By Daniel Benjamin
The Pittsburgh Steelers welcome the Jacksonville Jaguars back to Heinz Field for the first time since 2011 in Week 5. Kickoff is slated for 1 p.m. ET on Oct. 8 and the game will be televised by CBS.
Pittsburgh (3-1) is coming off its best game of the season in its 26-9 domination of the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday afternoon. Meanwhile, Jacksonville (2-2) is off to its best start since 2010, but the Jags are still searching for consistency.
This game marks the 24th all-time meeting between the two clubs though the first since Oct. 5, 2014. The Steelers have won the last three meetings though they still trail in the all-time series 11-12-0.
Jacksonville really needs more reliable production out of its offense if it’s going to be a legitimate division title contender, particularly from quarterback Blake Bortles. A week after the Jags racked up 44 points and 410 yards of total offense, they managed just 311 yards and 13 points against the Jets. Bortles, who tossed four touchdowns against the Ravens, completed only 15-of 35 passes for a measly 140 yards on Sunday.
While Bortles has struggled, the Jaguars’ running attack has been super. The Jags, who hang their hats on running the ball, lead the NFL with 34.5 attempts a game and are second in the league with 148.8 yards a game. Rookie Leonard Fournette leads four players with 97 or more yards on the ground with 285 yards. Backup running back Chris Ivory has 118 yards on 30 attempts. Bortles is third on the team 98 yards and Corey Grant is fourth with 97.
One of the reasons that the Jaguars have been so successful on the ground is because of the surprisingly good play of the offensive line. The Jags have surrendered the fewest sacks (3) in the league and seventh fewest quarterback hits (18). They have also permitted eight negative plays.
The Jaguars defensive unit has been solid all season long. Sure, the Jags had a couple of hiccups versus the Jets and Tennessee Titans, but they rank 11th in yards permitted per game with 312.5 yards and are tied for sixth in scoring at 18.5 points per game. In addition, they lead the league with 18 sacks and are tied for third in the league with 10 takeaways, five interceptions and five fumbles. Jacksonville has two defensive touchdowns.
Defensive end Calais Campbell has registered at least a half sack in three of the four games and has a team-high 5.5 sacks for the season. Campbell, 31, now has recorded five or more sacks in nine straight seasons. 2016 second round selection defensive end Yannick Ngakoue has become one of the top young pass rushers with 12 sacks for his career. Ngakoue has four sacks on the season after picking up two against the Jets. And it now appears that 2015 No. 3 overall selection Dante Fowler is finally coming into his own. Fowler has three sacks on the year.
Players to watch: Running back Leonard Fournette, Cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye
Fournette has been the Jaguars’ workhorse in the backfield. He has carried the ball a minimum of 14 times in each of the four contests in which he has appeared and has carried the ball 20 times twice. He has not really broke a big run, though he will wear defenders down with his punishing style. Overall, Fournette has accumulated 285 rushing yards on 81 carries for a 3.5 yards per carry average.
While the Jaguars’ defensive front four will likely will be the focus of the Steelers’ game plan, their two corners will be the key to the team’s success. Both Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye are extremely talented and have the potential to be lockdown defenders. Which is why Ramsey and Bouye will share the duty of guarding Antonio Brown on Sunday. Brown, arguably the best receiver in the game, ranks second in the league with 30 receptions for 388 yards.
Both cornerbacks have gotten off to a good start to the season. Bouye has 14 tackles along with six pass defensed and two interceptions this season. Ramsey has 11 tackles to go along with five pass defensed and one interception.
Outlook: Steelers 24 Jaguars 13
Pittsburgh will have its hands full against Jacksonville. However, the Steelers offense looks like it is just getting rolling and they play much better at home than on the road. The key to this match-up appears to be stopping the run, and both defenses could improve in that area. Both the Steelers and the Jaguars pride themselves on running the ball.