This Sunday night, the Pittsburgh Steelers travel to Jacksonville to play the Jaguars. Both teams are coming off tough overtime victories last week. The Steelers beat the Baltimore Ravens 23-20, while the Jaguars beat the Houston Texans 30-27.
This is a rivalry that dates back to when both teams played in the old AFC Central division (1995-2001). Jacksonville enjoys a 12-8 advantage in the all-time series against the Steelers, including winning the last 4. Three of those 4 wins were in Pittsburgh, and last season Jacksonville became the first team to beat Pittsburgh twice at home during the same season.
But that was then, and this is now. What fans will see on Sunday night is not your father’s Steelers-Jaguars game.
Typically, Steelers-Jaguars has meant two twin teams meeting in a battle to establish physical superiority. Both teams believed in running the ball, and playing physical defense. Those elements will primarily be missing from the game this Sunday.
On offense, the Steelers’ running backs are all banged up. Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, and Carey Davis are all out with injuries. The Steelers will be starting their 4th string running back, Mewelde Moore. Their other two running backs (Najeh Davenport and Gary Russell) weren’t even on the roster last week, and they may use their 3rd string tight end as a fullback. Uhhh, Ben Roethlisberger had better be prepared to throw the ball………Often.
The Jaguars’ running game isn’t looking much more intimidating than the Steelers’. Though they still boast running backs Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew, the Jacksonville running game has struggled this year. If you disregard a 41-yard run on a fake punt play, the Jaguars have failed to break 100 yards rushing in 3 of their first 4 games. That is not typical Jaguars football.
On the defensive side of the ball, Jacksonville is no longer the physical juggernaut that “pimp slapped” the Steelers twice last year. DT Marcus Stroud, the Jaguars former defensive leader, now plays for the Buffalo Bills. John Henderson, the other mammoth defensive tackle for the Jaguars has not been as effective without Stroud by his side. Moreover, the left side of their line is starting to show their age. DLE Paul Spicer is 33 (going on 50), and DLT Rob Meier is 31. Defensive end Reggie Hayward hasn’t been the same since he tore his achilles two years ago. The Jaguars drafted defensive linemen with the first 2 picks in the 2008 draft, but neither Derrick Harvey nor Quentin Groves has had any impact.
The Jaguars vaunted “physical” defense has played like pussycats. They have only 5 sacks all year. By comparison, Steelers linebacker James Harrison already has 5.5 sacks all by himself. The Jaguars weren’t able to sack Houston quarterback Matt Schaub, even though Schaub had been sacked 8 times in the Texans’ prior two games. The lack of pressure from the kittycats….errr, I mean the Jaguars, was the primary reason that Schaub was able to pass for 307 yards and 3 touchdowns while converting 9 of 13 third down attempts.
The Jaguars linebackers aren’t playing much better. LB’s Mike Peterson and Darryl Smith are playing poorly, and Clint Ingram couldn’t stop a play action pass if you told him it was coming.
The Jaguar’s secondary is banged up. Starting safety Reggie Nelson didn’t play last week due to a bruised knee. Starting cornerback Rashean Mathis bruised his knee in the 2nd quarter against the Texans and had to leave the game. Nickel back Scott Starks was already out for the year with a knee injury. Even when healthy, Rashean Mathis and cornerback Drayton Florence spend so much time chasing opposing receivers that they probably feel like Swedish sprinters facing Usain Bolt.
Contrarily, the one thing that IS the same as it’s always been in this series is the Steelers’ defense. The Steelers defense is ranked 2nd in the NFL in points allowed, and 2nd in sacks (with 15). The Steelers linebackers are arguably the best in the NFL. James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley make up an almost unstoppable tandem at outside linebacker. Even playing without Brett Keisel and Casey Hampton, the Steelers front line has stood their ground. Chris Hoke, Travis Kirschke, and Nick Eason have filled in very competently for the injured starters.
So to recap, a weak Steelers offense faces a weak Jaguars defense, and a weak Jaguars offense faces a strong Steelers defense. If the Steelers offensive line can protect Ben Roethlisberger (and that’s a BIG “if”), the Steelers should be able to win this one on the strength of their defense.
I predict the Steelers come out of this game with a 4-1 record, beating the Jaguars 24-14.