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5 Questions with Behind the Steel Curtain: What makes the Pittsburgh defense so successful?

Pittsburgh Steelers v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Another week, another seemingly tough task for the Jacksonville Jaguars (1-8). The 9-0 Pittsburgh Steelers will visit TIAA Bank Field for a 1 p.m. kickoff on Sunday.

While this game appears to be one that can quickly turn into a blowout, the Jaguars surprised a lot of us by hanging with the Green Bay Packers last week and have historically played the Steelers tough. Will any of that matter this weekend?

We reached out to Jeff Hartman of Behind The Steel Curtain — SB Nation’s great website for all things Steelers — to get the scoop on what to expect from Pittsburgh.

1. On paper, this looks like a tough matchup for the Jaguars. Granted, Jacksonville went toe-to-toe with the Green Bay Packers last week and fell just short. What do the Jaguars need to do in order to attack the Steelers on both sides of the ball and possibly get the upset win?

Jeff: On offense the Jaguars need to be able to establish the run. I’ll get to how their defense plays a roll in this, but when you look at the Jaguars’ quarterback situation you want to create manageable down and distances. Getting in obvious passing situations puts you in the cross hairs of the Steelers’ top ranking sack defense. On top of that, the Pittsburgh defense has been gashed by the run the last three weeks. If you are going to exploit the Steelers, it is doing just that...run the ball.

However, on the other side of the ball you have to try and pressure Ben Roethlisberger. The problem with this is you have to have a dominant front four pass rush. The Steelers haven’t given up a sack in two weeks, and when Roethlisberger has time to throw, especially when they go four-five wide (receivers), he will pick apart a defense. If the Steelers offense, currently averaging 30.1 points a game, gets a lead and forces the offense to throw their way back into the game, it sets up the defense to get after the quarterback.

The Steelers offense and defense play well off one another, and is a large reason why they are 9-0.

2. Ben Roethlisberger is playing at a high level and looks rejuvenated coming off of his 2019 elbow injury, and has the Steelers as the only undefeated team in the league. As he continues to get older, do you still see Roethlisberger as the longtime signal caller for Pittsburgh moving forward, or do you think his career is winding down?

Jeff: I don’t think anyone can say they see Roethlisberger as anything more than the quarterback for the next two-four years. He is in great shape, and his above the neck play has never been better, but very few quarterbacks can play at a high level into their 40s. With that said, Roethlisberger’s bounce back off season-ending surgery in 2019 has been nothing short of impressive. His arm looks strong and lively with the ability to make all the throws necessary to be a top tier quarterback in the league.

3. Historically, regardless of record, the Jaguars have generally played pretty tough against the former AFC Central rival Steelers (the all-time series is tied at 12-12 and the Jaguars 2-0 in the playoffs). Why do you think Jacksonville has often matched up so well against Pittsburgh in the past, and is that at all concerning to you for this season’s contest?

Jeff: Believe it or not, but the Steelers fans will tell you they feel more comfortable playing the Jaguars in Jacksonville, compared to Heinz Field. The Jaguars have always been able to do what the Steelers pride themselves on doing themselves. Run the ball, have a stingy defense and take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves. That is the main reason this matchup has always been so evenly matched. I think back to the days of Mark Brunell and Fred Taylor going against Kordell Stewart and Jerome Bettis. Now I miss the incredible AFC Central...

4. Pittsburgh’s defense has been menacing. As of press time, the Steelers rank second in defensive DVOA, first in sacks, sixth in total defense, fifth in passing defense, ninth in rushing defense and third in points per game allowed. What has made the unit so successful?

Jeff: The Steelers do their jobs extremely well. That may sound simplistic, but it is true. They play the run well as a collective, they have a very talented secondary and, like I said earlier, they take advantage of the opportunities when they present themselves. They are currently +9 in turnover differential, and have 17 takeaways on the season. That +9 is second only to Tennessee with a +10 number. The Steelers’ defense gets after the quarterback, 36 total sacks this year, and forces mistakes. Combine a good pass rush with a lethal secondary and you have yourself a pretty solid defense.

5. Is there a player on either side of the ball who could make a difference on Sunday that Jaguars fans may not be aware of?

Jeff: The Steelers’ offense is riddled with household names, but on defense a name to know is Mike Hilton. Hilton is the Steelers’ slot cornerback, and has missed the last four games with a shoulder injury. He is as dynamic as they come in the running game, blitzing the quarterback and being able to cover from the slot. The Steelers have missed him during these last four games, and they are hopeful to have him return in Week 11 when the Steelers head to Duval.

6. Score prediction?

Jeff: People call me a homer all the time, and that is fine. I have been on the mark with predicting the Steelers’ 9-0 start so far this season, and I think the Steelers will prove to be too much for the Jaguars in Week 11. I expect the Steelers to try and remain a little more balanced, and the Steelers’ defense will just do what they do to most inexperienced quarterbacks and cause chaos.

I like the Steelers in this one...

Steelers 27, Jaguars 13

Thank you to Jeff for the thoughtful analysis. To keep up with all news regarding the Pittsburgh Steelers, be sure to follow Behind the Steel Curtain on Twitter.