Last January the Jacksonville Jaguars defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs, accomplishing what no team had done before: Beating the Steelers twice at home in the same season.
Although the Steelers finished 10-6 and won the AFC North in Mike Tomlin’s rookie season, the loss to the Jaguars added a stark exclamation point to an already weak 1-3 regular season finish. Tomorrow’s game against Jacksonville will serve as an excellent yard stick for gauging how much progress, or lack thereof, the Steelers have made in the eight months that this return bout has been in the making.
Opposing defenses sacked Ben Roethlisberger 47 times last season. Perhaps the strongest imperative entering the 2008 was to protect Ben better. Pass protection held up pretty well against the Texans and Browns, but the flood gates opened against Philadelphia, as the Eagles sacked Ben 8 times, and added another for good measure against Bryon Leftwich. The Raven’s defense threw Big Ben around like a rag doll during the first half of the Monday night game, but the Steelers pass protection greatly improved in the second half.
- Bottom line: Jacksonville did not sack Ben once last January, and has only registered 5 sacks thus far. For comparison’s sake, James Harrison already has 6 sacks. Failure to protect Ben in this game means that the Steelers pass protection is a glaring liability.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. The Steelers totaled 46 yards rushing against Jacksonville in the playoffs, but they were playing without Willie Parker. To shore up their rushing game Pittsburgh dumped Najeh Davenport and added Rashard Mendenhall and Mewelde Moore…
Alas, Parker is out for this game, Mendenhall is on IR, and Najeh Davenport is back on the roster. Carey Davis is also out against Jacksonville.
- Bottom line: Mewelde Moore was perhaps Steelers most interesting free agent signing, and now is his time to shine. His rushing numbers this year are unimpressive, but he made plays when things counted against Baltimore. He needs to do more of this against Jacksonville.
- Gary Russell teased during the 2007 preseason, but has done little to impress since then, but he’s had few opportunities to prove himself. That should change fast.
Statistically the Steelers defense held Jacksonville in check last time around, limiting David Garrard to 140 yards passing and the Jaguar’s running backs to 3.2 yards a carry. Ah, but there’s the minor matter of David Garrard’s 32 yard on fourth and two….
The Steelers will miss two of their three starting defensive lineman tomorrow night, but LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons have boosted the Steelers defense corps a shot, as has the return of a healthy Troy Polamalu.
- Bottom line: No deep analysis here. Jacksonville’s offense has been a little inconsistent while the Steelers look to have improved on defense. But the Jaguars play a bruising offense, and the Steelers simply must be more physical.
Key to the game: Roethlisberger’s Restraint
The Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette opined earlier this week that with the Steelers running back roster depleted, the Steelers offense would “come to pass.” It doesn’t take a football genius to know he’s on to something, and therein might lie a danger.
Many factors contributed to the Steelers playoff loss against the Jaguars, but one of those was Ben’s play in the first half. Roethlisberger simply tried to do too much after Jacksonville immediately tied the score on the heels of their 96 yard kick return. The result was three interceptions that led directly to 14 points for the Jaguars.
The injuries at running back certainly mean that Ben is going to need to throw more, but it’s more important that he throw wisely.
Ben’s credentials as a franchise quarterback are beyond dispute at this point, but Roethlisberger must resist the temptation to try to win the game by himself. If he does that, and if the defense plays has it has thus far this year, the Steelers should defeat the Jaguars.