JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser sets the table by examining key players, matchups and storylines as the Jaguars prepare to play the Pittsburgh Steelers at EverBank Field Sunday …
The buzz around the Jaguars is urgency. Pure and simple.
Whereas last week there was excitement and giddiness in anticipation of rookie quarterback Blake Bortles making his first start, that energy has been replaced by urgency and concern over a defense that continues to struggle.
The Jaguars, after double-digit losses to Philadelphia, Washington and Indianapolis in the first three games, played San Diego close for a half this past Sunday before the offense stagnated and allowed the Chargers to pull away for a 33-14 victory.
As concerning as an offense that failed to score on its final seven possessions was a defense that continued to allow explosive plays in key situations. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers threw for 377 yards and three touchdowns, with touchdown passes of 43 yards to Eddie Royal and 24 yards to Malcom Floyd coming on third-and-10.
Jaguars Head Coach Gus Bradley said early this week while the defense improved tackling and red-zone efficiency against San Diego, the secondary continues to struggle to challenge receivers.
The Jaguars enter the Steelers game ranked last in the NFL in yards, points and passing yards allowed. Winston Guy, Jr., a starter at free safety through Week 3, was released on Monday and replaced on the roster by former practice squad safety Craig Loston.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are a team searching for consistency.
Penalties are a big reason for that, and were a big reason for the Steelers' surprising loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this past week.
The Steelers, who also have a narrow victory over Cleveland, a convincing victory over Carolina and a loss to Baltimore, lost to Tampa Bay 27-24 when Buccaneers wide receiver Vincent Jackson caught a 5-yard touchdown pass from Mike Glennon with seven seconds remaining.
The Steelers are averaging 11 penalties a game and committed 13 penalties for 125 yards against the Buccaneers. Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin used the word "undisciplined" to describe the team following the game.
While the Steelers have struggled in spots defensively, the offense is potent, ranking fifth in the NFL in total yards. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is playing at a high level, as is wide receiver Antonio Brown. Heath Miller remains a productive tight end, and with running back Le'Veon Bell leading the AFC with 376 yards rushing, the Steelers rank fourth in the NFL in rushing.
Three matchups to watch
*Jaguars pass rush versus Roethlisberger.It's more fun to write that it's Roethlisberger versus Bortles. Roethlisberger is, after all, the quarterback to whom Bortles is most-often compared. But the real matchup is a Jaguars pass rush that has been effective when it gets opponents in passing situations versus Roethlisberger. He's tough to sack and even if you pressure him he can extend plays.
*Jaguars cornerbacks Alan Ball and Demetrius McCray/Dwayne Gratz versus Steelers wide receivers Brown and Markus Wheaton.The Jaguars' primary concern here is Brown. He has developed into one of the NFL's best big-play threats, but you haven't needed to be elite to have success against the Jaguars' secondary this season. Mental errors and coverage breakdowns have led to big plays in the opposing pass game too often. Make mistakes against Roethlisberger and he's tough enough to sack that he'll make plays downfield. Gratz sustained a concussion against San Diego, so his status is uncertain this week.
*Jaguars offensive tackles Luke Joeckel and Austin Pasztor/Sam Young versus Steelers outside linebackers Arthur Moats and Jason Worilds.The Jaguars' pass protection has improved since allowing 10 sacks to Washington in Week 2, and the pocket presence of Bortles is a big reason. The Steelers have struggled at times to generate pressure, with seven sacks in four games. Young has started the last two games for Pasztor, whose status remains uncertain early in the week.
Three Jaguars to Watch
*Bortles, quarterback.He has been well worth watching whenever he has played, and that didn't change Sunday in his NFL debut. He hasn't been close to perfect, throwing two interceptions in each of his first two regular-season games, but he has given the offense an undeniable lift.
*Toby Gerhart/Denard Robinson, running backs.Robinson has gotten more carries in recent weeks, and Bradley said the team will continue to look for the right balance at running back. Robinson appears close to breaking a big play two or three times a game. While Bradley said the team believes strongly in Gerhart, neither back has had adequate room behind a young offensive line.
*Paul Posluszny, middle linebacker.The entire linebacker corps is an area to watch for the Jaguars, because while the secondary has been a focus, the linebackers have struggled, too. Posluszny will be key against the Steelers' running game. He could improve in coverage, though as a group the Jaguars' front seven has been solid against the run more often than not this season. …
Keep an eye on …
*The Jaguars' wide receiver is full of unknowns this week. Cecil Shorts III is expected to miss a third game in five weeks Sunday with a hamstring injury, though the team could have second-year veteran Ace Sanders back from a four-game, season-opening suspension. …
*Sanders has been cleared to participate in all team-related activities. The team is eligible for a one-game roster exemption for Sanders this week and has until Saturday at 4 p.m. to determine his playing status for Sunday. …
*Rookie wide receiver Marqise Lee, who missed the last two games with a hamstring injury, is going through the team's return-to-play protocol. He could return to practice this week. …
*Gratz is in the concussion program. He was injured in the first half on Sunday. …
*Tight end Mickey Shuler, who missed Sunday's game in San Diego with a stomach virus, also could return to practice Wednesday or later in the week. …
*Pasztor could return this week. With Young starting in his place the last two games, Pasztor has worked with a protective device on his hand. Bradley said the team expects to learn Tuesday how soon Pasztor can be fitted with a less cumbersome device, and his status for Sunday will be decided after that. …