Steelers vs. Jaguars: Five Players to Watch in Pittsburgh's Game Against Jacksonville

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 9: Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin looks on against the Tennessee Titans during the game on October 9, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

The Jaguars are coming to town! I don't know about you, but ever since 2007 I have a bitter taste in my mouth whenever I see or hear about this green team from Jacksonville. But aside from a few key figures, this Jaguars team doesn't have much in common with its 2007 version that beat our beloved Steelers twice on Heinz Field in the winter of 2007/2008. After winning their opener against Tennessee, Jacksonville promptly lost four straight games and will come into Heinz Field on Sunday carrying a 1-4 record while relying on a rookie QB to lead the way. 

The Steelers on the other hand finally seem on an upward trend. A disappointing loss to Houston was followed by a statement win against Tennessee, during which struggling players such as Ben Roethlisberger and Doug Legursky redeemed themselves to many fans. Steelers fans got to see the whole package, from exciting trick plays and a quick-hitting offense to a stout defense that left Titans running back Chris Johnson wondering where to replace his broken gold grillz.

Especially the improved run defense was a crucial improvement for Pittsburgh after a shaky first four weeks. It will be tested once again this Sunday, when small-but-mighty Maurice Jones-Drew comes to town. Steelers fans will painfully remember (or have chosen to forget) his lethal kick returns in 2007, but MJD has made a name for himself by now as an elite NFL back. On the other side of the ball, cornerback Rashean Mathis is licking his chops at the prospect of facing Roethlisberger once again. Needless to say that despite the Jacksonville's pedestrian record, the Steelers will have their work cut out for them. A stout performance by these Five Players to Watch will be crucial toward securing Pittsburgh's first winning streak of the season

5. Hines Ward, Wide Receiver, #86, 14th Year

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The reports of Hines Ward's death have been greatly exaggerated. He showed as much when he caught 7 passes and scored two touchdowns against Tennessee after being largely ignored during the first four games. Ward's most impressive play came on his second score, when he leaped over a Titans defender who was not going to deny Hines his 85th career touchdown. As of right now, he is on pace for 64 catches, 608 yards, and between six and seven touchdowns in 2011. With 13 more receiving yards on Sunday, he will eclipse Hall of Famer Michael Irvin for 19th place in career NFL receiving yards. Not bad for a 35 year old surrounded by young talent.

In the Steelers' convincing win over Tennessee, Ward showed that he can still be a significant part of this offense. He repeatedly caught passes over the middle, showing his toughness especially on one play early in the second half while taking a big hit. Others might have dropped the ball, but Hines did what we all love him doing - he jumped up with the ball, flashed his wide grin, and ran back into the huddle. Was it a coincidence that the first game majorly involving Ward on offense was also the Steelers' most convincing offensive display of this young season? You decide. Either way, what we have come to love for the past decade might be coming to an end soon. As Neal Coolong reported, Ward announced on Thursday that he will not be playing past the 2013 season, giving fans the opportunity to enjoy only a few more years of this football player who has so greatly endeared himself to his team and fans since 1998. Hines will be a player to watch because of his ability to set a tone for the offense, but also because the time to watch him perform has suddenly become limited. Let's hope he follows up his display last week with an equally impressive performance against Jacksonville.

 

4. Rashard Mendenhall, Running Back, #34, 4th Year

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Oh, Rashard Mendenhall. What do we make of you? You follow up a great season that had many hoping for your ascend into elite status with a tumultuous off season and a mediocre-at-best start to 2011, culminating in an injury that some (including, admittedly, me) welcomed as a chance to watch your backup play. As of right now, you are the one member of the Steelers family that has been the subject of some quiet trade proposals by fans. But others including your coaches still believe in you, and you will get your usual opportunity to start against Jacksonville on Sunday.

To fall back on an overused cliche, the NFL is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league. Who cares about Mendenhall's 13 touchdowns in 2010 if he plays like he did in the first four games? Admittedly, his offensive line has been sub par in that stretch, but that same unit opened some nice holes against Tennessee that his backups Isaac Redman and especially Jonathan Dwyer were able to exploit. It will be Mendenhall's turn against the Jaguars, who despite their 1-4 record have been quite stout against the run by allowing only 3.7 yards per carry and 3 rushing touchdowns. However, as our friends on BitCatCountry noticed, the Jaguars quite regularly lined up in a 4-1-6 formation on passing downs. The Steelers under Arians have liked to run out of shotgun and 3 WR formations, so Mendenhall might be able to exploit the lack of linebackers opposing him. But more importantly, Mendenhall has responded quite well to controversy  in the past. It's easy to forget that his first game as a starter came in 2009 against San Diego, a game after Tomlin benched him in week 3 for not knowing his assignments. Mendenhall rushed for 165 yards and two touchdowns against the Chargers, and went on to total 1,100 yards in the last 13 games of 2009. A similar outburst for this season would be greatly appreciated.

