The answer to how far the Jacksonville Jaguars defense has carried the team this season can be largely answered with one stat.
Quarterback Blake Bortles has failed to throw for 100 yards twice this season. Once was last weekend against Buffalo, when he became just the second quarterback in the past 25 years (Michael Vick, 2005) to have more rushing yards (88) than passing yards (87) in a playoff game. The second was Week 5 in Pittsburgh.
The Jaguars’ record in those games? 2-0.
Bortles threw for just 95 yards with no touchdowns and an interception in the first meeting on Oct. 1, but the Jaguars didn’t need him to do much more than that in a 30-9 shellacking of the Steelers on their home turf.
That was due in large part to rookie running back Leonard Fournette ripping off 181 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries, while the Jaguars’ athletic defense intercepted Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger five times — including a pair of pick-sixes. He finished with a QBR of 22.2 and a passer rating of 37.8.
“It’s about rush and coverage for them,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said about the Jaguars’ defense. “They’ve got top-flight people up front. They get it done.”
Naturally, Jacksonville (11-6) would like to replicate the Week 5 formula, but it won’t be a simple task when the Jaguars return to Heinz Field for Sunday’s Divisional Playoff game (1:05 p.m. ET on CBS). In fact, Jacksonville defensive coordinator Todd
Wash said he hasn’t spent much time reviewing the first meeting.
“We don’t even look at it much,” he said Thursday. “I don’t think that game has any bearing on what’s going to happen in this game. They’ve changed a bunch and how we’re getting attacked has changed. We’re getting attacked a little bit different.”
Pittsburgh (13-3) has won 10 of 11 games since that beat down, and the 35-year-old Roethlisberger has quieted talks about a potential demise with 22 touchdown passes against seven interceptions. That has coincided with the emergence of rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster, who led the NFL with 332 receiving yards in the final two games of the regular season while Antonio Brown was sidelined with a calf injury.
Brown is expected to return, although it’s unknown if — or how much — he will be limited. He caught 10 passes for 157 yards in the first meeting and combined with Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant will make for an outstanding matchup against Jaguars cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye.
“Their back end is brought together by their two Pro Bowl corners, who are playing at an extremely high level,” Tomlin said. “They get picks, they take advantage of the opportunities when presented … the people who play on the back end deliver the splash.”
Roethlisberger was forced to throw 55 times in the first meeting, compared to just 14 attempts for Bortles. The Steelers were playing out of a deep early hole, and Le’Veon Bell managed just 47 yards on 15 carries. Pittsburgh no doubt will effort to get him heavily involved out of the game as a runner and a receiver to take the sting out of Jacksonville’s strong front seven.
When balanced, few offenses are more explosive than Pittsburgh’s. Roethlisberger sat out the regular-season finale, but has still scored 16 total touchdowns while turning the ball over just four times and averaging 325.5 yards per game since Week. 11.
“Pittsburgh’s gotten a heck of a lot better,” said Wash. “And we’ve changed quite a bit as we’ve gone through the season.”
The Steelers also have the benefit of coming off a bye week after finishing as the No. 2 seed in the AFC, while the Jaguars are coming off a hard-fought win over the Bills in the wild-card round.
The Steelers finished 10th in rushing defense during the regular season, but they are without injured linebacker Ryan Shazier and the Jaguars led the league in rushing.
“They ran the ball extremely effectively against us last time,” Tomlin said. “Leonard Fournette was central to that, but you can fool yourself if you’re only committed to stopping him. We have to do a good job for 60 minutes in all areas if we want to minimize the ways they run the ball, and the ways that they possess the ball and control the game.”
With Bortles appearing tentative throwing the ball last week but possessing the ability to contribute to the ground game, his legs could prove to be as big a factor as his arm — as long as he can avoid turnovers.
“The thing about Blake is he has these legs on him that really can change the momentum of the game,” said Jaguars offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, who acknowledge the importance of the ground game Sunday. “It’s one of those things where you have to be happy with a two-yard gain.
“It’s like, ‘One’s going to happen here pretty soon. You’re going to get that long run.’ The big thing is just committing to it. If you commit to it, it gives you better third-down situations. You just keep on rolling and keep stressing the defense to be perfect every single play.”
–Derek Harper, Field Level Media