Steelers Opponent Preview: The Jacksonville Jaguars, Take Two

I decided to go back and take a long hard look at what I wrote back in Week 5 about the Jaguars. I was wondering a few things—was I guilty of overlooking them? Did I not sufficiently prepare my Opponent Preview? Was it, in short, one of the dreaded “trap posts?”

Here’s how I began the article:

The Jaguars are somewhat of a sensation this year, even with a 2-2 record. Nobody (except perhaps their fans) really gave them much of a chance. Don’t believe me? Well, in an informal survey of six early September sets of “power rankings,” the highest anyone thought Jacksonville would finish is No. 26. (One writer even pegged them at No. 30.) This, despite the fact that they have had top-of-the-draft picks for years now.

I mentioned a couple of stats that they had accumulated after four games, and here’s how they compared to the Steelers, then and at the end of the season:

  • No. 2 in sacks behind No. 1, Pittsburgh, which is how both teams finished the season, although Jacksonville had pulled into the lead for most of the season.
  • Jacksonville was No. 6 in points given up (18.5), which was more than the Steelers were giving up per game at that point: at season’s end, JAX 16.8, No. 2, Steelers 19.2, No. 7
  • No. 5 in interceptions, with five – I don’t know where the Steelers were at that point; at season’s end, No. 2 with 21, just behind the Ravens—Steelers were No. 9 with 16.

I noted back in Week 5:

They have drafted some excellent defensemen and signed a few others such as Calais Campbell.

They added Marcell Dareus in a trade with Buffalo in late October. As David DeCastro said, “This shouldn’t be fair.”

I then questioned against whom they were amassing these stats. At the time it was Houston, (win), the Titans (loss,) Baltimore (win by 37 points!), and the Jets (loss.)

It’s interesting to look at this in hindsight. If you had to guess which one(s) of those four teams would have made it to the playoffs, would you have taken the Titans? I wouldn’t have.

At that point the Steelers were 3-1, having beaten the Browns on the road, the Vikings at home, and the Ravens on the road. They dismayed the heart of Steeler Nation by losing (on the road) to Chicago, and this remains the worst loss on their schedule (in terms of opponent.) Interestingly, only one of those four teams ended up as a playoff team either. The Vikings were no surprise, of course.

At that point in the season I didn’t think there was enough data to make it worth looking at the Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus numbers, and in neither case can you look back at where the teams were. But I think it will be interesting to do it now. One of my main points of interest here is what Football Outsiders thinks of the relative strengths of schedule in terms of the offenses and defenses both teams have played. But first let’s look at how the two teams rank in various areas, according to Football Outsiders:

  • Jacksonville is No. 1 in Team Defense, not surprisingly, with a DVOA of -16.1%. Pittsburgh’s precipitous descent started with the injury to Joe Haden and continued with the injury to Ryan Shazier, and they ended the season at No. 9, with a DVOA of -6.4%.
  • Against the pass, JAX is also No. 1, and PIT is No. 8.
  • But here’s the surprise, because the Marcell Dareus trade was made to help shore up the run defense, which was in the lower half of the league at the time. (He was signed in late October.) They are No. 26, which I believe is a bit better than it was, but not much, and PIT is No. 18.

I like to look at the defensive line rankings as well. Jacksonville’s defensive line was No. 28 against the run (PIT was No. 8) and No. 2 against the pass. The surprise, to me at least? No. 1 against the pass was none other than our own Pittsburgh Steelers. Although I suppose this shouldn’t be a surprise since many of the sacks came from the D-line…

And now for the “strength of schedule.” FO adds up the DVOA of all the offenses a team played to determine how difficult their schedule was on defense. (Similarly, we’ll look at the strength of schedule vs. the offenses in the next section.) JAX turns out to have played almost the easiest schedule in the league in terms of how good the offenses were, at No. 31. But Pittsburgh’s schedule wasn’t particularly onerous from that standpoint either (playing over a third of your games in the AFC North this season will do that.) They came in at No. 26.

