Last Meeting: October 8, 2017. Jacksonville 30, Pittsburgh 9.
The Jaguars broke open a close game midway through the third quarter with pick-sixes on consecutive Steeler drives by Telvin Smith and Barry Church. The two interceptions were part of a career-worst outing for Ben Roethlisberger, who posted five interceptions, a QBR of 22.2 and a passer rating of 37.8. His opposite number, Blake Bortles, failed to throw for over 100 yards, but didn’t need to, as the Jaguars defense and Leonard Fournette (181 yards, 2 touchdowns) led the Jaguars to victory on the road. The game left both teams 3-2 and seemingly headed in different directions. The Steelers had lost to the woeful Chicago Bears just two weeks prior and the billed “Killer B’s” had failed to live up to the hype. Running back Le’Veon Bell, in his fifth game after his training camp holdout, recorded only 47 yards, and Martavis Bryant, five games into his return from suspension, managed only 21 yards on five receptions. The Steelers were able to turn their season around after the heavy defeat to Jacksonville, rattling off wins in 10 of their final 11 games. Roethlisberger and Bell were able to bounce back as well. Roethlisberger finished with over 4,000 yards passing and finished fifth in the league in passing yards while Bell finished third in the league in rushing with 1,291 yards. Star receiver Antonio Brown finished the season atop the receiving yard chart with 1,533 despite missing the Steelers final two games with a calf injury. The Jaguars used the victory to jumpstart a surprise season in which they won the AFC South. The recipe used to defeat the Steelers became the Jaguars’ prevailing strategy, leaning heavily on their defense (2nd in total yards allowed, 1st in pass defense, and 2nd in sacks) and running game with Fournette while asking Bortles to be a game manager.
As if a divisional playoff game needed more hype, chatter from both the Steelers and Jaguars camps have ensured that the game will have an elevated level of intensity. Roethlisberger stated after the Steelers’ Week 17 victory over Cleveland that he wanted another shot at the Jaguars to avenge his early season performance. Shortly after the Jaguars victory in the Wild Card round over Buffalo, Jacksonville cornerback A.J. Bouye, a player the Steelers were linked with as an offseason free agent, issued a warning to Ben: be careful what you wish for. Steelers safety Mike Mitchell has elevated the chatter in the lead up to the game by stating the Steelers can beat the New England Patriots “in Haiti or in Hell,” guaranteeing a victory against a team the Steelers might not even play if they are unable to overcome an opponent that has already beaten the Steelers handily once this season.
Brown’s health and rust will be a question mark heading into the game, despite his full participation in practice this week. His first assignment back will not be easy either, against the top pass defense in the league. Brown did manage 157 yards in the first meeting with the Jaguars, but many of the yards the Steelers gained late in the game were inconsequential with the result already being decided. The meeting of the two teams, however, came before JuJu Smith-Schuster’s star broke onto the NFL scene. Smith-Schuster was one of the most pleasant surprises for the Steelers and his play on the field gives the Steelers a bonafide number two receiver that they have lacked during Martavis Bryant’s spells on the sideline. Bouye and Ramsey are arguably two of the top cornerbacks in the league and the matchup between the two receivers and corners will likely have a big influence on the final outcome. While the Steelers should look to exploit the Jaguars’ 21st ranked run defense, the Steelers will need to be successful in the air to keep the defense honest, which will require Brown and Smith-Schuster to win their one-on-one matchups and get open for Roethlisberger.
Steelers offensive line vs. Jacksonville front seven
The Jaguars defense isn’t called “Sacksonville” without reason. The unit recorded 55 sacks on the season, second to only the Steelers. The unit sacked Roethlisberger twice in the first meeting between the teams, but has only gotten better since then. The Steelers offensive line will not only have to keep Roethlisberger clean, but exploit the Jaguars front seven with their run blocking. In Andrew Villanueva, David DeCastro and Maurkise Pouncey, the Steelers have three of the top linemen in the league. They will need to show that against the likes of Calais Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue, Dante Fowler, Jr., Myles Jack and company. The Steelers ability to control the line of scrimmage will go a long way in determining the game. If the Steeers are able to pound the Jaguars on the ground, it will open all kinds of possibilities for Todd Haley’s offense.
Blake Bortles vs. Steelers secondary
Blake Bortles managed to do something last week only done once before in NFL history: win a playoff game with fewer passing yards that rushing yards. While Bortles did just enough to win against the Bills, he will have to do more on Sunday for the Jaguars to survive another week. The much maligned quarterback has not put up stellar numbers (3,687 yards, 21 touchdowns and 13 interceptions), but the Jaguars may feel Bortles can exploit a weak Pittsburgh secondary. Since the injury of Joe Haden against Indianapolis midway through the season, Pittsburgh has been one of the worst pass defenses in the league, yielding 50 + yard passing plays to opponents seemingly every week. While against the Bills, the Jaguars seemed to have the training wheels on Bortles, only allowing him to throw short dump down routes and screens, Jacksonville may feel they can open up the playbook against a vulnerable Steelers secondary. This will bolstered by the news that Artie Burns hurt his knee in practice this week and either will not be 100 percent Sunday or will be rule out completely. Jacksonville’s success in this game will come from their willingness to test the Steelers secondary with their speedy receivers.
Steelers front seven vs. Leonard Fournette
Fournette torched the Steelers for 181 yards in October. Even when you take away his 90 yard run with less than two minutes to play, Fournette still averaged around 3.5 yards per carry on his other 27 rushes. Fournette entered the league with high expectations out of LSU, and has largely delivered in his first season. The rookie finished with over 1,000 yards in his first season, but has struggled in his last three outings –failing to eclipse 70 yards. The Steelers boast a top ten rush defense, but have been suspect against the run down the stretch without the anchor of their defense, Ryan Shazier. The Steelers have given up 100 yards or more on the ground three times in four games without Shazier, including twice yielding 150 or more rushing yards. It’s no secret the Steelers will see a heavy dose of Fournette on Sunday. Their ability to stop him and get off the field will be integral to their success against Jacksonville.
Prediction: The game will be much closer than the Jaguars pasting against the Steelers in Week 5. It is tough to beat a good team twice in the same season. Both teams will be playing with added intensity and energy given the comments said by the opposition, but the Jaguars cannot expect Roethlisberger to be as poor as he was in October again. Pittsburgh 24, Jacksonville 20