Ben Roethlisberger was asked who he’d like to play in the divisional round after the Pittsburgh Steelers’ bye week. His answer, while somewhat controversial, was ultimately unsurprising – the Jacksonville Jaguars. Competitors like Roethlisberger, who has been routinely discussed as one of the best at his position for over a decade now, always want the opportunity to prove that a showing like the last one against the Jags was an aberration, a mirage, not a reflection of who the quarterback had become in an offseason full of chatter over whether or not he was even going to play in the 2017 season.
Five interceptions will force a quarterback, even one with the pedigree and accolades as Roethlisberger, to answer questions like these. Fortunately for the Steelers, he answered the call.
In the remaining 10 games in which Roethlisberger started at quarterback, the Steelers won nine times, giving the team an opportunity for a playoff bye for the first time since the 2010 season. In those games, Roethlisberger recorded 22 passing touchdowns to 7 interceptions and 2982 passing yards. Tack on an average rating of 103.1 in those remaining games and it’s not hard to see how this team only lost one game after week 5.
A rested, relatively healthy Roethlisberger presented with the opportunity to right a wrong, such as it were.
WHICH BEN SHOWS UP?
The Steelers playing down to their competition is far from a new or unique issue for this team. An overtime loss to the Mike Glennon-led Chicago Bears in week 3 cost this team the first seed in the playoffs. The loss against the Jaguars was different, though. It was an elegant kind of self-destruction for the quarterback. The stat line of 5 interceptions and a double-digit loss is telling in and of itself, but the story goes oh-so-much deeper than that. The Steelers offense was abhorrently bad, unable to complete two-yard screen passes and dump-offs over the middle. The game was so bad for the quarterback that he, perhaps tongue in cheek, debated whether or not he even had “it” anymore. “It” being, I assume, the basic ability to throw a ball a handful of yards past the line of scrimmage.
Steelers fans were left asking the same thing. For the first time in Roethlisberger’s career fans were stupefied, debating whether or not it was a good thing for the quarterback to have returned for the season. Nine wins and a playoff bye later, the question now seems silly.
The Jekyll and Hyde act isn’t necessarily new to fans of the Steelers as the quarterback has had his ups and downs, but rarely have they been put so much on display as they have in the 2017 season. Roethlisberger has arguably played at an MVP-level since the perplexing loss to the Jaguars, but is it a sure thing that he continues this play against the best secondary in the league?
The defensive system in which the Jaguars employ — a Cover 3 — has always seemed to give Roethlisberger issues. A Cover 3, in its most basic form, is a deep-zone coverage which eliminates an offense’s ability for explosive plays down the field. The Jags’ secondary boasts the exact blend of talent and scheme to make it incredibly difficult to move the ball down the field with any consistency. Tack on the talent of the Jaguars defensive line and it’s a no-brainer as to why this is their standard defensive alignment. Roethlisberger, particularly with wide receivers Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant, has made a living off of the deep ball. When playing a secondary with the talent and scheme capable of taking this away, it shouldn’t have been all that surprising to see the offense stall. This kind of defense has lead to Roethlisberger playing with more reckless abandon than usual which almost always leads to turnovers, particularly for a quarterback that hasn’t ever really learned to throw the ball away in the first place. Steelers fans have become accustomed to this sort of live by the sword, die by the sword type of mentality and play from the quarterback, but an adjustment may have to be made this time around for the Steelers.
KEY MATCH-UP OFFENSIVELY
Ben Roethlisbeger vs. … Ben Roethlisberger, Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye
Sticking with this theme, if the Steelers are to win this game the offense can’t have the same issues as it did in week 5. The Cover 3 system, in combination with how often the Jaguars run man-coverage, is designed to take away explosive plays over the top against an offense that seemingly lives off of them. This same system is incredibly susceptible to hitch routes, shallow-crosses and runs up the middle. The Steelers boast the talent in the trenches with David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey to run the ball directly down the throat of the Jaguars. The Steelers also possess the speed of tight end Vance McDonald down the seam to clear out and force one-on-one match-ups underneath for Le’Veon Bell and JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Le’Veon Bell is going to have an opportunity to have a career playoff game. The Jaguars run defense ranked 21st in the regular season, allowing over 116 yards per game and more than 4 yards per carry. This is a unit that is susceptible to large chunk plays up the middle of the defense. The strength of the Steelers interior offensive line should make this a mismatch that wasn’t adequately taken advantage of in the match-up between the two teams. There will still be a reliance on the outside zone which has become a staple of the run game, but expect the Steelers to frequently test the interior of the Jaguars defensive line. If the old adage of games being won and lost in the trenches rings true for this game, the Steelers have the advantage in spades.
