Anton Harrison/Cam Robinson vs TJ Watt/Alex Highsmith
As far as pass rushing duos go, the Steelers have a pair to rival anyone. TJ Watt recently joined an illustrious club of just two players in history to record at least 70 sacks and seven interceptions in their first seven seasons in the league. The other person? Lawrence Taylor. Not bad company to keep for the pass rusher, who surpassed James Harrison as the franchise’s career sack leader earlier this season. Despite suffering a nasty finger injury against the Ravens before Pittsburgh’s bye week, Watt is having another dominant year, with eight QB takedowns already in 2023.
Take your eye off the other side of the line at your peril though. Alex Highsmith might not have the numbers that Watt does, but he’s mighty effective in disrupting the passing game. Since entering the league as a 3rd round pick in 2020, Highsmith has established himself as the starter opposite Watt on this defense. In that time he’s recorded 24.5 sacks and an incredible eight forced fumbles, his hard hitting demeanor being rewarded with turnover production.
It will be the job of Cam Robinson and Anton Harrison to keep Watt and Highsmith in check on Sunday. It’s an unenviable task, but the growth of the Jaguars’ offensive line despite persistent injury problems has been impressive. Rookie Harrison in particular has really turned a corner in the last few weeks - something he attributes to the influence of Robinson. The veteran tackle has had an obvious impact since his return to the lineup following a suspension. That momentum will need to continue if they are to keep Trevor Lawrence upright in the face of the intense pressure Pittsburgh are going to bring.
Calvin Ridley vs Patrick Peterson
Since slaying the Buffalo Bills in London, Calvin Ridley has enjoyed being a passenger in the Jaguars offense. The talented route runner has recorded just 35 yards on five catches the last two weeks as opposing teams zeroed in on Ridley, allowing Lawrence to go to Christian Kirk to help move the chains. Ridley is enjoying being part of a talented, dangerous and versatile passing attack, and will no doubt understand his production will vary from week to week. That said, I imagine he’ll be chomping at the bit to correct the stats sheet this weekend.
Who he will match up against is a little up in the air. I’m sure the Steelers would like to move star defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick around to erase Ridley with some Alabama on Alabama action. But with just 16 snaps on the outside, I would expect Minkah to be used more predominantly in the middle of the field - particularly with Kirk thriving at the minute. Levi Wallace was a surprise non-participant for the Steelers in practice on Wednesday, so his status is up in the air ahead of the game on Sunday. And of course, that opens up the door for more snaps for rookie Joey Porter Jr, who has flashed serious playmaking ability in moments. Regardless, Press Taylor would be happy if he could find ways to have Ridley facing Patrick Peterson as often as possible…
Peterson is enjoying something of a renaissance in the back end of a distinguished NFL career. After seemingly in decline with the Minnesota Vikings in 2021, he bounced back with a 5-pick season before heading to Pittsburgh this offseason. That said, his pace is not what it once was - and challenging a 33 year old corner in his 13th season in the league to mirror Ridley throughout his varied route tree is a big ask. If the Jags can manufacture ways to have Ridley isolated one on one with Peterson, expect Lawrence to target him early and often.
Matt Canada vs Mike Caldwell
Sunday represents a big challenge for the Steelers’ offense.
Despite winning their last two games, Pittsburgh have hardly been firing on all cylinders this season. Matt Canada’s offense in particular has failed to impress Steelers nation, averaging just 14.5 points a game heading into Week 8. Behind the arm of Kenny Pickett, this team resides in the bottom five in the league in terms of passing yards in 2023 (1,275) - although it should also be noted that not all teams have had their bye like Pittsburgh has. Whilst the passing game avoids big mistakes, a distinct lack of explosion has once again led to calls for Mike Tomlin to make a change at offensive coordinator.
This underwhelming output translates in the run game too. Pittsburgh are averaging just 3.3 yards per carry, and their 448 rushing yards sit in the bottom four of the league - only the Cincinnati Bengals, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Las Vegas Raiders have worse ground games than the Steelers. Looking at these numbers, it’s fair to question just how this team sits at 4-2…
The last thing this Steelers offense needs is to come up against a defense that is playing as confidently as the Jaguars’ D is right now. Opportunistic in the secondary, getting good push up front, and a marauding linebacker corps that is stifling run games, Mike Caldwell’s unit will be relishing the trip to Pennsylvania. Going to the Steel City and returning with a win is never an easy task, but considering the mismatch on this side of the ball, a dominant performance from the Jags defense will go a long way to making this a reality.
Which matchups are you looking forward to most on Sunday?