NFL Preview - Pittsburgh (3-1) at Jacksonville (2-2)
By Scott Garbarini, Sports Network
The Sports Network
The Pittsburgh Steelers will likely have revenge on their minds when the defending AFC North champions head south this Sunday for a nationally-televised showdown with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
These two AFC contenders last squared off in Pittsburgh back in January, with the Jaguars prematurely ending the reigning AFC North champion Steelers' promising season with a thrilling 31-29 victory in last year's Wild Card round of the conference playoffs. Kicker Josh Scobee booted home the game-winning field goal with just 37 seconds left, with quarterback David Garrard's memorable 32-yard fourth-down scramble setting up the go-ahead score.
Jacksonville also dealt the Steelers a stinging defeat at Heinz Field late in the 2007 season. Behind three touchdown passes from Garrard and a 147-yard effort by veteran running back Fred Taylor, the Jaguars earned a 29-22 win in mid-December that helped spark the club to a postseason berth.
The Jags didn't resemble a playoff team during the early portion of this season, however, as the expected Super Bowl contenders suffered a pair of narrow defeats to still-unbeatens Tennessee and Buffalo over the first two weeks. Jacksonville rebounded with a hard-fought 23-21 comeback triumph at defending AFC South champ Indianapolis in Week 3, then rallied to get past a determined Houston squad in overtime last Sunday in Jacksonville.
Garrard, who struggled noticeably during the Jaguars' first three games, fueled last week's 30-27 decision with his best showing of the season. The talented signal-caller completed 23-of-32 passes for 236 yards and a touchdown, while also running for a key score late in the fourth quarter.
Pittsburgh has maintained its status as the team to beat in the AFC North through the first quarter of this campaign by winning three of its first four tests, including Monday's 23-20 overtime victory over Baltimore in which the Steelers fought back from a 10-point halftime deficit.
The win came with a cost, however, as rookie running back Rashard Mendenhall fractured his left shoulder during the game and was subsequently placed on injured reserve. The first-round draft choice was subbing for regular starter Willie Parker, who's hampered by a knee sprain that will keep him out for Sunday's clash as well.
In the meantime, the Steelers will rely heavily on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and an outstanding defense that produced five sacks against the Ravens, one of which forced a Joe Flacco fumble that Pittsburgh's LaMarr Woodley returned for a tide-turning touchdown late in the third quarter.
Jacksonville leads the all-time regular season series with Pittsburgh, 11-8, including the previously-mentioned 29-22 win at Heinz Field in Week 15 of last season. The Jaguars have won three straight in the series since the Steelers scored a 17-16 win in Jacksonville during the 2004 campaign. Pittsburgh was a 9-0 loser when it last visited Jacksonville, in 2006.'
The Jaguars' narrow win over the Steelers in last year's AFC Playoffs was the only postseason encounter between the foes.
Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio is 4-1 against the Steelers, while Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin is 0-2 against both Del Rio and Jacksonville as a head man.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
Pittsburgh's offense has been operating efficiently over the first two weeks due to a strong running game keyed by Parker (263 rushing yards, 3 TD), but the team was shut down in that area in back-to-back weeks by Philadelphia and Baltimore, two of the league's premier rushing defenses. With Parker, Mendenhall and possibly fullback Carey Davis (sprained ankle) all out for Sunday, the Steelers will use a backfield committee of third-down specialist Mewelde Moore (19 rushing yards, 3 receptions), former practice-squad member Gary Russell and veteran Najeh Davenport, whom the club re-signed this week in the wake of all the injuries. Moore mustered a paltry 13 yards on eight carries when called to duty against the Ravens on Monday. The Steelers' 21st- ranked rushing offense (100.5 ypg) suffered another blow during the Baltimore game when starting right guard Kendall Simmons suffered a season-ending Achilles tear.
Pittsburgh's motley crew of backs will be going up against a Jacksonville defense that's been average against the run so far in 2008, but the unit did hold Houston's suspect ground attack to a mere 79 yards a week ago. The strength of the front seven is at linebacker, where veterans Mike Peterson (23 tackles) and Daryl Smith (17 tackles, 1 sack) lead a grouping that should be bolstered with the expected return of weakside starter Justin Durant (7 tackles), who missed the last two games with a groin pull. Up front, tackle John Henderson (14 tackles) is a two-time Pro Bowler with a knack for disrupting plays. The Jaguars are allowing an average of 101.3 rushing yards per game (14th overall) for the year.
Roethlisberger (638 passing yards, 4 TD, 2 INT) hasn't attempted more than 25 passes in a game this year, but that could very well change with the Steelers' injury concerns in the backfield. The strong-armed signal-caller has been dealing with some health issues of his own in recent weeks, and his line's recent shaky play probable hasn't helped out the former first-round pick heal his sore throwing shoulder. Roethlisberger has been sacked 15 times already this season, with Philadelphia taking him to the turf on eight occasions in Pittsburgh's lone loss. When he's had time to throw, Roethlisberger usually looks in the direction of his quality wideout tandem of Hines Ward (17 receptions, 3 TD) and Santonio Holmes (13 receptions, 1 TD). Trusty tight end Heath Miller (11 receptions) provides another reliable option, and expect the versatile Moore to become more involved in the passing game as well this week.
