Steelers vs. Jaguars: 10 Things Steelers Fans Should Watch For in Week 6
In the late '90s, the young Jacksonville Jaguars were led by coach Tom Coughlin and southpaw quarterback Mark Brunell. Unlike previous expansion teams, the cats quickly grew claws, becoming not only a difficulty to dispatch, but the apparent class of the AFC Central in only a few seasons of existence.
Since the peak of the rivalry, Coughlin has won a Super Bowl with Eli Manning, and the coach who replaced him is in danger of making his own exit from the franchise.
With a rookie quarterback, a void of talent and the heat of a playoff mandate on Jack Del Rio, Jacksonville's day in the sun has transformed into another Miami fixture: a Florida storm. When it rains it pours, and the culmination of losing David Garrard and inability to infuse new talent seems to be quickly driving a stake into the heart of Jags leadership.
At 1-4, Jacksonville desperately needs a win to keep any fantasy for a miraculous run even remotely reasonable. Even with a victory, this would seem to be a stretch, and the notion of winning is sullied by the prospects of facing a Steelers team that is both determined and improving.
With check marks favoring Pittsburgh in nearly every column of the matchup, is there any chance for an upset?
And, no matter the final result, what are things for to watch for when the Black and Gold look to tear up the "Teal" this Sunday?
Here are 10 things for Steelers fans to watch for when Pittsburgh faces the struggling Jags.
He is called "Pocket Hercules," and the nickname fits his mold. Jones-Drew has broken the hearts of Steelers fans in the past, and his team needs him to run well on Sunday.
In fact, aside from a complete meltdown by the Steelers, Jones-Drew is the Jaguars' only legitimate threat towards winning. If Maurice is unable to run the ball, Jacksonville should lose in blowout fashion.
He ranks among the top five in the NFL with 476 rushing yards, averaging 5.0 yards per carry. His run average is the fourth best among backs with at least 80 carries.
Jones-Drew has beaten the Steelers in a variety of ways, ranging from his kickoff returns in a bitter wild card loss and his ability to make big plays on screen passes. While he is versatile, the Jaguars offense needs him to find success against the Steelers defensive front that showed vast improvement last Sunday.
Against the Texans, the Steelers defenders uncharacteristically missed tackles and did a poor job of bringing down ball carriers on first contact. While this changed against speedy Chris Johnson last weekend, Jones-Drew has immense body strength, able to drive through tacklers while also maneuvering his way through the smallest of openings with his compact frame.
In their ongoing effort to silence the notion of their age catching up to them on the field, Steelers defenders must tackle well to prevent large plays after contact for the Jaguars' main offensive weapon.
Without the threat of a running game, Blaine Gabbert will find Sunday, Oct. 16 to be among his most miserable as a professional football player.
The former Hopewell High School and Penn State Nittany Lions star returns for a homecoming performance. Steelers fans and Western Pennsylvanians take pride in the region as a football hotbed, rife with homegrown talent and NFL prospects.
From Joe Montana to Doug Buffone, professional football stars from the region of been many of wide range and from various positions. Posluszny adds to the rich tradition, which warrants the attention of prideful fans who will surely wish him well after Sunday's affair.
While he had 129 tackles in 2008 with the Buffalo Bills (he was named the team's defensive MVP), injuries have hampered the promise of his young career. Despite some setbacks, Paul had 151 tackles last season.
The Jaguars signed him to a lucrative deal in the offseason. "Poz" has registered 39 tackles and a sack in his five games in 2011.
The success of the region's young athletes is a great source of pride, and Posluszny continues the wonderful tradition of establishing Western PA as true football factory!
Jaguars Passing Offense vs. Steelers Passing Defense
Overall, the Steelers pass defense ranks fourth in total yardage surrendered in 2011. The Jaguars rank 31st in offensive passing and 30th with six yards per attempt.
The Steelers top the league in holding opposing passers to 5.6 yards per attempt this season.
While "something has to give" has become a popular phrase, the stark contrast in the abilities of these units begs the question, "What could possibly give?!"
