Pittsburgh vs. Jacksonville – Sunday, 1 p.m. – TIAA Bank Field
SERIES HISTORY: 24th regular-season game. Jacksonville leads series, 12-11. It’s been a series that has gone in streaks. Starting in 2001, the Steelers won three straight, then Jacksonville won four in a row. That was followed by Pittsburgh winning three straight and now it’s Jacksonville on a two-game win streak. Jaguars own a 7-5 edge in games on their own field. Last time the teams met was in last year’s playoffs with the Jaguars edging the Steelers 45-42 on the latter’s home field. Jacksonville also won in the regular season (30-9), marking just the second time ever that the Steelers have lost twice at home to the same team in a season. Jaguars also did in 2007, beating the Steelers on their field in both the regular season and the playoffs.
BY THE NUMBER: 14.8. Jacksonville’s kickoff unit has held opponents to a 14.8 return average, the best mark in the NFL. Last week against Indianapolis, Jacksonville limited the Colts to seven yards on their lone kickoff return.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: RB Leonard Fournette.
Second week in a row that Fournette has been featured but he’s deserving of such attention. Last week was his first action on the field since Week 4 when he re-injured his hamstring. Fournette responded with a solid but not elite performance. He rushed for xx yards in 24 carries, only a 2.2 average, but he was more effective as a receiver out of the backfield with a team-high 56 yards on five catches. His 29 touches without any setbacks to the hamstring showed he’s truly healed. Now comes Pittsburgh, a team that Fournette torched last year for 290 rushing yards and five TDs in two games, one in the regular season and one in a playoff game. Included in the total was a 90-yard jaunt from scrimmage, the longest such run by a Jaguars player in a regular season game.
The last time these two teams met, an AFC Divisional Playoff game last season, the two quarterbacks combined for 683 yards and six touchdowns. It isn’t likely the figures will be as high this time. Pittsburgh will air it out with the way QB Ben Rothlisberger is playing, but the Jaguars pass defense still ranks as the best in the league, allowing 200.6 yards per game although that figure has continued to rise the last five games (230 passing yard average during the 5-game losing streak). The Jaguars will likely play a nickel defense the majority of the time, challenging the Steelers to beat them with their running game. The Jaguars offense totaled 415 yards last week, the most it’s had since back-to-back 500-yard-plus games in Weeks 4 and 5. With Leonard Fournette back in the lineup, Jacksonville got as close to its desired 50-50 split of rush/pass plays (34 rush/39 pass) since the last time Fournette played (34 rush/38 pass vs. N.Y. Jets). Look for more of the same this week, even if the Steelers are ahead in the second half. The Jaguars top two receivers were Fournette and T.J. Yeldon both of whom caught five passes on short throws out of the backfield. Those 10 catches gained 107 yards which means the Jaguars will likely use that formula again this week.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
Steelers WRs Antonio Brown and Juju Smith-Schuster vs. Jaguars CB Jalen Ramsey.
Elite versus elite when these two All-Pro players go against each other. Both are considered at or near the top of the list at their position. Brown is having the better season however. Brown has a league-high 10 touchdown catches, one more than Indianapolis’ TE Eric Ebron who added a pair to his total last week against the Jaguars. Brown has 57 catches (on 96 targets) and has 690 receiving yards. Look for a lot of contact between Brown and Ramsey as both players like to play physical and have the size and strength to play that game. As good as Brown has been over the years, Smith-Schuster is nearly matching him in catches (56) and has surpassed him in yards (762). That means Ramsey may not always be blanketing Brown, but may switch off and cover Smith-Schuster on occasions as well. The latter hasn’t proven to be the scoring threat that Brown is however as Smith-Schuster has just three TDs thus far. The Jaguars are hoping that their other elite cornerback, A.J. Bouye, is able to play this week after missing the last two games due to a calf injury. Bouye returned to practice on Wednesday but on a limited basis. If he’s ready to go, he’ll take whoever Ramsey doesn’t cover between Brown and Smith-Schuster.
Jaguars QB Blake Bortles vs. Steelers OLBs T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree
It’s been feast or famine regarding Bortles getting sacked during the Jaguars current five-game losing streak. He was dropped a total of eight times by Kansas City and Dallas defenders, both of which were lopsided losses. He then went sack-free against Houston, was nailed four times by Philadelphia and then escaped all sack attempts last week by Indianapolis. The only common denominator in all five games is that the Jaguars have lost all five contests. In the Jaguars three wins this season, Bortles has been sacked a total of three times. He had several close calls last week against the Colts, but when the pressure mounted, he was able to dump off passes to a running back in the flat. That’s likely what he’ll do this week if, er, when, Watt and Dupree are about to drop him. Both Steeler OLBs have had success in getting to opposing QBs this year with Watt owning a team-best eight sacks (T-8th in the league) while Dupree has just over half that total with 4½. How much pressure they put on Bortles and how quickly he has to get rid of the ball could determine the outcome in this contest.