 

3. Chris Hoke, Nose Tackle, #76, 11th Year

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Chris Hoke is one of those players that just won't go away. He was supposed to be over the hill, not able to contribute to this defense anymore, and just taking a roster spot away from a young talent at nose tackle. These sentiments were seemingly confirmed when against Houston in week 3, Hoke subbed in at defensive end and got blown off the ball on numerous occasions. When Casey Hampton was unavailable against Tennessee, I was among those hoping for Steve McLendon to get the start over Hoke. I'm glad I'm not a coach.

Playing the Titans, the 35 year old Hoke showed once again while the Steelers keep him around. He plugged the middle as well as any Pittsburgh nose tackle this season, playing a major part in bottling up all pro running back Chris Johnson. The stat sheet only shows 2 tackles, but if you watched the game you saw the impact that Hoke had on shoring up the Steelers' run defense, which had been such a concern in weeks prior. Here's a wacky stat for you: In games that Hoke starts, the Steelers are now 16-1. Yes, ten of those starts (all wins) might have come during the memorable 2004 campaign, but it's an impressive statistic nonetheless. Tomlin's favorite expression that "the standard is the standard" certainly applies to Hoke. But he will need to prove his worth once again in facing Jacksonville, as the Jaguars mark the second team in two weeks coming to town with a dangerous rushing attack. Maurice Jones-Drew might be small, but he is a power back that likes to get his yards up the middle and after contact. In other words, he is exactly the kind of back that needs a strong nose tackle to succeed against. If Hoke shows up in the same fashion as he did last Sunday, the Jaguars' most dangerous offensive weapon might very well be neutralized.

 

2. Max Starks, Left Tackle, #78, 8th Year

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Much has been said about the return of Max Starks to the Steelers. The long-time starter at offensive tackle was released before the start of training camp due to weight concerns, but was signed back to the team before the Titans game because of a rash of injuries along the offensive line. After only three practices with the team, Starks was inserted at left tackle and immediately performed up to snuff with convincing blocks in both the running and the passing game. His chemistry with left guard Legursky and Roethlisberger's delight of having his best friend on the team were clearly visible.

Against the Jaguars, we will be able to see whether his performance last week was just a fluke or whether he makes a significant difference in the Steelers' offensive line performance. The return of Starks frees up Jonathan Scott to step in at right tackle, where rookie Marcus Gilbert will miss the game due to injury. In his first game back, Starks was a clear upgrade over Scott at left tackle, while the latter seemed more comfortable playing on the right side once Gilbert had to leave the game. As a result, offensive line performed admirably against the Titans, and will have to repeat its performance against the Jaguars in order to secure a win. All five members will play a part in keeping Roethlisberger upright and creating holes for Mendenhall, but none will face stiffer competition than Starks. He will line up against Jeremy Mincey, a defensive end who is arguably Jacksonville's best pass rusher and leads the team with 18 quarterback pressures. Watching Starks over the years, the most frustrating aspect of his game for me has always been his inconsistency. Too often have we seen him neutralize a pro bowl pass rusher, only to come back and let an unknown player make a name for himself by covering Roethlisberger in dirt. Facing Mincey, Starks can't afford to let up against the Jaguars, and like Hoke will have to repeat his impressive performance from last week.

 

1. Troy Polamalu, Strong Safety, #43, 9th Year

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Troy Polamalu is another player that many fans were concerned about after his plethora of injuries in recent past. But if the early season is any indication, he is back; as dangerous and unpredictable as ever. His number of 'Sportscenter Top 10' plays might not be as high as it has been, but he continues to make astonishing plays all over the field such as this impressive open field tackle against Titans running back Chris Johnson. When Steeler fans see #43's long, flowing hair line up by the line of scrimmage, they know that something good is going to happen.

Well, there is a good chance that we will see plenty of Polamalu against Jacksonville. The Jaguars are starting a rookie at quarterback in Blaine Gabbert, who replaced Luke McCown in week 2 but has only completed less than 50% of his passes for the 3rd worst paser rating in the league (71.2). Many talented young quarterbacks have paid dearly for their first visit to Heinz Field, where raucous fans combine with Dick LeBeau's affinity of dialing up pressure to leave them dazed and confused. Gabbert doesn't have a lot of receiving talent to work with, but if the Steelers can stop Jones-Drew early he might be forced to throw more often than he is comfortable with. That is the time to shine for Polamalu, generally a crucial component to the confusion created by LeBeau and his defense. Taking Troy into account will require Gabbert to hold the ball just a little longer, not a good plan with players like LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons slowly rounding into form. I fully expect Polamalu to come up with at least one turnover against the Jaguars, proving once again why he was last year's defensive player of the year.

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Additional players might be worth keeping an eye out as well. Antonio Brown makes big plays in special teams seemingly every week, and looks due to take one to the house. The linebacking corps led by Woodley and James Farrior looked much improved against the Titans, and will need to continue putting pressure on Gabbert and the run game. Finally, the Steelers' offensive line will start its sixth combination in as many weeks, and its collective performance is always worth keeping an eye on. Who are your Five Players to Watch against Jacksonville?

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