Now let’s check out the offenses. I’m guessing the numbers for the Jaguars aren’t particularly different than they were in Week 5, but that the numbers for the Pittsburgh offense would be quite different. At least the eye test definitely tells you so. Here are the end-of-season numbers:

  • Team Offense: JAX No. 16, with a DVOA of -0.2%; Steelers No. 3, with a DVOA of 17.6%. (They were behind New England and New Orleans.)
  • Weighted offense, in which the games at the end of the season acquire more weight than the ones earlier in the season, was interesting. In this metric PIT was still No. 3, with a DVOA of 19.8%, but JAX dropped to No. 19, with a DVOA of -1.9%. This presumably reflects the falling-off of their running game down the stretch.
  • Passing offense: JAX No. 15, PIT No. 4.
  • Rushing offense: JAX No. 12, PIT No. 6

Here are the numbers for the offensive lines, which was considered a strength of Pittsburgh and somewhat vulnerable for Jacksonville back in Week 5:

  • Run Blocking: JAX No. 13, PIT No. 7
  • Pass Protection: JAX No. 5, PIT No. 1. Both teams allowed 24 sacks.

Strength of schedule: there wasn’t that much difference. The Steelers played the 18th most difficult set of defenses, the Jaguars the 20th most. I often wonder how much this really matters, come the playoffs. So, just for kicks, here are how the wild-card teams did in the playoffs, and what their strength of schedules, in terms of both the offenses and defenses they played, looked like. I will list their SOS in that order—offense SOS, then defense.

  • LA Rams vs. Atlanta Falcons: L 13-26
    • LAR: No. 5, No. 24; ATL: No. 21, No. 3 (In other words, the Rams played excellent defenses and below-average offenses, and the Falcons were just the opposite.)
  • Jacksonville Jaguars vs. Buffalo Bills: W, 10-3
    • JAX: No. 20, No. 31; BUF: No. 32, No. 10
  • Kansas City Chiefs vs. Tennessee Titans: L, 21-22
    • KC: No. 25, No. 17; TEN: No. 12, No. 32
  • New Orleans Saints vs. Carolina Panthers: W, 31-26
    • NO:  No, 24, No. 12; CAR: No. 26, No. 1

Let’s see if we can take anything away from this. Just looking at the first game, (my order rather than when they were played,) you might say the Falcons learned to score against tough defenses, and the Ram’s experience at holding good teams to fewer points than their own offense put up didn’t help. Looking at the second game, one might feel that the Buffalo’s offense playing against the easiest defensive schedule in the league didn’t prepare them very well for scoring against JAX. But overall I’m not sure you can take away a tremendous amount from this.

The thing I think perhaps matters more? The fact that the Steelers learned to win games in which they were trailing, even right up until the end of the game. As I observed about Jacksonville in my first preview:

They are clearly a team designed to play with a lead.

So if you can jump out to a good lead on them, it helps. However, this could be easier said than done. I would now say that if you can stop them from getting turnovers, with their consequent “free” touchdowns and/or short fields, the differences in the two defenses won’t matter very much.

Let’s take a quick look at Pro Football Focus’ thoughts on the relative strengths and weaknesses of the two teams:

I won’t go into specifics, except that PFF would agree that Jacksonville’s D is first rate, top to bottom. The Steelers have some definite weaknesses in theirs, most notably the Seans—Spence and Davis. And despite all the hating on Mike Mitchell among Steeler Nation, they rate him as above average.

The Jacksonville offensive line has, according to PFF, a very good center, an above-average right tackle, and very poor players in the other three positions. Conversely, they think Foster and Pouncey are playing poorly and the rest of the line is very good to elite. As for the skill players, all of the skill players not playing TE for PIT are distinctly better than their JAX counterparts. (This is not quite true—Vance McDonald ranks as high as the JAX TEs.)

