The Steelers are on Monday Night Football! I expect a distracted workday out of all of you. Don't worry though, I heard an article on the radio about a group of men who got promotions and raises at work because of their interest in fantasy football.
On to the game, which will air on ESPN at 8:30 p.m. EST. Tonight marks the first big test for the 2006 Pittsburgh Steelers. Win, and they've proved that they're still the team to beat in the AFC. If they lose, it would hardly be the end of the world, but it would nevertheless be a sobering reminder of the competitive nature of the NFL. Let's face it, the AFC North looks awfully tough with the Bengals and the Ravens both winning their first two games in convincing fashion. With a huge game next week at divisional rival Cincinnati, it'd be nice to get a win and head into the showdown with as much positive momentum as the Bengals currently have.
When Jacksonville has the ball...
There were four teams who went 12-4 or better last year; Jacksonville was one of them. Despite the impressive record, the Jaguar offense was relatively average last season . Their rushing attack was 10th best in the league; their passing attack 19th. The Jaguars have made few changes at the skill positions, the most notable being the departure of longtime WR Jimmy Smith. Veteran RB Fred Taylor is still the primary ball carrier in Jacksonville. Last year, Taylor was 24th in the NFL in rushing yards, with 787 yards on 194 carries. Backing him up this year is Maurice Jones-Drew, the speedy rookie out of UCLA. I honestly don't see how Fred Taylor will be able to have a big game against the rush defense of the Steelers. Casey Hampton takes up too much space, Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel are playing at a high level, and our LBs are too fast and disciplined in my mind for Jacksonville to have sustained success running the ball with the slower Fred Taylor. If anybody's going to break a big run against us tonight, it's going to be Maurice Jones-Drew.
Byron Leftwich had an up-and-down year in 2005. The Jaguars started the season just 4-3 , with poor losses against the St. Louis Rams and New York Jets, and impressive victories against the Steelers, the Bengals, and the Seahawks. Leftwich then steadied the ship, winning five in a row before falling to the Indianapolis Colts.
Byron Leftwich and the Jags hope to be dancing by game's end Monday.
The Jaguars are stacked with talented, but not yet proven, wide receivers. Ernest Wilford is the team's career leader in catches for a WR with a measly 60 receptions under his belt coming into this year. Yikes. The Jaguars are counting on Matt Jones, the 2nd year converted QB out of Arkansas, to pick up the slack left by Jimmy Smith. As I've said in previous posts, Jones is a freakish athlete, with sub-4.4 speed, a big frame, and a soft set of hands. Byron Leftwich is not afraid to use his cannon arm to throw the ball into tight spaces, so expect Matt Jones to be in several 1-on-1 jump-ball type situations tonight. I can only hope our corners are up to the challenge.
The Jaguars also have some question marks on the offensive line. Tackles Khalif Barnes and Stockar McDougle have potential but haven't progresses as much as the Jaguars would have liked. The Jaguars do have some continuity within the unit with Brett Meester at center and Vince Manuwai at right guard. Unfortunately for the group though, ex-Vikings coach Mike Tice is now helping coach the offensive line. That can't be a good thing.
When Pittsburgh has the ball...The Jaguars won so many games last year on account of their defense (and weak schedule, but we won't talk about that). The Jaguar D finished 6th in scoring defense at 16.8 points per game. The Jags were particularly stout against the run in the redzone, allowing only 4 running TDs all last year. Defensive tackles John Henderson and Marcus Stroud anchor the interior, with Rob Meier and Paul Spicer providing a pass rush on the outside. The two combined for 13.5 sacks last year.
Daryl Smith and Mike Peterson return as starting LBs, with Peterson accumulating 131 tackles a season ago. The Jaguars also brought in Nick Greisen from the New York Giants to play Right Outside Linebacker. Greisen did pick off a pass in Week 1, but I think we'll be able to exploit his side of the defense in the running game tonight.
Jacksonville had one of the better secondarys in 2005. allowing just 184.1 yards per game, good for 7th best in the NFL . Their 19 INTs were also 7th best a year ago. Rashean Mathis is joined by newcomer Brian Williams as the starting cornerbacks. Mathis picked off 5 balls in 2005, and didn't take long to record his first in 2006, picking off Drew Bledsoe in Week 1. Both starting safetys, Deon Grant and Donovin Darius, are also back in 2006. I hope we run the ball well tonight and force their secondary to cheat slightly against the run. These guys are playmakers and are quite adept at forcing turnovers in obvious passing situations.
If we can get out of the gates with an early TD to settle Ben down and keep the Jaguars faithful from getting too rowdy, I think we will be just fine. I see the Jaguars having a hard time running the ball tonight, and like always, I have faith Dick LeBeau will find a way to get to Byron Leftwich when it matters most. Despite all this, this game should be close and decided in the 4th quarter. If Willie Parker can get it going like he did in Week 1 against the Dolphins, a lot of pressure will be taken off Roethlisberger, who's obviously going to be nervous and excited to be back in action. I expect him to hold up just fine and lead the Steelers to a 21-16 victory tonight.