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Jacksonville Jaguars v. Pittsburgh Steelers: The Final Countdown Game Preview!


It's Friday, less than 24 hours before game day.  The Final Countdown. I can't put into words the excitement I'm feeling as we get closer and closer to the game.  It's a good thing that the team has far more composure than I do, otherwise we'd be in trouble.  

So with that emotion aside, let's dive into some pre-game scouting, figure out what we've got going on, and hopefully get an idea of how the game will play out.  

I always like to start with who's playing and who's not, mainly because it's something concrete in an otherwise unpredictable process.  For the Jaguars, it's pretty simple.  Backup Running Back LaBrandon Toefield did not practice all week with an ankle injury, and considering that he's not likely to even be activated for the game Saturday, it's pretty irrelevant.  Of course, as I've previously addressed, Mike Peterson will be out as well.

For the Steelers, it gets a little more interesting.  Imagine my surprise this morning to stumble across this :

Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu, who missed four of the final six regular-season games with a knee injury, is running out of time to convince the coaches he can play tomorrow in a wild-card playoff game against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

That was the declaration of coach Mike Tomlin after Polamalu missed practice yesterday for the second day in a row. Tomlin said Polamalu will attempt to practice today to determine if he can play against the Jaguars.

"It's going to be a big day," Tomlin said. "Everyone is in agreement Troy needs to practice tomorrow."

Can you imagine playing the Steelers without Troy?  He's the only player on defense that I absolutely worry can stop our running game.  This will bear an extra close (read obsessive refreshing) watching of the Injury report later this afternoon.  There's one word that I think describes the Steelers and that's a near literal use of the word Decimated.  They've been reduced by a factor of nearly ten through injuries over the last few weeks.  There has to be a sense of panic in Heinz field or at least the question of "why us?".  

Of course, I'd never relish the idea of beating a team simply because of their injury situation, but it certainly helps make it seem all the more possible.

Key Match-ups:

Center Brad Meester v. Nose Tackle Casey Hampton: The Jaguars don't often face a 3-4 defense,  and while they did beat both the Steelers and the Chargers in the regular season, it does require some adjustments by the offensive line to make the blocks for our running game.  It all starts in the Center where Brad Meester will go head to head against a Nose Tackle in Casey Hampton.  The battle here will decide how effective the Steelers Linebackers will be, because if Meester dominates Hampton by himself, it frees the guards up enough to stop the linebackers, particularly in the wacky blitz packages that they love to use.  If Meester requires help, look for some dangerous penetration by the linebackers.  Like any physical game, it all starts in the trenches.

Running Back Fred Taylor v. Outside Linebacker James Harrison: Fred Taylor punked the Steelers last time with one hell of a fantastic game.  He was simply unstoppable even then they put 8 and 9 guys into the box.  Stopping the Jaguars running game this week will be decided by the Linebackers, particularly OLB James Harrison.  Will Harrison shed the blocks and sniff out the cut-back lanes to stuff Taylor, or will the Jags offensive line make just enough of a seam for Fred to blast by Harrison and deep into the secondary?  This battle will only get better for the Jaguars  as the game progresses because the Jaguars offensive line can wear out the Steelers defense, particularly on the Left Side, and expose them with fresh legs at running back.  This is where the split situation for the Jaguars running game really pays off.

Defensive Tackle John Henderson v. Left Guard Alan Faneca: When in doubt, as I always say, run behind your best guy.  The Steelers have problems on their running attack, but they've still got a fantastic guard in Alan Faneca.  No matter who carries the ball, I'd imagine they'd try and get him behind a Faneca block.  Of course, that means running right at John Henderson, who will be challenged yet again to prove he's still a dominant defensive tackle.  If John can get penetration against Faneca, you can almost count on the elimination of the Steelers running game.  Collapsing the Pocket up the middle is always a good way to disrupt the passing game as well, but with Ben's mobility and the use of Screen Passes could be exploited as well.  

Strategy and Game Plan:

When the Jaguars have the ball: It really doesn't get any simpler than this for the Jaguars.  Run the Ball and convert 3rd down.   Nothing fancy is required.  We don't need trick plays or big passes, just the usual dose of running the ball with efficient passing.  Very Simple.  We know the Jaguars can run against 8 and 9 Steelers in the Box and that David Garrard can get away from the Blitz.  It's just a matter of dominating the Time of Possession, making critical conversions (in this game, every 3rd down is a matter of life and death), and not making mistakes.  In other words, we have to do exactly what we've done all season long.  Perfect.

I found a fantastic site called Throwing into Traffic that did a very interesting "analysis" of the Jaguars.  Here's their description of the Jaguars Offense:

The Jaguars are a punch in the mouth in a league where everyone stopped hitting in the face a long time ago. Maurice Jones-Drew, the mighty mouse of the Jags backfield, is a torpedo of muscle and Napoleon complex, pinballing off of defenders who are stupid enough to think his size defines him. Fred Taylor looks like he found his inner Jay-Z, told himself that 30 is the new 20, and has been living in the joy of self deception all year long. Oh, and there are two other running backs and a fullback who can hustle? This isn't a ground game; it's a ground way of life, and the Jaguars seem hell bent on making every step forward into a turf war. Time stands still for opposing offenses, who find themselves staring at an offensive war machine that chokes the life out of fun and buries vertical passing games alive.

