High-scoring Steelers pay a visit to drowning Jags
Ten months ago, way back in January’s AFC Divisional playoff round, the Jacksonville Jaguars were able to hold off the Pittsburgh Steelers' and a 21-point fourth-quarter barrage en route to a 45-42 win and a date with the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. The playoff victory was Jacksonville’s first since 2007 when the David Garrard-led Jags topped the Steelers 31-29 at Heinz Field.
Postseason questions of Ben Roethlisberger’s health and possible retirement were lingering (again), and mounting tension between Le’Veon Bell and the team’s front office (again) were starting to swell. The Steelers seemed like they would be headed for an inevitable downturn heading into 2018. Four weeks into the season, that downturn wasn’t just inevitable, it was happening before our eyes as the Steelers were sitting with a 1-2-1 record and more drama than a Kardashian-(insert NBA player name here) marriage. But Pittsburgh was able to find its resiliency. Led by Big Ben and the offense, the Steelers rattled off five straight wins, averaging 35.4 points along the way, capped off with a 52-point outburst against Carolina last Thursday night. Now, after a dismal start and despite the Bell contract saga (for now), Pittsburgh sits atop the AFC North heading into Sunday’s matchup with Jacksonville.
The Jags seemed like a logical choice as the AFC’s next great challenger to the Patriots’ throne. Through the first quarter of the season, the Jaguars were playing like last season’s AFC championship run wasn’t a fluke, winning three of their first four, including an 11-point revenge victory against the Patriots in Week 2. The Jags looked like the real deal, as did their oft-lambasted quarterback Blake Bortles who was starting to look more and more, uh, competent. But much like the Steelers, Week 5 changed everything for the Jags. A 30-14 loss in Kansas City would be the start of a five-game skid for Jacksonville, ending with a crushing 29-26 divisional loss to Indianapolis last week. Now sitting with a 3-6 record and last place spot in the less-than-great AFC South, the Jaguars are steering toward their seventh top-five draft pick since 2011.
Pittsburgh at Jacksonville
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 18 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Steelers -5.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Who needs Le'Veon Bell when you have James Conner?
With Bell's situation finally resolved (at least for this season), the Steelers can now turn their full attention to the task at hand and move forward with their new superstar running back. Even though they got off to a slow start this season, they have rattled off five wins a row and a big reason why is the emergence of Conner.
While everyone else was asking "how will Pittsburgh survive without Le'Veon?," the team calmly and confidently turned the backfield over to Conner, and all he has done is prove it was the right decision. Second in the NFL to Todd Gurley in touches (203), yards from scrimmage (1,158), and total touchdowns (11), Conner has not only replaced Bell as an indispensable part of the Steelers' offense, he's out-produced him to this point (compared to Bell's 2017 season) as well.
Conner's emergence has increased the likelihood that Bell has already played his last game in a Steeler uniform. One thing is for sure, Conner will certainly have Jacksonville's full attention on Sunday. Conner sustained a concussion in last week's game against Carolina, but the extra time helped and he was cleared Friday morning and should see his usual workload against the Jaguars.
2. Blake Bortles
Bortles has long been the butt of many NFL pundits’ one-liners, and for the better part of his four-and-a-half year career, for good reason. He’s 19th in active touchdown pass percentage (4.0), 20th in active interception percentage (2.8), 23rd in active completion percentage (59.4) and is first in pick-sixes since joining the league in 2014 (13).
However, it seemed that Bortles was starting to prove the doubters wrong last season when he posted a career high completion percentage (60.2) and career low in interceptions (13) as the Jags had their first 10-win season and playoff berth since George W. Bush was in the Oval Office (2007). Bortles even played well in his first postseason run, throwing three touchdowns and no picks in three games, with a near 300-yard performance against the Patriots in the AFC Championship. Bortles continued his improved play with two of the best outings of his career coming in the first four weeks of this season. Week 2 against New England Bortles line looked like this: 29-of-45, 376 yards, four TDs, 111.1 passer rating. And his Week 4 work against the Jets was similar: 29-of-38, 388 yards, two TDs, 114.8 passer rating.
But during the Jags’ current five-game lull, Bortles’ numbers have been even worse than his already pedestrian career numbers, completing only 58-percent of his passes, posting a 77.6 passer rating, accounting for eight of the team’s last nine turnovers, and throwing just five touchdowns to five interceptions. The sloppy play came to boiling point for head coach Doug Marrone when Bortles was benched in Week 7’s must-win division game against Houston. Bortles’ day was done having only completed 6-of-12 passes for 61 yards and losing two fumbles.
The primary fear in Jacksonville, of course, is losing football games, but reports in recent weeks have been that Bortles may have lost his own locker room with his inconsistent play. Stories of postgame infighting and players being held back from one another topped off with Jalen Ramsey’s “ya’ll gone miss me” Instagram and Twitter posts prove that all is not well on the Atlantic coast of north Florida.
3. Jags' pass defense vs. Steelers' aerial assault
Bortles and the offensive unit aren’t the only things not working right for Jacksonville. The Jags’ pass defense is still ranked as the best in the league, but you never would have guessed watching last week’s performance against Indianapolis. Andrew Luck picked apart the Jaguars vaunted secondary, throwing three first-half touchdowns to tight ends Mo Alie-Cox and Eric Ebron. Two of those scoring throws were against the Jags most outspoken player and All-Pro cornerback Ramsey, who looked to be in the wrong coverage on both plays. The Jacksonville defense has now surrendered nine passing touchdowns the last four games after allowing just three in the first four of the season.
Last week the Jaguars’ couldn’t cover a journey man tight end in Ebron and a guy who hasn’t played organized football since his freshman year of high school in Alie-Cox. So how do they propose to stop the great Antonio Brown (12.1 ypr, 10 TDs) or JuJu Smith-Schuster (13.6, 3)? Conner? Roethlisberger?
The Steelers’ passing game ranks third in the league (314.2 ypg) and is white-hot in the last five weeks. Roethlisberger has thrown 13 touchdowns and almost 1,500 yards during Pittsburgh’s offensive avalanche, while throwing only two interceptions and being sacked just three times. To complicate matters, the Jaguars once vaunted pass rush that was second in sacks (55) just a season ago has just 19 sacks, bad enough for 27th in the league.
If the Jags can’t find a way to put pressure on Big Ben and slow down a Steelers’ offense that has converted 62 percent of its third downs and scored 21 touchdowns over the last five weeks, it's going to be a long, long day for an already weary Jacksonville defense.
The roles have reversed for these two squads in the last month and a half. It seemed at the beginning of the season that the Steelers would be victims to their own turmoil and egos. But the Steelers did what great teams are supposed to do — they overcame adversity, whether self-made or from opposing teams, and found ways to win — signs of great coaching and great leadership. While the difference in camaraderie is evident between these two teams, quite frankly so is the talent, especially offensively. Advantage: Pittsburgh.
Prediction: Steelers 30, Jaguars 17
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.