four contests, and his quarterback rating in the second half of games this season is 96.2 – compared to 72.6 in the first half of games.

“Marcus is a great leader for us,” Titans tackle Taylor Lewan said. “What a guy to take over. I can't say enough good things about `8.'”

The other reason is the confidence they've gained over the past two seasons in close contests.

Since the start of 2016, the Titans are 10-4 in games decided by seven points or less, 6-0 in games that are decided by three points or less.

In their last three games, they've won by three, three and four points, respectively, over Cleveland, Baltimore and Cincinnati, respectively.

“I think some of the games we’ve played has reinforced that we have a chance to win close games,” Titans coach Mike Mulakey said. “I wish it wasn’t the case as much as it’s been, but whatever it is, whatever it takes.”

Why have DeMarco Murray's snaps increased compared to Derrick Henry? – In the Titans' win over Cleveland last month, both Murray and Henry played 39 snaps.

In the three games since then, however, Murray has been on the field for 147 of 214 snaps (69 percent), compared to 77 of 214 snaps (36 percent) for Henry. The disparity was especially large Sunday, when Murray got 67 snaps compared to Henry's 28.

Murray hasn't really run a great deal more than Henry, and his 4.0 yards-per-carry average is actually behind Henry's 4.4 yards-per-carry average.

But Murray's versatility is a priority for the Titans. Murray has 23 receptions – including the game-winning catch against Cincinnati – compared to Henry's six. In addition, the veteran Murray is considered a better pass-blocker at this stage of both players' careers.

“I think (Murray's role in the passing game) is important,” Mularkey said. “It’s one of his strengths, his protections, his ability to … that touchdown was great proof of what he can do with the ball in his hands in a tight space, and a big play needed. That has a lot to do with why he is the player that he is.”

Can the Titans tighten up the offensive line? – The Titans had done an excellent job protecting Mariota in the pocket this season until Sunday, when he suffered a season-high four sacks against the Bengals. In his previous seven games this season, Mariota had only been sacked eight times.

Tennessee's offensive line is likely to be bolstered by the return of starting guard Quentin Spain, but the unit will still have its hands full against the Steelers.

Pittsburgh sacked Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett sacked three times and hit him on six other occasions last Sunday. The Steelers are now tied for second in the NFL with 29 sacks this season. Defensive end Stephon Tuitt was especially disruptive against Indianapolis, recording one sack, three tackles for loss and four quarterback hits.

“Their pass defense is their rush, you’ve got to block these guys,” Mularkey said of the Steelers. “They’ve got a complicated scheme like we do. We've got our hands full.”

Can the Titans take advantage of a familiar face? – The Steelers lost starting cornerback Joe Haden to a broken leg in Sunday's win over Indianapolis, which means former Titans defensive back Coty Sensabaugh is expected to step into the starting lineup.

Sensabaugh has played sparingly in the Steelers' first nine games, totaling six tackles and one pass defensed. The Titans are familiar with Sensabaugh, as his four-year tenure in Tennessee overlapped with Mularkey and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. Sensabaugh had his share of struggles in Nashville, as did the entire defense for much of the time he was here.

Haden, incidentally, is not the only member of the Steelers' secondary that's dealing with an injury. Starting safety Mike Mitchell had to leave Sunday's game due to a lower-leg injury, and it was unclear early in the week whether he'd be able to return against the Titans.

-- Reach John Glennon at glennonsports@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @glennonsports.