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Steel Mill A.M.: Third time the charm for Titans coach, former Steelers assistant Mike Mularkey

November 16, 2017 GMT

Mike Mularkey admits he is fortunate to be coaching a first-place team.

When the former Steelers tight end and assistant coach was named interim coach of the Tennessee Titans with nine games left in the 2015 season, Mularkey was holding the top spot for his third franchise. When the Titans went 2-7 in those games, Mularkey had an 18-39 career record with Buffalo, Jacksonville and Tennessee.

Nobody would have been surprised had the Titans pulled the plug on the Mularkey experiment and sent him back to the assistant coaching ranks. But owner Amy Adams Strunk and general manager Jon Robinson, who was hired two days earlier, removed the interim tag and gave Mularkey the job on a full-time basis in January 2016. It was not a popular decision in Tennessee.

Since then, however, the Titans have gone 15-10 under Mularkey, winning nine games and nearly making the playoffs last season. This year, they are 6-3 and tied for the lead in the AFC South. The matchup Thursday night against the Steelers will be his second against his former team and first since 2004.

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“We’ve made a lot of changes,” Mularkey said on a conference call with Pittsburgh reporters earlier in the week. “I’m very fortunate and blessed that I got another opportunity. I appreciate Amy for believing in me, and Jon Robinson. I haven’t changed. I’m still coaching the same way I’ve coached since I was there (in Pittsburgh). Nothing has changed.”

Mularkey spent the 1996-2003 seasons as a Steelers assistant, the first five as tight ends coach and the final three as offensive coordinator. He was head coach of the Buffalo Bills for the 2004-05 seasons and resurfaced in 2012 with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He was fired after a 2-14 season.

Twice-fired head coaches rarely get a third chance. But Mularkey, the Titans tights ends and assistant head coach, was selected to replace Ken Whisenhunt midway through the 2015 season.

“I explained what needed to take place around here, which was a lot,” Mularkey said. “A lot of changes, a lot of things. I couldn’t do any of that in ’15. I had to keep the ship upright. That was my intent, to get guys to play where we had a chance to win every week. We didn’t (win), but they played that way.”

When he had the interim tag removed, Mularkey was given full control over his coaching staff. He hired or retained several assistants with ties to the Steelers, including defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, defensive line coach Nick Eason, offensive line coach Russ Grimm, secondary coach Deshea Townsend, assistant defensive line coach Keith Willis and linebackers coach Lou Spanos.

“This is the first time I’ve been able to assemble a complete staff,” Mularkey said. “I wanted to be around familiar guys that I trust. They trust me, and they have the same philosophical beliefs, and I think it has worked out well.”

Game watch

Steelers (7-2) vs. Tennessee Titans (6-3), Heinz Field

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Kickoff: 8:25 p.m., NBC/NFL Network

Series history: Titans lead, 12-8, since franchise moved from Houston in 1997

Series streak: Steelers won most recent matchup

Last Steelers win: Nov. 17, 2014: Steelers 27, Titans 24: Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown scored touchdowns in the fourth quarter as the Steelers erased a 24-13 deficit. Bell rushed for 203 yards, but this game will be best remembered for LeGarrette Blount walking out before the conclusion, prompting his release from the Steelers.

Last Titans win: Sept. 8, 2013: Titans 16, Steelers 9: The Steelers had just 195 yards of offense and lost Maurkice Pouncey to a season-ending injury early in a season-opening loss that would lead to an 0-4 start.

At stake for the Steelers: A win would keep the Steelers perched atop the AFC in terms of home-field advantage for the playoffs. A loss would drop them to the third spot in the conference seeding.

At stake for the Titans: A win would move the Titans ahead of the Steelers in the conference hierarchy and put them within striking distance of the New England Patriots. It also would nudge the Titans a half-game ahead of Jacksonville in the AFC South.

Three Steelers players to watch

Bud Dupree: He is coming off arguably his best game of the season, getting a sack and three tackles for a loss against the Colts. Big things were expected of Dupree this season, and maybe he’s starting to turn the corner.

Coty Sensabaugh: He was signed to compete for a starting job, but that ended when Joe Haden was signed. Now that Haden is out with a fibula fracture, Sensabaugh will make his first start for the Steelers. And it will come against the franchise with which he spent the first four seasons of his career.

Antonio Brown: By his standards, his numbers have been ordinary for the past three weeks. Brown has averaged four catches for 61 yards in those games, and he has gone back-to-back games without a touchdown catch. Moreover, JuJu Smith-Schuster has been targeted as many times as Brown (17) in the past two games.

Three Titans players to watch

Kevin Byard: The second-year safety already has six interceptions this season, including five over the past two games.

Adoree Jackson: The rookie cornerback with 38 tackles and 14 passes defensed isn’t just confined to defense for the Titans. He is the team’s top kickoff and punt returner, and he’s also seen action on offense. A college teammate of JuJu Smith-Schuster at USC, Jackson has lined up in the backfield and carried four times for 50 yards.

Brett Kern: Spotlighting a punter is unusual until you consider that Kern is perhaps the best at his position in the NFL. Kern leads all punters in gross average (52.0) and net average (46.0). Field position could be an issue for the Steelers because of Kern’s strong leg.

Stat watch: Ben Roethlisberger is 18-3 in regular-season prime-time games at Heinz Field as a starter and 5-0 on Thursday Night Football at home in his career. He has thrown 45 touchdown passes against 14 interceptions in those 21 games.

Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jrutter@tribweb.com or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.