JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser addresses five topics that are becoming clearer as Sunday's game between the Steelers and Jaguars approaches …
1.Faith remains.We begin this Steelers-Jaguars "Into Focus" by addressing the week's major Jaguars topic aside from Blake Bortles – that is, the defense. Players have made clear while preparing for Pittsburgh they believe a defense that ranks 32nd in scoring, passing yards and total yards isn't far from being competitive. Cornerback Alan Ball, asked if the defense could be fixed, smiled and said he didn't believe it was broken. And although defensive tackle Roy Miller said the game-changing plays must stop, there were some positives such as a strong run defense in a loss to San Diego Sunday. Head Coach Gus Bradley said he liked that the line was getting pressure, and once again said the front, middle linebacker Paul Posluszny and safeties Josh Evans and Johnathan Cyprien have played well. "Now it's just challenging everybody to pick it up even more," Bradley said. "We showed signs of it. We can stop the run, we've addressed that and we've shown flashes in games where we've done that. Now it's just the consistency."
2.Expect pressure – and creativity. Think Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau will call a few blitzes Sunday? The Jaguars do, and history says they're right. LeBeau, one of the NFL's more-respected coordinators, is known to call a variety of exotic blitzes when facing rookie quarterbacks, and Jaguars offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch said he figures LeBeau could do the same with Bortles making his second career start. The Steelers have seven sacks this season; the Jaguars have allowed 20, including 10 against Washington in Week 2. "We have to prepare for both (blitz and coverage)." Fisch said Wednesday. "(Chargers defensive coordinator) John Pagano certainly blitzed us and put us in some tough spots at times – and then other times, played coverage. … We're probably going to get a mixture, I assume, and we'll have to be prepared for both." Bortles said of the Steelers' veteran defense, "They're an aggressive defense that goes after it and attacks the ball. We're going to have to be sharp and exact with what we do."
3. Third downs remain a priority.First, no way does Fisch think the Jaguars often match the 64 percent success rate on third down achieved against San Diego. "Sixty-three percent is an awfully high number," he said. But Fisch is pleased with progress made in that area and wants it to continue. The Jaguars, after converting six of 32 third downs in the first two and a half games, have converted 12 of 19 since Bortles entered the lineup. "The biggest things about third downs last week were that we had five third-and-ones," Fisch said. "We converted four of those third-and-ones. That alone was huge for us. That means we were efficient on first and second downs." Bortles agreed, saying, "I think that conversion rate was good and that's something that we need to continue to work on and improve."
4.Getting Ben down is big – and difficult.The Steelers are 2-2, but whatever struggles they have had aren't because of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The 11-year veteran through four games has a 99.4 passer rating, and he threw for three touchdowns in an upset loss to Tampa Bay last week. The Steelers' running game is complementing Roethlisberger well, and wide receiver Antonio Brown has developed into one of the NFL's most-dangerous receivers. But Roethlisberger's ability to extend plays and pass downfield after doing so remains the defining characteristic of the Steelers' offense. "He's always looking downfield," Jaguars defensive tackle Roy Miller, who played Roethlisberger and the Steelers as a member of the Buccaneers in 2010, said. "He's a big dude and he has enough confidence to throw the ball up to some great receivers, and it's hard to get him down." Miller said rules protecting quarterbacks make playing a player such as Roethlisberger trickier. "It all adds together and makes a big man like that difficult," Miller said. "You can't go for his legs. You have to hit him in the strike zone. He's a big man, strong, and extends the plays. That frustrates defenses. You want to jump, and once you jump, he extends the play and throws downfield."
5.Better up front.The Jaguars' offensive line has been an area of focus early in the season, but Fisch said the group has taken strides in recent weeks. Bradley said this week that the left side of guard Zane Beadles and tackle Luke Joeckel improved against San Diego, and asked specifically about Beadles Wednesday, Fisch said, "He played better." After allowing 10 sacks against Washington in Week 2, the line has improved in pass protection while benefitting from Bortles' pocket presence. Fisch also said the group has improved its run-blocking, and said the team's 85 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries against San Diego was better than the statistics indicated. The Jaguars faced five third-and-one situations and two fourth-and-one situations with three more plays inside the Chargers' five-yard line. "You're not going to get as many yards when you have ten short-yardage plays," Fisch said. "You only have X amount of yards unless you break a third-and-one. You have ten out of 25 plays where really, it's going to be tough sledding. Our efficiency in the running game was the best because of their communication. The group is getting a little bit in sync."
Flash back and take a look at the history between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Jacksonville Jaguars