It seems that another frustrating Sunday is in store for the Jacksonville offense, who hopes that Maurice Jones-Drew is able to run the ball, thus opening up the playbook and allowing for play action opportunities.
Without these factors of deterrence, the matchup clearly favors the Steelers to a monumental degree. Jaguars receivers Mike Thomas and Jason Hill do not bring the same downfield impact that exists on most rosters, and tight end Mercedes Lewis has been held to under 40 yards in every game this season.
With a rookie quarterback anchoring the talent and completing under half of his passes, Sunday's assignment cannot be considered a tonic unless the goal is to find some bad medicine.
After all, Ike Taylor has been lights-out at corner, and the Steelers defensive backs have not had their names mentioned too frequently—a good sign for the position!
Troy Polamalu continues to be a disruptive force upfront, but he has shown great instinct in breaking up key passes both downfield and in the red zone.
If Jags fans can take any inspiration from their offensive roster, it is their quarterback. Gabbert has managed to avoid many of the rookie mistakes seen from other first-year starters (only two interceptions) while throwing a touchdown in each of his first three starts. If not for a bad snap, it is possible that he could have led the Jaguars into Heinz Field off a comeback win over the Bengals.
The Maniacal Mister LeBeau Versus the Rookie Quarterback
Against an offense that has struggled and which largely features youth (with all of its athletic hubris), who else can picture Dick LeBeau in his dark room, film rolling, scratching down various concoctions to confuse and frustrate the Jags?
Nobody is able to scheme as well as father time, and to study his face—it seems Dick LeBeau is able to defy even him! His defensive schemes are a perfect brew for embarrassment if the Jaguars aren't playing at the top of their game.
While the Steelers have struggled to contain veteran quarterbacks with the ability to spread the field, the Jaguars represent a formula that Pittsburgh is easily able to eradicate: a quarterback barely above drinking age without a lot of weapons.
Without some herculean help from his mates, the Jaguars quarterback seems doomed to fall prey to the ageless defensive coordinator.
In fact, many rookie quarterbacks have struggled in recent seasons against the Steelers defense and mastermind Dick LeBeau.
The master of defense and connoisseur of 3-4, it will be exhilarating to witness all of the unexpected surprises that LeBeau has conjured for Jacksonville.
A few slides into the analysis, and the game seems to have the makings for an obvious outcome, sans for one important detail:
It's the NFL, or the Nobody Figured League! On any given Sunday, any outcome is possible. Still, the Jaguars need to play well around their young signal-caller to prevent the Steelers defense from making his head spin.
Mendenhall and Redman Against Surprisingly Pesky Jags Run Defense
Remember how Jacksonville had two solid tackles in Henderson and Stroud back in the day? Today, the starters are Terrance Knighton and Tyson Alualu.
So, the run defense is not what it used to be..........right?
Though Henderson and Stroud are no longer in teal, the defensive front of 2011 has held its own in Jacksonville. In fact, teams have found it difficult to pick up consistent ground yardage against the feisty Jags.
In other words, the contest marks a fine test for the Steelers, whose running game got back on track last weekend.
While Jonathan Dwyer had an exceptional outing with 107 yards against Tennessee, the majority of carries going forward in 2011 will be split between Isaac Redman and Rashard Mendenhall.
Rashard will get the start against Jacksonville, though he has struggled to find anywhere to run in 2011. Meanwhile, Isaac Redman is beginning to endear himself into the hearts of the Steelers faithful, picking up hard yards, running with brute force and giving the offense a surge (at long last!) against a Titans defense that was ranked among the best in football.
The performances of both backs will determine who sees the bulk of carries going forward, and both backs will need to bring their A-game. For their struggles, the Jaguars defensive front has only allowed 3.7 yards per rushing attempt this season.
Mendenhall needs a marquee game to establish himself headed toward much more stiff competition in the coming weeks.
With stopping the run being Jacksonville's strength, can Steelers runners continue to improve on the ground against the Jags?
The Red Hot Seat of Del Rio
The proposition was clear: make the playoff or you are out. While this is not a verbatim recollection of terms, owner Wayne Weaver made his expectations quite plain to Jack Del Rio.
