1:05 PM EST, CBS – Line: Steelers -7, Over/Under: 41
The second half of Division Round Weekend kicks off with a rematch from a shocking Regular Season Upset, as the Jacksonville Jaguars return to Heinz Field to face the Pittsburgh Steelers, looking to best them for the second time this year, and advance to their first AFC Championship Game since 1999. Despite a plethora of criticism launched at their struggling Quarterback (which we’ll delve into shortly), the Jaguars (10-6, 1st in AFC South) must feel confident as they head into their rematch with the Steelers, for Heinz Field holds a special bit of significance for this franchise. After all, that particular venue served as the sight of their last real Playoff Triumph; back in 2007, Jacksonville stormed into Pittsburgh, overcoming a late rally from the home side to steal a 31-29 victory, which prior to last weekend’s win over the Buffalo Bills, was the last time that they experienced any kind of success in the Postseason. In fact, that was the last time that they were even in the Playoffs. Ten years later and they find themselves in a familiar situation, brining a dominant Defense and a punishing Rushing Attack into Western Pennsylvania for a battle that may resemble a bloodbath. Again, don’t expect this young team to be wide-eyed at this stage of the game, for today’s affair could carry a strong sense off deja vu. Back on October 8th, Doug Marrone’s charges channeled their 2007 counterparts as they absolutely embarrassed the Steelers in a 30-9 drubbing on their home field; the visiting side attacked them both offensively and defensively, with Rookie Tailback Leonard Fournette (268 CAR, 1,040 YDS, 9 TD) rushing for a career-high 181 Yards and Two Touchdowns on Twenty-Eight Carries (highlighted by an insane 90-Yard score in the Fourth Quarter), while the Defense tormented Ben Roethlisberger throughout the contest, intercepting the veteran Quarterback a staggering five times, returning a pair for Touchdowns. And it was that performance that would serve as a microcosm for their season, as the Jaguars physically dominated an opponent in spite of their much-maligned Quarterback, Blake Bortles (60.2%, 3,687 YDS, 6.52 NY/A, 21 TD, 13 INT). The former No. 3 Overall Pick has been a lightning rod for criticism not just in Northeastern Florida, but around the league in general, with many expressing their opinion that the Fourth-Year Veteran has done little more than hold this team back from greater things. In the final year of his contract, this season has been very important to his future with the Franchise, and while he has certainly improved in a number of areas, the general consensus is that he simply hasn’t made the requisite progress needed to rationalize a hefty, long-term investment. Pay little mind to the dreaded vote of confidence that the Front Office showed in him shortly before last weekend’s 10-3 victory over the Bills, for Bortles’ performance failed to inspire anything remotely close to that feeling; the Signal-Caller very nearly squandered yet another stellar showing from his teammates on Defense (Two Takeaways), completing just 12-of-23 Passes for Eighty-Seven Yards and a Touchdown, while rushing for another Eighty-Eight Yards on Ten Carries, becoming the first Starting Quarterback in NFL History to win a Playoff Game in which he ran for more yards than he threw. As a result, the Offense struggled mightily to move the football, amassing a scant 230 Total Yards on Fifteen First Downs, while converting on a miserable 2-of-12 Third Downs. It was eerily reminiscent of their previous meeting with Pittsburgh, in which Bortles floundered in a similar manner, completing 8-of-14 Attempts for Ninety-Five Yards and an Interception, despite the win. Needless to say, at some point Marrone & Co. are going to need this guy to make some plays with his ARM from the POCKET, no matter how much the Coaching Staff have gone out of their way to keep the ball out of his hands, effectively minimizing his mistakes. After watching their Quarterback throw a league-worst Fifty-One Interceptions over the three previous seasons, they put virtually all of their eggs in the Running Game, ranking first in the NFL in both Rushing Attempts (32.9 A/G) and Rushing Yards (141.4 Y/G), all the while being the only team to sport five different players with 200+ Rushing Yards, one of which was Bortles (57 CAR, 322 YDS, 2 TD). However, that approach has only taken them so far, for despite all of their success on the ground, Jacksonville has still been hard-pressed to move the football with regularity, converting on just 37.3% of their Third Downs (20th Overall), which is a damning reflection on their Quarterback’s inability to keep Drives moving despite constantly being in favorable Down and Distance. Thankfully, the Defense has continued to give him opportunity after opportunity to get it right, for the Jaguars have at times been biblical on this side of the ball, owning arguably the finest collection of talent and depth in the league. Size? Speed? Athleticism? A meanstreak? This unit has it all, relegating the opposition to 16.8 Points (2nd Overall) on 286.2 Total Yards (2nd Overall), including a league-low 169.9 Yards against the Pass (1st Overall) on 4.8 Net Yards per Attempt (1st Overall), and another 116.3 Yards versus the Run (21st Overall) on 4.3 yards per Carry (26th Overall), along with Thirty-Three Takeaways (2nd Overall) and Fifty-Five Sacks (2nd Overall). Furthermore, they’ve been just as good from a situational perspective, permitting a 33.6% Conversion Rate on Third Down (4th Overall) and a 39.3% Touchdown Rate in the Red Zone (2nd Overall). And consider this: in this pass-happy era of football that we’re embroiled in, the Jags 169.9 Passing Yards Allowed is less than the average figure relinquished by the likes of the 2013 Seattle Seahawks, 2000 Baltimore Ravens, and the 1985 Chicago Bears, three of the greatest Defenses in NFL History.
