For the Jaguars to have any chance against the Steelers, their defense will have to win the game
QB Blake Bortles needs to do better because Fournette can’t be their only offensive weapon
Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles wasn’t very good in last week’s 10-3 playoff win over the Buffalo Bills. He had embarrassingly low passing stats, throwing for just 87 yards. Shockingly, he was more productive as a rusher, with 88 yards on the ground. There is no way they can beat the Pittsburgh Steelers if Bortles performs like that … right?
Well, last Oct. 8 during Week 5 of this NFL season, the Jags won 30-9 in Pittsburgh. And Bortles was worse. He had 95 yards through the air, an interception and only nine rushing yards. With the Jaguars headed back to Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers in a divisional playoff game, I decided to go back and watch their October contest to see what I could learn.
Jacksonville’s defense is really good
Defense is the reason that the Jaguars won last week, and it was the reason they beat the Steelers in Week 5. Their pass defense, with a pair of the best cornerbacks in the league, is particularly intimidating. But the Steelers showed no fear. On the Steelers’ first offensive play, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger went right at the league’s best cornerback, Jalen Ramsey, completing a 49-yard pass to the league’s best wide receiver, Antonio Brown. Maybe he should have been a little more fearful, or at least smarter. With 1:33 left in the first quarter, he was pressured by the Jag D-line and chose to throw at Ramsey again. This time Ramsey was covering a tight end and made an explosively athletic interception. That was the first of five interceptions the Jags would take from Ben Roethlisberger that day.
While the Steelers seemed unafraid of the Jags’ corners, their game plan would suggest that they were concerned about defensive end Calais Campbell and the D-line. Rather than hand the ball to Le’Veon Bell and trust him and their offensive line on early downs, the Steelers ran quite a few wide receiver screens, shovel passes and other plays meant to replace their running game without directly challenging the Jags’ defensive line. But that front four affected the game despite the Steelers’ efforts.
In the second quarter, Campbell collapsed the pocket on a play when Brown was open deep, forcing Roethlisberger to scramble and throw the ball away. Linebacker Telvin Smith made a terrific interception that he returned for a touchdown, but the Steelers’ fear of Jacksonville’s front four created the opportunity. Instead of free releasing, Smith’s man chipped the defensive end, something he rarely is asked to do. That hesitation allowed Smith to be in Roethlisberger’s passing lane and catch the ball.
The Jags’ defensive dominance was not a result of deception or a tricky blitz package. They lined up and played Cover 3 on just about every snap. They dominated because they swarmed to the ball carriers, tackled well and were sound in their coverage responsibilities — well, most of their coverage responsibilities. The underneath coverage played tighter to the line of scrimmage, allowing them to more easily contain Bell in the passing game. It worked. Bell averaged 4.6 yards after catching the ball, which is much lower than his season average of eight yards.
How will the teams adjust?
That slight alteration created a weak point in the middle of the defense that the Steelers barely exploited. Late in the game, they connected on some seam and intermediate routes that put the tight ends and receivers in front of the deep middle safety and behind the underneath zone players. I was surprised the Steelers didn’t exploit that area earlier. They have been running inside high/low combinations for years. They are used to teams being influenced by Bell, so they normally make linebackers choose between getting depth and guarding against the deeper routes and trying to tackle Bell in space or tightening to Bell’s low routes and giving Roethlisberger a chance at a 12- to 15-yard gain.
The Jags could respond in a few ways. Blitzing might force Bell to stay in and block and get fast pressure on Roethlisberger. If they want to continue to play Cover 3, they could take a page from the New England Patriots’ playbook and drop a D-lineman into coverage on Bell. That’ll leave just three to rush the passer, but if done properly, it will take away the short, intermediate and deep middle of the field. Before weakening their rush, they should probably just try Cover 1 with a “rat,” a low hole player. Since Brown is coming back from injury and Jacksonville has top-notch cornerbacks, they should play man, send all four D-linemen and drop one of the safeties, the “rat,” down to help cover and tackle Bell. Against man coverage, the Steelers like to run shallow crossing routes, trips bunch combinations and go routes. The rat can help with the crossers and some of the bunch combinations, but the corners will still be alone against deep routes.
What happened last game
Nothing really worked for the Jags on the offensive end. Running back Leonard Fournette ended the game with the impressive stat line of 28 carries for 181 yards and two touchdowns. But 90 of those yards and a touchdown came on one play at the end of the game. The Jags had a 23-9 lead with just 1:47 left in the game when Fournette broke away for the long touchdown run. Throughout the game, he showed a rare combination of quickness and power. And on that last play, he showed the speed that makes him a special player. But that play didn’t affect the outcome of the game. Before that run, Fournette had 27 carries for 91 yards, averaging 3.37 yards a carry, which is less than the league average of 4 YPC.
However, Fournette should be commended. Carrying the ball 28 times in an NFL game is a feat, and one made more extraordinary by the fact that he did it against a loaded box on almost every play. Bortles’ inability to consistently threaten the Steelers through the air allowed them to focus on two things: stopping the run and making Fournette’s day miserable. The Steelers were pretty good at the first thing, but it seemed like the defense was being made miserable by Fournette. He delivered the blow on every run and still looked unfazed by the collisions, especially on his final play.
What should they do?
Going into this game, the goal for the Jags is obvious: manufacture a passing game. Given how inaccurate Bortles was last week against the Bills, that is easier said than done. To be fair to Bortles, in their October game against Pittsburgh, he did some things well. He anticipated and reacted quickly and properly to some well-disguised Steelers zone blitzes. He wasn’t always accurate, but he saw the blitz and got rid of the ball before being sacked. He was 5 for 7 against the blitz with a QBR of 83. He also did well under pressure; he was 4 of 5 with a QBR of 97. Yes, three of those completions are being counted for both, but it’s tough to find bright spots in a game like that.
Going into this matchup, the Jags must force the Steelers to take the safety out of the box every now and then. The Jags need to take some deep shots. Obviously, connecting on those bombs is ideal, but they didn’t even throw many in the last matchup with the Steelers. Even throwing a couple of deep incompletions will make the Steelers at least consider giving Fournette some room to run. However, the Jacksonville offense can’t really afford to give away plays. Incomplete passes on early downs stop the clock and almost ensure a punt, which puts more pressure on the defense.
If Bortles is as inaccurate as he was last week, the Jags will lose. They can’t expect their defense to score two touchdowns and create five turnovers in Pittsburgh twice in one season. There are no schemes or special plays for a quarterback who is having trouble placing the ball where he wants it to go. Against the Bills he missed open receivers, which has to be frustrating for the offensive coordinator. My best advice for Jacksonville coaches this week is to cross their fingers and hope that Bortles is feeling good on Sunday.