JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser and senior correspondent Brian Sexton break down three Jaguars keys for Sunday's AFC Divisional Playoff between the Jaguars and Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
1.Pressure and intercept.This is the Jaguars' No. 1 key Sunday – and there's a huge drop to No. 2. The Steelers' offense is going to move the ball and they're going to create scoring opportunities. Wide receiver Antonio Brown is going to get yards. But all of that happened in October and the Jaguars still won 30-9. Why? Because they intercepted Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger five times and the Jaguars' swarming defense took over the game. The Steelers' offense may be the NFL's most-talented offense, but Roethlisberger isn't mobile and he will challenge cornerbacks downfield. The Jaguars' pass rush and secondary are perhaps the NFL's best such combination, and that combination has turned many games in the Jaguars' favor this season. On this matchup will this game likely be decided – and it's an area where the Jaguars are in no way overmatched.
2.Contain Le'Veon Bell.This is perhaps more important than controlling Brown – partly because it's almost impossible to entirely control Brown. But the Jaguars won in Pittsburgh in October despite a big day statistically from Brown – partly because Bell wasn't a huge factor. A concern here for the Jaguars is Bell ran well early in that game before the Steelers started emphasizing the pass early in the second half. The Jaguars intercepted Roethlisberger on two consecutive early third-quarter possessions to turn a 9-7 deficit into a 20-9 lead. Look for the Steelers to stick with Bell longer Sunday. One factor not to overlook: the Jaguars will have defensive tackle Marcell Dareus in this game. His presence since being acquired in a mid-October trade from Buffalo has improved the Jaguars' run defense.
3.Make big plays.The Jaguars' offense has shown few signs in recent weeks of running effectively, although they haven't stopped trying and aren't likely to stop trying Sunday. So, how to score if the run game is stagnant? Big plays in the passing game. The Jaguars did this a lot in early December and since have gone quiet in the area. They didn't try many in a Wild Card Playoff victory over Buffalo Sunday – partly because of the wind and partly because they didn't need them with the Bills' offense unlikely to score. The weather probably will be a factor in Pittsburgh, but the Jaguars probably won't be able to play as conservatively against Pittsburgh as they did against Buffalo. Keelan Cole? Dede Westbrook? Marqise Lee? The Jaguars' receivers have been quiet lately. They must come up big Sunday.
*1.Create Turnovers. *It worked in October and it's always the formula for January success; they create more possessions and opportunities for the offense – and the Jaguars showed against Buffalo the need opportunities. Turnovers also take away scoring chances from Roethlisberger and a Pittsburgh offense that features Bell, who finished the regular season with 1,946 total yards and 14 touchdowns; and Brown who added 1,533 yards and nine touchdowns. The Jaguars led the NFL in points scored off turnovers in 2017. They will need all they can get at Heinz Field on Sunday.
2.Create Pressure.Lost amid the celebration of the Jaguars' five interceptions in Pittsburgh in October: the quality and quantity of pressure on Roethlisberger. The Jaguars only sacked him twice because he's incredibly difficult to bring down, but they hit him seven other times and were constantly in his face. The Jaguars were second in the NFL in sacks in the regular season, and were also among the NFL's best teams in creating havoc with the front four. The Jaguars may not get to Big Ben often, but they need to force quick and errant passes that the secondary of Jalen Ramsey, A.J. Bouye, Tashaun Gipson and Barry Church can either knock away – which that group did 12 times in October – or intercept.
3.Create Points. Who cares how the Jaguars get them? And, truthfully, who cares how many they get as long as they get one more than the Steelers? The defense scored twice in Pittsburgh. Great, do it again. Special teams would be a big lift if Corey Grant or Jaydon Mickens or Dede Westbrook could find a seam. The guy with the most to prove, as always, is Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles; he threw 14 times against the Steelers in October and only once in the second half. That's throwback football – and if the defense is taking the ball away, it works great. The guess here is the Jaguars won't get as many takeaways and they will have to lean on the offense to light the board. It doesn't matter who gets them or how they get them, but the Jaguars' game plan has to find a way to get them. The guess here is Bortles is going to have to throw twice as often as he did in the teams' last meeting.