The Pittsburgh Steelers are the best team in the league right now with a perfect 9-0 record under the guidance or potentially future Hall of Fame coach Mike Tomlin, who has also never posted a losing record during his 13-year tenure in Pittsburgh.
But, this weekend, the Jaguars (1-8) will face off against perhaps one of the best Tomlin-coached teams in a decade, one that boasts a front-seven on defense that Jacksonville head coach Doug Marrone says is quite possibly the best he’s ever seen.
“It seems like every time that I’ve played against them, their defense has always been solid, if not spectacular,” Marrone said when talking about the Steelers defense throughout his time in the league.
“I think this might be, out of all the years I’ve played them going back to when I was with the Jets, no disrespect to anyone I’ve played before, but this is probably the best front seven that I’ve faced and they lost a heck of a linebacker in [Devin] Bush who was playing really well.”
Marrone’s comments have merit. The Steelers boast some of the best players in the NFL along their defensive line and linebackers group, this is all without mentioning the high-level play produced from its secondary thus far this season.
With players such as T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Cameron Hayward, Stephon Tuitt, Vince Williams and Bud Dupree rounding out a group of elite players, there’s no telling what the Jaguars’ plan of action could even be at this point.
“Obviously, you like to be able to control the ball, keep it away from their offense, which is obviously a high scoring offense, but how do you do that? Do you try running the ball against this front seven, which is probably the best front seven that we’ve played this year?,” Marrone pondered when asked about the team’s plan of action this week.
“They’re good at both levels all around and I’m just focusing on them, obviously their secondary is playing very well. If you get yourself into a game where you get behind, then they’re going to eat you up.”
Along the Steelers front seven are three players that have elite grades from Pro Football Focus defensively, including Watt (92.0), Heyward (89.7) and former Jaguars defensive lineman Tyson Alualu (90.7), who has had one of the best redemption careers to date in Pittsburgh over the past several seasons.
At one point during the season, the Steelers boasted a pressure rate of 50.5%, unheard of over the past decade, according to PFF.
Steelers lead the NFL in pressure rate at 50.5%— PFF (@PFF) October 20, 2020
Since 2006, a team has never finished a season over 50%. pic.twitter.com/nTI1d4fnFA
One of the reasons for such success is due to Pittsburgh’s ability to pressure a team in a variety of ways, using multiple looks and moves. The edges of the defense, featuring Watt and Dupree, will be tough to handle, especially for Jaguars tackles Cam Robinson and Jawaan Taylor.
While Robinson has rebounded from a down year in 2018, Taylor has seemingly regressed.
According to PFF, Taylor has allowed 39 pressures and six sacks thus far this season. For reference, Taylor allowed 41 pressures through 16 games last season and nine sacks. While he almost certainly will struggle against Watt, who boasts an elite pass-rush productivity of 10.8, the most in the NFL ahead of Rams DL Aaron Donald.
Watt has accounted for nine sacks on the year, Dupree, seven and Tuitt, six.
Robinson, Marrone said last week, has enjoyed a much more successful 2020 than in 2019 when he was still battling the recovery from a torn ACL, an injury that occurred in 2018.
“I think Cam [Robinson]’s much better than he was the year before. There’s no doubt about it,”said Marrone. “I’ve said this multiple times, I think the inside three have done well. They’ve graded out well. They’ve played well. That’s backed up by even statistics outside of how we look at it and grade it.
“I think the tackles have had moments of showing that they’re really doing a good job and I think sometimes there’s a lot of pressure on those guys when you get behind in games. Overall, it’s been a pretty solid group for us.”
With the Jaguars getting veteran center Brandon Linder back this week after he missed last week due to a back injury, it will still be a tough ask for any team, let alone the Jaguars, to defend against the Steelers front seven this week.
“We’re going to have to step up. We have to raise our game to a level that we haven’t seen yet, so I think the opportunity’s there for us when we’re playing an elite team like Pittsburgh,” Jaguars offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said on Wednesday.
“They’re not undefeated just because of their defense, they’re playing with great team effort. They’re physical, they can run, they pursue the football, but most of all they’re really sound in what they do. They protect the edges very well at those outside linebackers. Their inside linebackers can run. Their inside defensive linemen are big and strong. [Steelers DT Cameron] Heyward’s one of the best in business at his position.”
The Jaguars will certainly need to raise their level of play to new heights this week, and with such a storied franchise coming into town, there will be plenty of eyes on them. At 1-8, this late in the season, the team is already playing for pride more than anything.