JACKSONVILLE – Jaguars.com senior writer John Oehser each week during the 2017 regular season will speak with a writer or media member covering the Jaguars' opponent.
Up this week:
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Ed Bouchette on the Steelers as they enter Sunday's Divisional Playoff against the Jaguars at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Question: The Steelers won the AFC North with a 13-3 record and won 10 of their last 11 regular-season games since a 30-9 loss to the Jaguars in Pittsburgh in Week 5. They're the AFC's No. 2 seed entering the postseason. Where are they? How do they feel about themselves as the postseason begins?
Answer: They feel pretty good about themselves, especially on offense. They're at full strength on offense. Since the first Jacksonville game, the fifth game of the season, [wide receivers] JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant have really come on. They've hit their strides. They're better off on offense than they were that first game. Defense is a different matter. They're still giving up a lot of runs and big plays – and they don't have [linebacker] Ryan Shazier anymore.
Q:Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw a career-high five interceptions against the Jaguars in October. He recently made news by saying he wanted to play the Jaguars again in the postseason. Are the Steelers beyond that loss to the Jaguars? Is Roethlisberger?
A: I think they're beyond it. I think Ben personally … throwing five interceptions, a career-high and tied for second-most in team history, having two returned for touchdowns … it's a personal thing for him; I really believe it. After that game he sarcastically said "Maybe I don't have it anymore" when people were questioning him. He really has played well this season. If you look at that game [against the Jaguars], there were other reasons there were passes intercepted; not just because he was off. It was good play by the Jaguars and some bad play by his teammates.
Q:What has been the difference for him? Even before that game he was struggling early and he obviously is back to his usual form.
A: I don't know; (laughing) maybe it was that game. [Running back] Le'Veon Bell had held out all summer and didn't return until the Monday before the regular-season opener, JuJu is a rookie and Martavis missed a whole year last year [because of an NFL suspension]. The whole offense was out of synch and it came to a head in the Jacksonville game. They've been playing a whole lot better on offense.
Q:The Steelers' defense looks very good statistically, but you say there are some cracks there …
A: They don't stop the run, not the way we're used to seeing here. They've gotten gouged. They've given up big plays both on the ground and in the air. That's something they've prided themselves on not doing in the past. Shazier was in there for a lot of that stuff, so it's not like they did all of that when he left, but not having him in there really hurts them. [Cornerback] Joe Haden is back. He missed five games with a broken fibula, but he's back and he looks back in form. That's helping their secondary and everything else. It has helped settle them down a bit.
Q:You've seen Steelers teams that have gone to the Super Bowl and won it. Can this team do it?
A: I do [believe that]. I felt that way last year, too. Then they got Bell hurt early in the AFC title game and they had no shot. I thought they had a pretty good team last year; I do think they have one this year. They've got to get over the boogeyman and their boogeyman is New England. They haven't been able to do that. I'm not skipping past Jacksonville and they're not looking past Jacksonville. I guarantee you that, especially since they lost to them.
Q: What's the Steelers' winning formula right now? Why are they playing so well going into the playoffs?
A: They've been playing some teams that aren't playoff teams. They handled Tennessee pretty well [in a 40-17 victory in Week 11] and then five of the last six opponents didn't make the playoffs. The last two teams they played – Houston and Cleveland – went a combined 4-28.
Q: The one game the Steelers played in the final six against a playoff opponent was a 27-24 loss to New England. They lost that game when a late touchdown was reversed by replay. That may have been the most controversial, most-high-profile game in the NFL this season. Has that been a galvanizing moment for the Steelers?
A: That made them angry more than anything. The whole way everything came down … the call really made them angry, although the coaches were partially to blame because they weren't prepared for another call when that [touchdown play] was overturned. The game after that they went down to Houston and just kicked them around on Christmas Day. They were really an angry team that week.
Q: So, you like how this team is playing going into this thing …
A: I do. Now, it wouldn't surprise me if Jacksonville came here and won. Jacksonville's the only non-division team to beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh twice in one year. But I'll pick the Steelers to win this week. I won't pick them at New England if they beat the Jaguars because I've seen that movie too many times.