JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser and senior correspondent Brian Sexton break down three Jaguars keys for Sunday's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
1.Offensive balance. It has been vogue to blame quarterback Blake Bortles entirely for the Jaguars' offensive struggles against the Jets Sunday. That's unfair; Bortles was under too much pressure at times and receivers either weren't often open or often dropping passes other times. Whatever the cause, a passing offense that produced 70 yards to wide receivers must be more effective; receivers Marqise Lee and Allen Hurns must be more productive to make safeties account for them. An unbalanced Jaguars offense Sunday will allow one of the best Steelers defenses in recent memory to focus on rookie running back Leonard Fournette, who has been the Jaguars' best offensive weapon but who has run too often against defenses bunched against the run. If a bunched Steelers defense stops Fournette and forces Bortles to throw from third-and-long, the Jaguars' chances reduce dramatically.
2.Minding the gaps. This is a way of saying the Jaguars must fix the run defense – in a hurry. They rank No. 1 in the NFL against the pass, but 32nd against the run. The issue cost them big against the Jets when the Jaguars allowed 256 yards rushing, including 177 on three plays. About 70 came after the team failed to touch down running back Bilal Powell on a 75-yard touchdown run. But much of the yardage came because the Jaguars failed to fill gaps; that often yields long, gashing runs. One issue: teams running on the Jaguars out of three-receiver sets. That gets middle linebacker Paul Posluszny off the field, which happened on two of three long runs Sunday. The solution must come quickly. Running back Le'Veon Bell keys the Steelers' offense. The Jaguars lead the NFL with 18 sacks, but pass-rushing opportunities will be tricky unless they first stop Bell.
3.Manage Fournette.It has become the hot-button issue among Jaguars observers: how best to use Fournette? While ideally you would use Fournette on every play – and have him carry on every Jaguars running play – to do so is unrealistic. He runs too hard and takes too much punishment to run him on every carry – and while he clearly is a man, he also is human. Fournette has four touchdowns and the offense is clearly more effective with him than without. But while it's easy to say he should play in "key situations" – i.e., third-and-short, goal-line, etc. – is it necessarily wise to rest him outside those situations and face more second- and third-and-long situations? Jaguars Head Coach Doug Marrone said this week the team will keep working on this, but there's no easy solution. He can't play every play, no matter how much everyone involved – coaches included – would love for it to happen.
1.Sell out.The Jaguars won't get the chance to rush quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and create turnovers if they can't stop running back Le'Veon Bell. He is a game-changing runner whose patience and vision combined with his 225-pound frame and breakaway speed make him the best all-around back in the game. It's not as if the Jaguars don't have the muscle up front or the speed behind it to get the job done; they absolutely do. But last week even top performers like Malik Jackson, Calais Campbell and Telvin Smith were out of position on key runs. When other teams run at them in nickel defense there can't be mental mistakes; everyone has to focus on doing their job and only their job. The Steelers won't hesitate to pound the ball drawing both safeties closer to the line of scrimmage for wide receivers Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and Ju-Ju Smith-Schuster to go vertical and take advantage of play action opportunities. Bell, who missed all of training camp in a contract dispute, found his rhythm in Baltimore last Sunday and appears ready to carry the load.
2.Be courageous. It takes guts to saddle up Bortles and sling the ball around against a Pittsburgh defense loaded with pass rushers and strong cover guys. But that's what the Jaguars must do this week – and hope they get the better version of Bortles. The Steelers' 3-4 defense always has been difficult to run against – no matter who is playing where. I favor the short passing game that gets the tight ends involved – especially 6-feet-7 Marcedes Lewis, who was a non-factor in New York last week. Without Allen Robinson, the Jaguars don't have a run-past-the-coverage receiver – and against Pittsburgh, who knows whether Bortles will have time to stand in the pocket and push the ball down the field? Lewis and James O'Shaughnessy both can win one-on-one and help keep the Jaguars balanced. Mix in the screen game, keep the Steelers moving sideline-to-sideline and take your shots down the field when they present themselves.
3.Mentally strong.Playing in Pittsburgh requires poise. The Steelers are one of the AFC's best teams. Their fans are energetic and knowledgeable; and when those towels start twirling, it's trouble. Roethlisberger is going to make some throws, Brown and Bell are going to make some plays and that Steelers defense is going to cause havoc. The best teams stay poised in the noise. The crazy part about last week's game is that the Jets gave the Jaguars multiple opportunities to win. The Steelers will make mistakes, they'll turn the ball over and commit penalties. Stay calm and focused and take advantage of what the Steelers give you if you want to pull off the upset win in Pittsburgh.