But for all the revolutionary anachronisms in Del Rio's brutal running offense, the most daring move has been in the pass game, where the coach trusted not only his team, but also his career to an unproven backup simply because he bought into the system. The football aristocracy calls David Garrard a game manager and bars him entry into their pantheon of "great quarterbacks". One solid postseason, and we may all rethink what that signifier signifies. All year long, the new signal caller has been showing fans that just as important as the ability to make amazing plays is the ability to consistently avoid bad ones, throwing an absurdly low three interceptions. The run game works because he forces defenses to remain honest or be made to look stupid by the guy who used to hold Byron Leftwich's clipboard.

I couldn't put it any better.  Fantastic.

When The Steelers have the Ball: Don't let the Steelers offensive tradition fool you, these are not your grandfather's Steelers.  Where you'd expect to see them run the ball and pound away, you'll see lots and lots of passing, 30-40 times I'd bet.  The Game is in the hands of Big Ben, and he'll be throwing a lot.  Of course, that means he's vulnerable to getting pounded (For the First Time the David Carr award goes to someone not named David Carr, as Ben is the most Sacked QB in the League).  Ben is mobile enough to escape most pressure and has the vision to find the open receiver.  Tight End Heath Miller will be a big target, as Ben tries to exploit the matchup with Safety Sammy Knight.

Fun Fact:

The Steelers have only 38 First Downs in the last three games with the Jaguars,  an average of less than 13 per game.  

Peter King Kiss of Death: Uh Oh:

Since the middle of 2005, Jacksonville has met the Steelers three times and won each time -- 23-17, 9-0, and 29-22. The Steelers have 38 first downs and a composite 45-percent completion rate in those three games. What's more, the Jags have run roughshod on Pittsburgh, and while the Steelers are seriously banged up on the offensive line and in the backfield, Jacksonville has the healthiest offense in the playoffs. Final point: The Jags are built to play well in weather, unlike most Southern teams. Bad matchup for the Steelers. Vegas (Jags by 1.5) sees it too.
Jacksonville 19, Pittsburgh 10

What do the Steelers Think?:

First, credit where credit is due, Behind the Steel Curtain is a wonderful resource for the Steelers Fans out there.  They know their stuff and they bleed black and gold, so if you're into that sort of thing, check them out.  I'm gonna give you an idea of where their heads are right now as we build up to the game:

Everyone knows LT is decimated and Aaron Smith is gone but it might be worse than we all thought:

Troy missed his second practice in a row today, which might not be as big a deal in a normal week but this weeks game is just two days away. Coach Tomlin said tomorrow will be a make or break day for him. Of course if Troy can't go, I'd imagine we see Tyrone Carter and Anthony Smith again. It's not impossible to overcome his absence because Smith and Carter have gotten so much playing time already this year but where it really hurts the defense is depth (basically there is none at the safety position).

I was of course disappointed to hear about Max Starks and Marvel Smith but Trai Essex, who will start at Tackle, is supposedly superior in pass protection than as a run blocker anyway. Since I don't see us running the ball too much against Jacksonville, perhaps this isn't all that big a deal. Essex may not be the longterm solution The potential absence of Troy Polamalu however is downright scary. As bad as we were against Jacksonville against the run, it probably would have been even worse if P. wasn't in there making plays. He got pushed around his fair share that day as well, but he also made some fine tackles that at least gave us an opportunity (that we failed to convert) to stop the Jags on a number of 3rd and 4th downs.

Regardless, the fact remains that if the Steelers are going to succeed against Jacknsoville, and especially against New England or Indy if they were so fortunate to advance, they must perform incredibly well on 3rd down. That seems obvious, and it is. But I reiterate the importance of this largely because of the way our defense has been playing. It's beat up and the verdict is out on how to expose it. I do have faith that the defense can rebound, though I'm not willing to wager on it. Instead, I'd rather it simply not be compromised by inconsistent play by the offense. Let's stay on the field. Sustain a number of long, time-consuming scoring drives, capitalize in the redzone, and ultimately minimize the potential for our defense to be exposed, as it has since the New England game. And finally, many of our struggles have occurred away from Heinz Field. We're almost guaranteed to get only one home game in the AFC bracket, so if we are to go on an improbable run, we're going to have to shake a problem that has plagued us all year long, and especially in the second half of the season: poor play on 3rd down.

What do I think:

I think the Jaguars are going to march into Heinz Field and put together an efficient and assertive win over the Steelers.  I think that Pittsburgh is basically a wounded beast that will have significant trouble doing the basic fundamentals of running the ball and stopping the run.  The Jaguars are in effect 100% healthy on the offensive side of the ball with plenty of depth and fresh legs.  The Steelers are bleeding on defense and with the possibility that Troy misses the game only makes it worse.

Most important for the Jaguars is that they win by playing absolutely sound "Jaguars Football", to set a tone for the next round of the playoffs.  This is the game where we must see the "three big plays" that I always talk about.  The idea that a perfect game requires the offense, defense, and special teams to each go out of their way to make one critical play.  An interception during a dangerous Steelers Drive, a coffin corner punt or blocked punt on special teams, a long TD pass or Run early in the game.  Something that gives each phase of the game something to hang their hat on.  We've come close to playing the "complete game", where we have long time eating drives, but I'm still holding out for that perfectly played and executed game where we dominate and make all the critical plays.  I'd like the game on Saturday to be boring and uneventful, as we grind, grind, grind our way to a game with New England.

And that's what I think.

Adventures in Live-Blogging:

As Usual, I'll be live blogging the game.  I insist that you stop by and join in on the fun.

Now I just gotta figure out what to do to pass the time before the game...

I'll be back in a few hours with the Injury Update, hopefully we get lots of good news.