But in the end it isn’t the Steelers’ offense against the Jacksonville offense (which would be no contest) but how well each unit does against the opposite defense. Should be interesting.

And one final word (since I want to make sure this isn’t a trap post either) is about the weather conditions favoring the Steelers. I get that Leonard Fournette hates to play in the cold. I get that a lot of the players are from Florida and environs, and have played very little in the cold. It sounds great! Unfortunately some of my PTSD comes from the Miami game several years ago in which the Steelers were heavily favored, in part because it was going to be cold and even snowing, and the Miami team was going to suffer much more from that than the Steelers.

I was at that game. I can attest that it was indeed cold. And snowing. There were a good six inches of snow on me by halftime, and I don’t drink lots of beer (or any, actually) to blunt the impact. So I can tell you it was really cold. And QB Ryan Tannehill was also a warm-weather guy.

Well, guess what. The Dolphins stunned the Steelers that day. And that was a regular season game.

These guys are professionals, and while they may not like playing in the cold, they know full well they will be cleaning out their lockers next Monday if they don’t win—not to mention losing out on playoff bonuses and all the glory which accrues when advancing in the playoffs. I refuse to be lulled into a false sense of security this time. I only hope that the members of the Steelers who were on the team in 2013 remember that Miami game as clearly as I do.

Injury Report:

The Steelers were quite healthy coming into this week of practice, other than the injury to B.J. Finney which limited him at practice at the beginning of the week. AB has been a full participant all week.

But unfortunately Artie Burns, Stephon Tuitt, and now Javon Hargrave sustained some sort of injuries in practice, and none of them practiced on Thursday. A bummer, but hopefully none of them is major. It is pretty disconcerting, though, that they didn’t practice on Thursday. (The Hargrave injury was new yesterday. Tuitt and Burns were “limited” on Wednesday.) Interestingly, the word on the street is that if Burns can’t play it’s the rookie Cameron Sutton who will replace him, not the veteran Coty Sensabaugh.

On the other hand, AB was still a full participant on Thursday, as was B.J. Finney. So should Pouncey go down (and there are mutterings about a groin injury, although not from anyone official, and he isn’t on the injury list at all) we hopefully won’t have to see Chris Hubbard snapping the ball again. Just in case, I hope he’s been working on it, 16 hours per day, for the last two weeks…

As for Jacksonville, they played a hard, physical game last week, and have a rather longer injury list as a result. Perhaps the biggest name on the “Did Not Participate” list on Wednesday was Paul Posluszny, not just because it’s difficult to spell but because he is an integral part of their run defense. But LB Telvin Smith is also a big deal. Almost as big a deal is the fact that Posluszny’s backup, Blair Brown, was limited in practice on Wednesday. Also limited was CB Jalen Ramsey, with an Achilles injury, FB Tommy Bohanon with a knee injury, and TE Mercedes Lewis with an ankle.

All of that was on Wednesday. On Thursday most of them were limited in practice, with a couple of exceptions. Bohannan and Lewis both practiced fully. Blair Brown did not practice.

I expect to see all of them if they are even ambulatory on Sunday, because, as noted above, there is no tomorrow in the postseason. In the meantime, I want to know what the heck the Steelers are doing at practice for three guys (important ones, too) to go down this week…

UPDATE: The Artie Burns injury was non-contact, a slight hyperextension, which isn’t good but better than it might be…

 

 

3 comments

  • I agree that the weather does not favor the home team in this game. I was at the stadium when the Steelers lost in the Wild Card against Jacksonville ten years ago this month — it was cold then, and that was not a difference maker.

    Assuming that the extreme cold on Sunday has less effect on the run game for both teams, I’d make the case that the weather actually tilts in Jacksonvlle’s favor. Bad weather can be an equalizer. And it’s going to be very cold indeed, with highs predicted in the teens.

    Like

  • Great stats and how much they matter. Go Jags! Can’t spell SteeLers without the L.

    Like

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