Jacksonville has been suspect at times in defending the pass through the early part of the season, and a depleted secondary was riddled for 307 yards and three touchdowns by Houston's Matt Schaub in Week 4. The Jaguars were without free safety Reggie Nelson (11 tackles) for the entire game due to a knee injury and top cornerback Rashean Mathis (14 tackles, 1 INT) for part of it because of a bruised shin. Mathis should be back in action this week, but counterpart Drayton Florence (12 tackles) is a question mark for Sunday with a groin problem. A bigger issue for Del Rio may be his team's lack of a pass rush. Jacksonville has produced only five sacks through four games and didn't get to Schaub at all last week.
WHEN THE JAGUARS HAVE THE BALL
Jacksonville loves to grind it out on offense behind its formidable two-back tandem of Taylor (213 rushing yards, 7 receptions) and Maurice Jones-Drew (169 rushing yards, 2 TD), but that game plan has been hit-or-miss this year because of a rash of injuries to the inside of the line. Guards Vince Manuwai and Maurice Williams each endured season-ending ailments in the season opener, while veteran center Brad Meester has yet to play this year because of a biceps tear. The Jaguars did put up 139 rushing yards on the Texans last Sunday, but 41 of that total came on scrambles by Garrard and reserve fullback Montell Owens added a 41-yard touchdown run on a fake punt in the first quarter. Taylor finished with just 25 yards on 10 attempts.
The Jaguars' accomplished backfield duo isn't going to catch many breaks from a Pittsburgh stop unit that is yielding a scant 74 rushing yards per contest (4th overall). The Steelers played Monday's tilt without Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton (groin) and steady end Brett Keisel (calf), but still held Baltimore to a mediocre 3.1 yards per rush. Both linemen will be out for this week's game as well, which puts a little added pressure on inside linebackers James Farrior (25 tackles, 0.5 sacks) and Larry Foote (20 tackles, 1.5 sacks) as well as run-stuffing end Aaron Smith (14 tackles, 2 sacks). The defense will still have maybe the most important key to its success versus the run, hard-hitting strong safety Troy Polamalu (21 tackles, 3 INT, 5 PD), in Sunday's lineup.
If the Steelers can slow down the Jaguars on the ground, longtime coordinator Dick LeBeau will be unleashing a flurry of blitz packages that have accounted for 15 sacks so far on the year, which is tied for the second-most in the NFL. Most of the pressure comes from the team's outstanding outside linebacker combo of James Harrison (27 tackles, 5.5 sacks) and Woodley (17 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 1 INT). Harrison, a Pro Bowl honoree in 2007, racked up 10 tackles and 2 1/2 sacks against the Ravens and forced the fumble on Flacco that Woodley took the end zone. Polamalu and cornerback Bryant McFadden (21 tackles, 2 INT, 5 PD) have also been impact players for a defense that ranks third in the league against the pass (150.3 ypg).
With the Steelers fully capable of neutralizing the running game, Jacksonville is going to need Garrard (783 passing yards, 2 TD, 83 rushing yards) to play at the level he did last week, which was more representative of his breakthrough 2007 season. After throwing four interceptions over the Jags' first three games, the dual-threat quarterback did not have a turnover against Houston and compiled his highest passing yardage total of the year. Rejuvenated wide receiver Matt Jones (21 receptions, 1 TD) has emerged as Garrard's top target, and the team's 20th-rated passing attack (176.0 ypg) should eventually get a boost from veteran wideout Jerry Porter, who missed the initial three weeks with a hamstring injury and managed just one catch in his return. The Steelers will need to pay close attention to Jones-Drew out of the backfield, as the third-year sparkplug has amassed 13 catches for 138 yards in the early going.
With the injury problems both teams are encountering on the offensive side, either defense appears to make a fine play in what's anticipated to be a hard- hitting and low-scoring matchup. Pittsburgh has had one of the top scoring fantasy defenses through the early part of this year anyway, a unit that's close to a must-play every week regardless of the opponent. Although Roethlisberger and Garrard figure to be putting it in the air quite a bit in this one, the former's shoulder woes and the latter's inconsistency make both quarterbacks a risky alternative. However, all the top receivers on the field -- Jones for Jacksonville and Ward and Holmes for Pittsburgh -- all make for solid choices. Look for Jones-Drew to catch a lot of passes out of the backfield this week, and his goal-line prowess makes him a good starting candidate. Sit Taylor, however, as he draws a tough matchup and has less probability of scoring than his backfield mate. Moore appears to be the Steelers' biggest threat for carries and could be a decent flex option, but Miller's had a disappointing fantasy beginning at tight end and should now only be used when absolutely necessary.
With the Jaguars having trouble putting everything together through the first quarter of the season, it would seem like Pittsburgh's chances to avenge last year's losses are good. It would be a whole lot easier for the Steelers if they weren't so banged up in key areas, however. Pittsburgh is at its best offensively when the running game is humming, and that's a tall order against a still-capable Jacksonville defense due to the team's injuries in the backfield and up front. With Roethlisberger's aching shoulder having rendered the burly quarterback to be little more than a game manager at this point, it's tough to see the Steelers scoring a whole lot of points. The defense will give Pittsburgh a shot, but Garrard -- who's given the Steelers fits in the past with his accuracy and ability to elude pressure -- will come up with just enough plays to maintain the Jaguars' recent success in this series.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Jaguars 17, Steelers 13