3 Jaguars Defensive Keys Vs. Deep and Elite Steelers' Unit
The Jacksonville Jaguars (1-8) have the second toughest schedule remaining in the NFL and the toughest draw of the weekend in the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers (9-0). What has made the Steelers unstoppable this season is a dominant brand of complimentary football. A loaded wide receiver corps stretches the field while a loaded defense shortens the other side.
As the Jaguars defense—made up primary of guys still in their first contract—has matured and found the best pieces for each position, they now must test what they’ve learned and face the future Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and a wide receiver corps as deep as the Atlantic Ocean.
If the Jaguars want to pull off the upset of the season, it will take these three offensive keys.
Keep Roethlisberger In the Pocket
As Roethlisberger’s age has gone up, his scrambles have gone down. The big bodied Big Ben was apt to use his frame in earlier years to maul over withering linebackers that he sometimes even outweighed. His first eight seasons in the league, the passer scrambled 0.91 times per game according to Pro Football Focus. This season however, through nine games, Roethlisberger has scrambled only three times (0.33) for a total of 21 yards.
Still, his ability to take over a game while scrambling is enough to make keeping him in the pocket a top priority. Jaguars middle linebacker Joe Schobert—who has faced the Steelers legend while Schobert was with the Cleveland Browns—can attest to the danger...and for that matter, so can the Jaguars.
“Just going against him two times a year for the last four years, he very good at like the backyard, school yard football kind of plays where things break down and him and his receivers have a good understanding of what to do post their initial routes, whether they’re turning up the field or they’re coming back, and he’s able to put the ball on them.
"It’s really hard for defensives to cover guys for more than two, three, four seconds, so he’s really good at extending plays. He’s been big and strong his whole career. He can move around just enough. He has the arm talent to be able to put the ball out there and he has the guts to be able to make the gutsy throws.”
Manipulate 3rd Downs
The third down is the money down and that’s where Defensive Coordinator Todd Wash has seen guys start to earn their paycheck the past couple of weeks. It’s possible thanks in large part to their work on first and second down.
“We’re getting them in third-and-longer situations, which is helping us out. We can bring some pressure, we can do simulated pressure when we get in those down-and-distances and still play zone coverage behind it. So, I think we’re doing a better job on first and second down and getting them in third-and-longer situations that really allow us to be a little bit more successful.”
Much of the focus for Jacksonville after the first quarter of the season was improving the pass rush. As that has evolved, so has every facet of the Jags defense. But what has really impressed Wash is the stout wall the unit has created on third-and-short. Typically a defense aims for third-and-manageable which is accepted as third-and-two through six. That’s where the Jaguars don’t want to be on Sunday.
“Going through the self-scout, we’re better on third-and-1 than we are in third-and- 2 to 6; which is crazy, that usually doesn’t happen. But we got a big stop late in the 4-minute. I think we’re doing a better job of playing man coverage; it really helps us on those down-and-distance. If you sit in zone on 2, 3 and 4, they’re just going to pick you apart. So, I think we’re playing better man coverage and once again, when we do get them to longer yardage, we’re getting them off the grass right now.”
Watch the Screens
Jaguars Head Coach Doug Marrone went on for over 300 words when asked about the Steelers receiving corps. In short, they can attack a defense in a variety of ways and with a multitude of players from seasoned pass catchers like JuJu Smith-Schuster to dynamic rookie Chris Claypool.
“They have [Chase] Claypool. He’s big, he’s strong, he’s fast. He’s hard to run with. He’s really done a good job for a young player. JuJu Smith-Schuster’s always been solid in what he can do. [Tight end Eric] Ebron obviously has size, speed. He’s a matchup problem. JuJu’s more of the real precise route runner, good hands, good versus the zone, good versus man. Claypool can run away from anyone plus he’s hard to bring down. He’s tough and you have a bunch of things going on what they do with him. Then you have this other group: James Washington has made plays for them, another receiver that they have. You look at those four guys and the tight ends and then Vance McDonald, if he plays, they even become more dangerous in what he can do.”
While no defense might not truly know from where and with whom the Steelers will attack on any given play, there is at least one area of the game where the Jags can focus and subsequently stymie a decent portion of the Steelers efforts; screens.
“[Roethlisberger has a lot of weapons and their screen game is outstanding in what they do,” said Marrone.
Of the 11 players that have caught a pass for the Steelers this year, they are collectively averaging 5.4 yards after the catch.
Then again, the Jaguars have to remember, that’s just one part of what they need to stop.
Continued Marrone, “You’re talking about a team that hasn’t lost so there’s going to be a lot of positive things going on and there’s going to be a lot of great challenges and you have to defend a lot of things. They make you defend the whole field and then their running game, which they’re a physical team. It’s a lot of guys out there. We’re up for it. We feel good. We’ll have a good plan and then obviously it’s going out and executing that plan. But they have a nice mixture of guys, size and speed, size in route running ability, flat speed, matchup problem at tight ends. If both of them [their tight ends] play it’s even a tougher matchup if Vance plays. That’s why they’re one of the top offenses.”