More than the Steelers being able to take advantage of the Jaguars defensive scheme and weakness in the run game, this game boils down to Roethlisberger simply taking what is being given to him. Roethlisberger has been known to force passes to Brown, because generational talents like Brown are always considered to be open even when covered and the results have been mixed. Indeed, the Steelers receiver has made jaw-dropping catches the norm. This sort of football is effective against teams that don’t boast the sort of talent the Jaguars have in the secondary. Both because of schematics and talent, expect Brown to be double-covered and blanketed for much of this game. This opens up Bryant, Smith-Schuster, Bell and McDonald in the passing game. With as many options as the Steelers passing offense has, which is more than any other team in the league and it may not be close, Roethlisberger can’t hone in and force passes to Brown. Roethlisberger’s style of play has led to some of the greatest moments both in franchise and league history, but taking what the Jaguars are giving him is crucial. There isn’t a linebacker in the league who can adequately cover Bell one-on-one and this should be a match-up that gets exploited early and often. Bryant and Smith-Schuster, both of whom have really come on as of late, need to take advantage of their one-on-one’s as well. McDonald has the speed necessary to stretch the seam and make plays happen down the middle.
The path to success for the Steelers isn’t complicated, but relies heavily on Roethlisberger taking advantage of the match-ups that are given to him in the middle of the field instead of one-on-one on the boundary.
KEY MATCH-UP DEFENSIVELY
Steelers linebackers vs. Blake Bortles
Blake Bortles won an NFL playoff game while rushing for more yards than passing. I think that bears repeating. Bortles ran for more yards (88) than he threw for (87) — the quarterback — while winning a playoff game. The indictment against the Buffalo Bills aside, that stat line is… astounding. Unwatchable and horrendous on the eyeballs, but astounding. The Jaguars have found ways to win on the back of their defense and often times in spite of their quarterback’s play. Bortles’ ineptitude in the passing game isn’t news, however. In the first match-up between the Steelers and the Jaguars, Bortles threw for a breathtaking… 95 yards.
He wasn’t exactly Dan Marino.
The one area Bortles can really hurt the Steelers is on the ground, however. This is a defensive unit dating back to Dick LeBeau that has had issues with mobile quarterbacks. Containment, particularly along the edges, is going to be key for this defense. Rookie outside linebacker TJ Watt is going to be tasked with keeping Bortles in the pocket, forcing the inconsistent quarterback to move the ball down the field with his arm. Simply put, the Steelers’ best gameplan on defense should be to allow Bortles to be Bortles. The quarterback has shown time and time again that when forced to win games with his arm, he often can’t.
The secondary should be somewhat tested as a result, but this is a match-up that favors the Steelers. The Jaguars offense, while boasting incredible talent on paper, still have enough issues at the quarterback position to lessen its potential impact. Rookie sensation Keelan Cole has provided the Jaguars with an adequate deep threat, capable of taking the top off of defenses and proving to be a reliable move-the-chains type of target. Allen Hurns has largely had an up-and-down season, but still has game-breaking ability if the opportunity is there. Tack on receiver Marqise Lee and tight end Marcedes Lewis and the Jaguars have a potentially potent offense that should scare opposing secondaries, but can be contained with ease because of the inconsistency of Bortles. This is where the Steelers’ secondary and front-seven have the upper-hand.
Though Jacksonville nicknamed itself Sacksonville, it was the Steelers that led the NFL in sacks this season with 56. Defensive ends Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt should be able to provide a consistent interior pass rush with Watt and Bud Dupree chipping in with a steady edge presence. Mix in a little of linebacker Vince Williams and blitzes from the defensive backs — notably cornerback Mike Hilton who registered three sacks against the Texans — and the Steelers should be able to consistently get Bortles and the offense off the field. This begins and ends with containing the pocket and playing sound run defense as rookie standout Leonard Fournette has shown to be able to pick up the necessary slack for his quarterback.
The Steelers defensive gameplan boils down to getting consistent pressure on Bortles and forcing him to stay in the pocket, diagnosing blitzes and forcing him to go through his reads. If the Steelers are able to do this, their chances of winning are increased significantly. They can’t be beaten by Fournette or Bortles on the ground, however.
This is going to be closer than people think. Yes, Bortles is an objectively bad quarterback that had a decent season because of the offensive approach that was implemented with Fournette. That said, I expect the Steelers to turn the ball over a couple of times and give the Jaguars a short field to operate with. Roethlisberger shouldn’t force throws toward a recovering Antonio Brown, but it’s going to happen. Roethlisberger has time and time again expressed the trust and faith he has in his receiver, but against a secondary like the Jaguars, won’t always lead to preferable results.
The Steelers likely eke one out here, though. Expect a somewhat steady dose of Bell, both in the rushing and receiving game, but this means a lower amount of targets for Brown, Bryant and Smith-Schuster. I’d expect explosive plays are few and far between on Sunday. The path to victory will echo the Steelers of old — an efficient running game combined with a stingy, stout defense.
Steelers 21 – Jaguars 17