By Daniel Benjamin
The Pittsburgh Steelers will look to extend their season when they host the Jacksonville Jaguars in an AFC divisional playoff game at Heinz Field. Kickoff is slated for 1:05 p.m. ET on Sunday, January 14.
Pittsburgh (13-3) was off last week thanks to one of its best regular season campaigns this century. The Steelers, who are in the playoffs for the fourth straight year, have won 10 of 11.
Jaguars Record (11-6)
Jacksonville is coming off a hard-fought 10-3 victory over the Buffalo Bills on Sunday. This is the Jaguars’ seventh playoff appearance in franchise history and their first since the 2007 campaign. The Jags are 6-6 all-time in the postseason, including 2-2 in the divisional round. With the win over Buffalo, Jacksonville snapped a two-game losing streak and improved to 4-3 in the last seven.
This is the second ever playoff meeting between the two clubs; the first meeting occurred the last time Jacksonville was in the playoffs (Jan. 5, 2008). The Jaguars won that Wild Card matchup 31-29 game at Heinz Field.
Jacksonville leads the all-time series 13-11. The Jaguars snapped a three-game losing streak in the series this season with a 30-9 victory at Heinz Field in Week 5. The Jags have won four of the last five games in Pittsburgh although the teams have split the 12 games there overall.
Jaguars on Offense
Jacksonville really struggled offensively against Buffalo on Sunday. While the Jaguars were certainly not a juggernaut during the regular season, the offense’s performance against the Bills was less than playoff worthy. The Jags managed just 230 total yards of offense and 10 points against a team that ranked 18th in scoring and 18th in total defense.
Quarterback Blake Bortles, who had the highest completion percentage of his career this year (60.2%), was shaky in his inaugural playoff appearance. Bortles completed just 12-of-23 passes for 87 yards and one touchdown versus the Bills—missing on short and long passes alike—but he did lead the Jags with 88 rushing yards on 10 carries.
Speaking of the Jags’ running game, they amassed 155 yards on 34 carries, which was the second most on Wild Card weekend. However, running back Leonard Fournette accounted for just 57 of those yards on 21 carries. It was the fifth time in the last seven games that Fournette has accumulated less than 4.0 yards per rush.
Marquise Lee led the Jags with 56 receptions. Lee, who also had three touchdowns, was one of five players to reel in 30 passes. Tight end Mercedes Lewis led the team with five touchdown receptions.
Jaguars on Defense
Jacksonville’s defense has carried the team all year. The NFL’s second-rated defense completely shut down the Bills offensively, limiting them to 263 total yards of offense while forcing two turnovers.
The Jaguars have now held eight of their 17 opponents to single digits. The Jags, who held the Bills to 133 net passing yards, finished the regular season as the league’s top passing defense as they surrendered only 169.9 yards a game.
What the Jaguars defense does best is get after the quarterback and force turnovers. The Jags ranked second in both sacks and takeaways with 55 and 33, respectively. They picked off 21 passes and recovered 12 fumbles.
Weakside linebacker Telvin Smith, who had a team-high 11 tackles against Buffalo, led the team with 104 tackles. This season marks the fourth consecutive season that Smith has reached the 100 tackle threshold. He also had three interceptions, five pass defensed and 11 run stuffs.
Strongside linebacker Myles Jack was second on the team with 90 tackles to go along with two sacks and four run stuffs. Strong safety Barry Church, defensive ends Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue, along with cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, are the other top playmakers.
Players to watch: Leonard Fournette and Calais Campbell
Jacksonville is a run-heavy team. Of the 1,078 total plays that the Jaguars ran this year, 48.8% (527) were running plays. In the Wild Card game, the Jags’ play distribution was more skewed as 34 of the 57 (57.6%) plays were runs. And Leonard Fournette is their workhorse.
Fournette, who ranked fifth in the league with 80.0 yards a game, produced the eighth-most rushing yards (1,040) on 268 carries for an average of 3.9 yards per carry. A bruising 228-pounder, the LSU product had just four runs of 20-plus yards and was third in the NFL with nine touchdowns. He has topped the 20-carry mark in eight of his 14 appearances. Fournette can also catch the ball out of the backfield, hauling in 36 passes for 302 yards and one touchdown.
While Jacksonville’s secondary is top-notch, it’s their front four that gives opposing quarterbacks nightmares, and Calais Campbell is the leader of the defensive line whose starters have combined for 35.5 sacks.
Campbell is one of the best defensive ends in the league. He graded out as the third-best end this year by Pro Football Focus with a 94.5 grade. Campbell was a wrecking ball against the Bills on Sunday and was credited with two quarterback hits, four hurries, six quarterback pressures and four run stops. He finished with six total tackles (three solos).
The 31-year-old had a career-year this season. Campbell racked up 14.5 sacks for a loss of 96 yards. He also posted six tackles for losses, three pass defensed and three forced fumbles.
Outcome: Steelers 20, Jaguars 13
The Steelers are a totally different team than they were in Week 5. Plus, it is highly unlikely that Ben Roethlisberger will throw five interceptions again, two of which were returned for touchdowns.
The key will be winning the line of scrimmage. Both team’s offensive lines are ranked in the top-five in terms of pass blocking—with the Steelers ranking first and the Jaguars fifth—and both have a fearsome pass rush.
The difference in the game could be which team can kick-start their running game. Both teams struggle to stop the run; the Steelers give up the fifth-most yards per carry and the Jaguars surrender the seventh-most. On the other hand, the Steelers’ offensive line ranks seventh in run blocking while the Jags are 13th.
The Steelers are 36-24 all-time in the playoffs and 16-9 in the divisional round.