JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser and senior correspondent Brian Sexton break down three Jaguars keys for Sunday's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville
1.Avoiding breakdowns.This has become key for any Jaguars game, because defensive breakdowns – missed assignments, mental errors – have become a season-defining trait for the Jaguars in recent weeks. The Jaguars have allowed plays and easy touchdowns in recent weeks, including in losses to Dallas and Philadelphia before the bye. It hit a peak in a four-touchdown first half by the Colts in a 29-26 Jaguars loss in Indianapolis Sunday. Mental errors are worse than physical; they indicate a lack of focus. The danger of those creeping into the game Sunday is real because the Jaguars' current five-game losing streak has made postseason hopes seem like a distant memory. Concentration and awareness are particularly important Sunday; Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is a veteran quarterback and the Steelers are as talented as any offense in the NFL. Jaguars defensive mistakes almost certainly will be costly, particularly mental ones.
2.Sack Roethlisberger – and make him make mistakes.Of all of the elements missing for the Jaguars this season compared to last, perhaps the most notable are sacks and takeaways. This is not necessarily all the fault of the Jaguars' defense: teams are taking quicker drops to avert sacks and the Jaguars have only held the lead in four games – the entire game against the New York Jets, New York Giants and New England Patriots and the first half against the Philadelphia Eagles. The Jaguars have trailed throughout five of their six losses, and it's extremely difficult to create defensive disruption when trailing. Still, critical to the Jaguars' formula for beating Pittsburgh twice last season was pressuring Roethlisberger and forcing turnovers; they scored on two interception returns in a 30-9 regular-season victory and linebacker Telvin Smith returned a fumble for a touchdown in a 45-42 victory in the AFC Divisional Playoff. Notable about the regular-season victory was the Jaguars used Smith's interception return to take the lead early in the third quarter. That's the sort of difficult-to-achieve, lead-changing takeaway the Jaguars haven't produced often enough this season. A shred of hope for the Jaguars is Roethlisberger will hold the ball to give receivers time to get open. That often results in big plays for Pittsburgh but could produce sack opportunities for the Jaguars.
3.Run – or at least get production from the backs.This figures to be important for the rest of the regular season, particularly with running back Leonard Fournette having returned from a hamstring injury that kept him out six of the first eight games of the season. Fournette rushed for 56 yards against Indianapolis Sunday, but Jaguars backs combined for 70 yards rushing and 112 receiving; the result was one of the Jaguars' better offensive performances in recent memories. Fournette had his best game of his rookie season in the regular-season victory over Pittsburgh last season, and the early offensive surge with him at the forefront gave the Jaguars an edge in the playoffs they never fully lost. This isn't the same Jaguars offense – or the same offensive line – as last season, but such a performance still seems the best way for the Jaguars' offense to be productive enough to win Sunday.
1.Doing your job.It's been the driving storyline on defense this week; guys freelancing away from the defensive scheme in Indianapolis left receivers running wide open in the first half Sunday. Defensive coordinator Todd Wash told me after the game they ran the exact same defense in the second half with much greater success because guys did their job. The coaches are the ones who go sleepless on Monday night and work without ceasing on Tuesday to put together the game plan. They're the ones responsible for the scheme and using players correctly within the plan. Freelancing didn't work against Colts quarterback Andrew Luck; heck, it didn't work against Dak Prescott. It certainly won't work against Roethlisberger. The Jaguars must do their job and do it well.
2.Tightening your chinstrap.Roethlisberger is coming off a five-touchdown game and is the reigning AFC Offensive Player of the Week. He's a great quarterback. But when you play the Steelers, it's first and foremost about controlling the line of scrimmage. Pittsburgh can throw the ball with the best of teams, but above all they want to run the football; they always have. When running Le'Veon Bell didn't report it didn't affect them at all; they have a runner who fits their ageless run the ball personality. James Conner runs with power and force, which is how Jerome Bettis, Barry Foster, Rocky Bleier and John Henry Johnson did it, to name just a few. It's who the Steelers are. The Jaguars must be ready for the most physical game on their schedule and be ready to deliver the blow or the Steelers will certainly take advantage.
3.Grabbing the Divisional Playoff game plan off the shelf.The Jaguars showed the NFL how they wanted to play the game in their second trip to Heinz Field last season. They ran with power, utilized the tight ends when Pittsburgh focused on running back Leonard Fournette, then found wide receiver Marqise Lee running in the middle of the field and wide receiver Keelan Cole deep. In other words, they kept the Steelers defense off balance. It will be tough trying to replace center Brandon Linder and left tackle Cam Robinson, who were key parts of that offense – as well as former tight end Marcedes Lewis and his replacement, Austin Seferian-Jenkins. But a week ago in Indianapolis the offense had its best game since the end of September by trying to play to its style and personality. The Jaguars must stick with it; it's the best chance for an offense that's middle of the pack facing a defense that is distinctly top tier.