Meanwhile, despite getting hammered in their previous meeting with the Jaguars, the Steelers (13-3, 1st in AFC North) have publicly expressed their desire for a rematch in recent weeks, and stand poised to follow through on that notion after enjoying a much-needed Bye Week. Well, let’s call it a Two-Week Bye, given that many of their prominent figures sat out the Regular Season Finale against the woeful Cleveland Browns, which was academic when you consider how infrequently their cadre of stars have managed to remain healthy at this point of the campaign in years past. Case in point, in addition to missing a sizable piece of their Defense (Pro Bowl Linebacker Ryan Shazier has been out since early December after suffering a scary spinal injury), All-Pro Receiver Antonio Brown (101 REC, 1,553 YDS, 9 TD) has been on the mend for the last three weeks after partially tearing his Left Calf Muscle in a controversial 27-24 loss at home to the New England Patriots. The league’s most prolific Wideout over the past five seasons, topping 100 Receptions in each term, the NFL’s leader in Receiving Yards has been given the green light from the team’s Medical Staff to suit up today, though it should be interesting to see just how much of an impact he’ll have on the game. As we highlighted earlier, Jacksonville’s Pass Defense has been all-time great this season, and tough he did rack up 157 Yards against them back in early October, the 6-Time Pro Bowler was also force-fed the football, targeted a whopping NINETEEN times by his Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (64.2%, 4,251 YDS, 7.07 NY/A, 28 TD, 14 INT), who experienced arguably his worst day as professional, throwing a career-worst Five Interceptions. And it’s that performance that has had the 14th-Year Veteran particularly relishing a rematch; against the rest of the league in 2017, the 2-Time Super Bowl Champion has completed a solid 64.6% of his Attempts for an average of 281.4 Yards on 7.53 Net Yards per Attempt, with Twenty-Eight Touchdowns and Nine Interceptions, but in that lone affair with the Jags he was 33-of-55 for 312 Yards, Zero Touchdowns, and Five Interceptions, making quite a blemish on what has otherwise been a sterling resume’. With that said, don’t expect Mike Tomlin and his Staff to allow their Quarterback to throw the football that often again, particularly against a Defense that while being insanely stingy against the Pass, has been unusually susceptible to the Run; Jacksonville has been gashed on occasion this season, permitting 116.3 Rushing Yards (20th Overall) on 4.3 Yards per Carry (26th Overall), while yielding 100+ Yards ten times thus far, including 130 Yards against the Bills last weekend. Furthermore, in their six losses they’ve been trampled for an average of 155.3 Yards per Game, including a ridiculous 256 in a 23-20 Overtime defeat at the New York Jets. A lot a Pittsburgh’s problems that day were due to their decision to abandon the ground game, which is indeed a curious choice when you have the likes of Le’Veon Bell (321 CAR, 1,291 YDS, 9 TD) gracing the Backfield. Tomlin’s charges ran for just Seventy Yards on Twenty Carries in that previous tilt, with Bell posting a modest Forty-Seven Yards on Fifteen Carries. Apparently, the Steelers realized the error in their ways, for since that outing the 3-time Pro Bowl Tailback has gone on to carry the football 219 times, in route to leading the NFL in Carries (321). Of course, when discussing Bell, it’s about overall touches, for there have been few players at his size that have been as equally adept at running routes and catching passes out of the Backfield, as they are at running between the Tackles. Targeted 106 times this year, the 25-Year Old impending Free Agent hauled in a career-high Eighty-Five Receptions for 655 Receiving Yards and Two Touchdowns, bringing his total touches this season to 406, most of any player in the league, parlaying to 1,946 Yards from Scrimmage and Eleven Scores. So with that in mind, you can expect him to factor heavily into today’s Gameplan, for this is a case where one team will have to take a page from their opponent, effectively doing to the Jaguars what the other side had planned to do to them. Over the course of his career, Roethlisberger has authored quite a successful CV in the Postseason, earning a 13-7 record in twenty appearances (6-3 at Heinz Field), while completing 62.3% of his Attempts for an average of 239.4 Yards on 7.19 Net Yards per Attempt, with Twenty-Five Touchdowns in comparison to Twenty-Three Interceptions. In case you were wondering, Big Ben is only 4-4 in Playoff Games in which he’s thrown at least Two Interceptions, and though it’s certainly rhetorical, he must avoid such careless Turnovers today, for anything remotely close to another 5-Interception Performance will spell doom for the Steelers.