Naturally, Del Rio and the Jaguars rid themselves of experienced quarterback David Garrard, and they may want to reconsider the move if the final standings in 2011 are truly a direct correlation to the job status of the Jacksonville head coach.
Under Del Rio, the Jaguars have made the playoffs only twice in nine seasons, with a lone victory over the Steelers to show for it. In fact, minus a controversial non-call against the offensive line and a magnificent play by Garrard (you know, the guy they ousted!), his playoff record could easily be 0-2.
At 1-4, Jack's seat is about as hot as Megan Fox sitting in the Florida sun, relaxing on the beach and signalling you over with one hand while holding lotion in the other. Biting her lower lip, and gently....I digress!
Either way, his seat is scorching. One gets the feeling that one horrendous loss or terrible coaching decision could expedite the change, as Del Rio is only a Sporano away from being the NFL's coach with the shortest leash.
Should the Steelers embarrass the Jaguars, as many are predicting, could that be cause for immediate change? Is a coaching move a consideration in the middle of the season in Jacksonville?
What if the Jaguars are in position to win, and an edgy roll of the dice by Del Rio backfires?
Sure, it's all speculation, but the point is that it's all to that point at this point. Get the point?
AFC South Stigmas (Part 2 of 2): The Steelers Still Owe the Jaguars
Last week, the Steelers began a set of games against two AFC South opponents who have historically been a source of frustration. With a win over the Titans, the team sets its sights on the Jacksonville Jaguars, another franchise that has given Pittsburgh fits!
In the spring of 1995, two games stood out as nearly automatic wins to most Steelers fans. Those contests pitted Pittsburgh against the "pitiful," the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars. After all, expansion teams were "freebies," and to many towel-twirling fans, Pittsburgh was perceived as having a 2-0 handicap heading into the year.
Yet, in lieu of all of that business, nothing was odder in the AFC Central than those new cats with the teal uniforms.
Unlike prior expansions, the two teams were afforded additional draft picks on top of the expansion lottery, which allowed them to pick players from the other NFL franchises.
On top of this, the free agency era, which allowed teams to wheel and deal for players more freely than restrictive eras, gave the squads the opportunity to solidify an actual competitive roster.
Like a defensive kitten with sharp teeth and a penchant to strike its claws at those who approach it, the Jags were pesky. Steelers fans perceived a 20-16 loss to the expansion Jaguars as a display of their own team's deficiencies.
And, as it would turn out, the Steelers never really got to beat down the lame "expansion team." From the start, the Jaguars were better than expected- and even good!
The storied Steelers saw the Browns leave town, and with Baltimore off to a slow start, it was absolutely unexpected that the Jacksonville Jaguars, who hardly earned their stripes for such successes, would be their new arch-rival.
Yet, that's exactly how it was!
Losing in 1995 in the clubs' first-ever meeting, the Steelers wrote the defeat off as an aberration, defeating the Jags later in the season, 24-7, during a classic win streak that propelled them to their first Super Bowl since 1980.
For the Jaguars, there was a simple truism. The fast track to NFL legitimacy would be to dethrone the storied Steelers.
Immediately, Jacksonville held true to their belief that beating Pittsburgh was critical to their success. The Steelers lost all of their first five road games against the Florida rivals, assuring the seeds of NFL rivalry would be planted and properly cultivated: balance of power....and hatred!
The Jaguars viewed the Steelers as "beating big brother," while the Men of Steel saw their ego as bruised with losses to the young franchise. By 1997, the most classic season of the rivalry, both teams had legitimate Super Bowl aspirations. Yet, the Steelers, for superiority or pride or both, fended off Jacksonville in their pursuit of the division title.
Nevertheless, like the car of the same name, the Jaguars wasted little time out of the gates, winning the AFC Central by 1998.
Realignment in 2002 separated the Steelers from their hated impersonators, but the ire of a heated rivalry continues to feed both teams when they meet for occasional inter-divisional battles to this day.
The Jaguars still call it "Pittsburgh Week," and the Steelers and their fans certainly want to set the record straight against a franchise that has won exactly six fewer Super Bowls, yet boasts a distinct advantage in the series, 12-9.
