JACKSONVILLE – Up Sunday:
The Jaguars' latest toughest task of the 2020 season.
We start this week's "10 Things" with those two lines because Sunday's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers indeed is a brutally tough task. The Steelers aren't only unbeaten, they feature a Hall-of-Fame quarterback – Ben Roethlisberger – that makes them scary offensively and a league-leading pass rush that makes them scary defensively.
Face it: The 9-0 Steelers are really, really scary.
But it's not as if the Steelers are the Jaguars' first brutally difficult matchup this season; just last week they played future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers at historic Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis.
And it's not as if the Steelers are the Jaguars' last difficult matchup of the season. Four of their remaining six opponents after Pittsburgh have winning records: the Cleveland Browns (6-3), Tennessee Titans (6-3), Baltimore Ravens (6-3) and Indianapolis Colts (6-3). That's scary, too.
The positive for the Jaguars?
They enter Sunday playing as well as they have played since the first two weeks of the season. Running back James Robinson has rushed for at least 99 yards in each of the last three games, rookie quarterback Jake Luton has looked poised and capable – if unspectacular – in his first two NFL starts and a defense that allowed 30 or more points in the first of six games of an ongoing eight-game losing streak has allowed 25.5 points in the last two games.
That's modest improvement, but it is improvement. And that improvement gives the Jaguars at least a slight chance to beat the NFL's last remaining team Sunday.
What do they have to do to do that? Here are 10 things:
1.Complete passes early. It's probably unrealistic to ask Luton to have a monster game. The Steelers' pass rush is too good – and their secondary is, too. But Luton must hit some plays downfield to get the Steelers' defense off the line of scrimmage – and it must happen early because the Jaguars on Sunday must …
2. … get an early lead. The Steelers lead the NFL in sacks (36) and turnovers (17). Defenses that disrupt like that thrive with leads. The Jaguars must get ahead early. An early deficit – particularly a double-digit deficit – could be impossible to overcome.
3.Run Robinson. A lot goes into being able to run Robinson. The Jaguars must have some success passing early to loosen the Steelers defense. They also must keep the score manageable to continue to run the free-agent rookie. Whatever it takes, the Jaguars must keep Robinson in the game plan. They're at their best offensively when he's used heavily.
4.Get Watt and Dupree blocked. There's more to the Steelers' defense than linebackers T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree, but controlling those two pass rushers is a start. Head Coach Doug Marrone this week called this the best Steelers front seven he has seen. That's high praise.
5.Pressure Big Ben … This is tough because Roethlisberger is throwing as quickly this season as any quarterback in the NFL. It doesn't matter if it's tough. The Jaguars must find a way to disrupt Roethlisberger to have a chance.
6. … but more importantly, intercept Big Ben. The Jaguars forced Roethlisberger into one of the worst games of his career in 2017, intercepting him five times in a 30-9 Jaguars regular-season victory. Roethlisberger isn't likely to throw anything close to five Sunday. But one? Two? Maybe?
7.Disrupt routes. Roethlisberger distributes the ball quickly, and receivers such as JuJu Smith-Schuster and Chase Claypool are good at turning short passes into long catch-and-run plays. The Jaguars' cornerbacks must pressure receivers at the line and disrupt timing.
8.Channel history. Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin downplayed the series history this week, but the Jaguars lead this series 14-12. Tomlin's probably right that history doesn't matter. Jaguars players don't have to believe that.
9.Get a game-changer. The Jaguars stayed in the game for 59 minutes against heavily favored Green Bay last week. One reason was a 91-yard punt return for a touchdown by wide receiver Keelan Cole. Against a team as dominant as the Steelers, the Jaguars figure to need such a play. They may need two.
10.Play their best game of the season. We wrote last week that the Jaguars would have to play their best game of the season to beat Green Bay. They played their best game in more than two months and it wasn't quite enough. Well, they really need to do it Sunday.