The Jacksonville Jaguars narrowly escaped with a 10-3 victory against the Buffalo Bills on Wild Card Weekend, but thanks to outstanding defense, great punting (really) and Blake Bortles’ feet, the game never seemed to be in serious doubt for the Jaguars.
With that said, it is going to take a much better effort to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Divisional round. This is a different team since Jacksonville’s three-touchdown win over Pittsburgh in Week 5.
Some things are going to have to change if the Jaguars want to make it to their first AFC Championship game since 1999. That mainly starts on offense, but let’s examine what Jacksonville must do to win this Sunday.
1. Find the run game again
This has been a common theme over the past few weeks, as the Jaguars have struggled to find a consistent running game as of late — other than Bortles’ scrambles. Leonard Fournette was held to a mere 57 yards on 21 carries against Buffalo— the 29th-ranked rushing defense in the league. The rookie has not surpassed 100 rushing yards since Week 14 and only did so twice since Week 6.
I am not sure what the exact issue is. Fournette’s vision, offensive linemen taking bad steps and missing blocks, the play-calling or a mixture of all of the above. T.J. Yeldon was inactive against the Bills while Chris Ivory had one attempt for two yards. Perhaps a switch there would help. Whatever the remedy is, the Jags have to get the running attack going again to keep the ball away from Pittsburgh’s powerful offense.
2. Contain Le’Veon Bell
I expect to see a heavy dose of Bell this weekend. He is the bell cow (pun intended) for the Steelers and is a special player in this league. Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers tried to test Jacksonville’s incredible secondary during the first matchup and it didn’t work out well for them. Bell was ineffective in that game because the Steelers fell behind and were playing catch up.
If Pittsburgh is wise, they’ll give the ball to Bell early and often against Jacksonville’s sometimes shaky run defense. Bell rushed for 1,291 yards this season in only 15 games and averaged 4.0 yards per carry, while finding the end zone a total of 11 times. He’s also a big time receiving threat with 85 catches. The Jacksonville defense must contain the outside, take good pursuit angles and make sure he’s always accounted for in the passing game.
3. Bortles has to be a better passer
By now we all know Bortles’ not-so-impressive stat line against Buffalo in the Wild Card game — 12-for-23 for 87 yards, 3.8 yards per attempt, one touchdown, zero interceptions and a quarterback rating of 75.8. He actually had more yards rushing the football than throwing and he was constantly checking the ball down. It’s not all on him, as his receivers need to make more plays (we’ll get to that momentarily), but that kind of effort will not beat the Pittsburgh Steelers.
There were positives to Bortles’ performance, though. He made gutsy runs in the clutch. Although many people may not have realized this, he was also much more efficient throwing the football in the second half: Bortles completed six of eight passes with a touchdown and a rating of 132.3 in that half, according to Tad Dickman, senior manager of public relations for the Jaguars. Still, though, those completions only amassed 54 yards. The Jaguars need to find openings against the Steelers’ strong pass defense — though Bortles only had 95 passing yards in the Week 5 victory.
4. The wide receivers must show up this week
Marqise Lee returned this past weekend, but he made no impact. Lee was held to zero catches and five yards rushing on an end around play. Allen Hurns and Keelan Cole also had zero catches. Dede Westbrook had five grabs and was the only wide receiver to catch a pass against Buffalo. Fournette caught three passes from his running back position and tight ends Marcedes Lewis and Ben Koyack had one catch each — with Koyack’s proving to be the game-winning touchdown.
That kind of effort is not going to cut it against a Pittsburgh pass defense that ranks fifth in yards allowed. The veterans, Lee and Hurns, are going to have to step up and play much better this week. The rookies, Cole and Westbrook, will need to take advantage of the middle of the field with Ryan Shazier out. Obviously, points three and four need to work together this week to better the passing game as a whole.
5. Don’t let Antonio Brown get loose
I believe Brown is the best receiver in the National Football League. He will be hampered by an ankle/calf injury, which caused him to miss the final two games of the regular season, but a less than 100 percent Brown is still much better than what most NFL teams have as their No. 1 wide receivers. Brown is Roethlisberger’s favorite target, and he caught 10 balls for 157 yards against Jacksonville in the first matchup.
Jacksonville has the best cornerback duo in the league with All-Pros Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye guarding each side. It will be a fun matchup to watch. Brown is an excellent route runner, a burner and catches everything. His ankle will likely slow him down, as will Ramsey and/or Bouye, but the Jacksonville defense must take him out this game as much as possible. If he gets loose and in a rhythm, it could be a long day.
What do you think the keys to the game are this weekend? Will Roethlisberger try to redeem himself after arguably the worst performance of his career in Week 5, or will Pittsburgh stick to the run game? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.
Note: Off topic from the subject matter, but I also really feel the need to say thank you to the people of Jacksonville for making me feel like an honorary member of the #DTWD community and the Bold City Brigade.
The atmosphere was electric at the tailgate, inside EverBank Field and throughout downtown. I truly appreciate those who were able to meet up with me this past weekend, and I was especially flattered that so many people were quite complimentary about my work here on Big Cat Country when they found out my name. I had a great time in the Bold City.
Stay classy, Jacksonville.