The edge includes a four-game win streak, shutout, and a three-game stretch in which the Steelers did not score a touchdown.
Even after the divisions were changes, the Jags continued to pester Pittsburgh, beating the Steelers in Mike Tomlin's inaugural playoff game as head coach.
Surely, some fans in the 'Burgh see these games as a chance for big brother to finally put that "little pest in his place!"
This Sunday, the Steelers have a chance to appease fans who have long awaited the day that the team took care of business against the Jacksonville Jaguars!
Wide Receivers Galore!
Much like their run defense, Jacksonville has fared decently against the pass. While not as dominating in the first five weeks as the front, defensive backs in Jacksonville have managed to contain opposing passers.
So, what does this mean for the Steelers amazing depth chart at receiver? It simply means that the corp has to come though again!
Hines Ward had his first breakout performance of the season in a contest against Tennessee that cured many Steelers ailments.
Across the field, Mike Wallace's production has steadied, but the dynamic receiver is still on pace for over 1,700 receiving yards.
Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders have come though opportunistically all season, and the momentum carried by one over the other in the court of public opinion seems to sway back and forth with each given week.
Meanwhile, the Jets offense is searching for a true identity, and many would argue that their roster changes at receiver have actually been a downgrade from last season.
Yet, Steelers fans await his first shining moment of the season. Injuries have hampered the receiver, who ranks fifth on the depth chart in Pittsburgh. Shortly after his acquisition, fans mentioned Cotchery as a "Steelers guy," a tough receiver and playmaker who would fit into the team's offense nicely.
The whole receiving corp hosts enough dynamic angles to make the game interesting by themselves:
Can Ward have another game in the likeness of 2004?
Will Wallace get back to the 100-yard games that defined him in September?
Who will be the third receiver of favor after this week: Brown or Sanders?
And, when will Jericho finally catch a pass in Black and Gold?
Hampton or Hoke? Who Gets the Start at Nose Tackle?
The key to stopping Jacksonville is stuffing Maurice Jones-Drew and—subsequently—getting pressure on Blaine Gabbert.
The key to successfully running the 3-4 defense is a solid interior nose tackle who can dominate at his position.
Putting these principles together, it is easy to establish the importance of the question as to who will start at nose tackle.
If Casey Hampton returns, it will be important to see improvement from the typically stellar Steelers lineman. In the early weeks of the season, it was obvious that Hampton was losing individual battles that he normally would win.
Yet, the defensive tackle has yet to participate in practice this week. Without the freshness that comes from popping pads during the week, one must expect the second consecutive start of Chris Hoke.
Hoke put in yeoman's work against Tennessee, making his place along the defensive line a comfortable backup plan for the Black and Gold.
A key element to preventing an upset loss to the struggling Jags, the Steelers can do a great deal toward assuring a win by demonstrating dominance along the interior of the defensive front.
Whether Hampton or Hoke, the message is simple: be big!
Winning the Turnover Battle = Blowing out the Jaguars
Against a Jaguars offense that does not promise to have a great deal of offensive production, the Steelers can take a huge step toward an expected victory by simply protecting the football.
While Blaine Gabbert has done well in avoiding turnovers, the Steelers defense can also amplify the team's already tremendous odds of victory by finally forcing some mistakes.
While the Jaguars have only registered eight sacks and the defense ranks among the middle of the league, the Steelers have still made the careless turnover an unsavory habit in this young season. If anything could become the catalyst for an upset, the turnover is the king.
After having a career day against the Titans, Ben Roethlisberger will go back to work against the struggling Jaguars. While five touchdowns is splendid and big numbers are exciting, Ben's most important role in the football game is to deliver solid play without the risk that comes with unnecessary...well, risks!
With great success comes swagger. Sometimes, swagger can make units careless!
The Steelers offense is rife with talent at skill positions, making the unit exciting to watch and capable of a big play at any moment. Hopefully, that side of their game shows up Sunday at Heinz Field.
Mark it down: If the team can win the turnover battle, the game is already over.