When they clash with the Jacksonville Jaguars at Heinz Field on Sunday, the Steelers will be facing a team possessed of surprising strengths, as well as glaring weaknesses. How well Pittsburgh tailors its offensive and defensive game plans to address the Jaguars’ pros and cons will determine whether the Black-and-gold claims its fourth win of the 2017 season.
In the strengths area, the Jaguars are currently leading the NFL in sacks with the gaudy total of 18. In particular, Jacksonville’s defensive ends pose a clear and present danger to any opposing quarterback, and Ben Roethlisberger is unlikely to have any surplus of time in the pocket to survey the field. Defensive End Calais Campbell leads the Jags’ charge with 5.5 sacks so far this season, while his counterparts, Defensive Ends Yannick Ngakoue and Dante Fowler are close behind with four and three sacks respectively. Among them, the Jags’ defensive ends also have six forced fumbles. These defensive stats seem to indicate that the Steelers’ offense would be wise to utilize the deep pass judiciously and avoid 2nd- or 3rd-and-long situations which allow Jacksonville’s aggressive pass rush to tee off.
Jacksonville ranks No. 2 in the NFL in rushing yards, led by its 2017 first-round draft pick (fourth overall selection) Leonard Fournette. While he possesses a skill set similar to that of Le’Veon Bell in terms of being effective both as a runner and a receiver, Fournette is a true, world-class athlete who’s a realistic threat to take it to the house on any given play. So there won’t be much room for slack by the Steelers’ defense with No. 27 on the field.
As for weaknesses, the Jags rank 30th in the league in passing yards and 18th in total offensive yardage. This is largely due to the underwhelming play of quarterback Blake Bortles, now in his fourth NFL season. Bortles is quite the mobile QB, however, having rolled up 98 yards rushing in four games—good for a 7-yard average.
The Jags’ 2-2 record includes only one game in which the final score was close. That was last weekend when the New York Jets defeated them 23-20 with an overtime field goal. Each of the two games Jacksonville has won were blowouts—one of them over the Baltimore Ravens (44-7) and the other one on Opening Day over the Houston Texans (29-7). That’s a margin of 59 points in only a pair of games, so the Jags definitely know how to keep the pedal to the metal when they’ve got a lead.
Without further ado, let’s take a look at the Three Keys to a Steelers’ victory:
Key No. 1: Stop the run
The Jags generally don’t beat you by throwing the ball, but their average ground game of 148.8 yards is something which the Steelers must limit. Fournette is the guy who should be on every Steeler defender’s radar screen—not only with the way he sheds tacklers, but also with his ability to run away from just about everyone in the open field.
Key No. 2: Neutralize Jacksonville’s pass rush
Le’Veon Bell might be the catalyst in this game, both as a runner and receiver, because he’s the player who can keep the Jags’ defense honest. Big Ben clearly will need to keep his head on a swivel in obvious passing situations. The Steelers’ offensive line definitely must turn in another solid performance. Todd Haley needs to script plays that keep Jacksonville’s defensive linemen back on their heels. If not, once this gang gets their motors running, they become quite hazardous to the health of opposing quarterbacks.
Key No. 3: Win the turnover battle
Jacksonville has routed opponents in a couple of games by taking away the ball and giving its offense short fields to work with. And given Pittsburgh’s offensive inconsistency, that’s not such a bad formula for the Black-and-gold to follow as well.