Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was emphatic when trying to dismiss the notion that his 9-0 team could be stepping into a “trap game” against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday afternoon.
“We are not a Big Ten team playing a MAC opponent this week. Every time we step into a stadium, we are playing professionals. Players and coaches. We have a ridiculous level of respect for that,” Tomlin said on Tuesday.
Actually, I’d argue most MAC schools would have a better chance at beating a Big Ten opponent than the Jags should at upsetting the Pittsburgh Steelers.
In fact, a MAC school should have an easier time upsetting the Jaguars, than the Jaguars should have at upsetting the Steelers.
Emphasis on “should.”
Because we know the Steelers’ recent history of struggling as big favorites. And Ben Roethlisberger is just 5-5 in 10 starts against the Jaguars.
“You look at the past history of this game, and it hasn’t been pretty for us. We have yet to play a really good game against these guys,” Roethlisberger said this week.
“The last 10 games against them have not been good at all. Extra motivation, whatever you want to call it, we’re not taking these guys lightly.”
With a Thanksgiving divisional showdown against the Ravens looming on a short week, Steelers fans better hope Roethlisberger, Tomlin, and the rest of the roster heed those warnings. Because it’d be a shame to have this contest be the one that undercuts their unbeaten campaign.
Here are four ways the Jaguars could make that upset happ…well, at least, potentially cover the 10-point spread.
Here’s to you, Mr. Robinson
It’ll be interesting to see if first-year running back James Robinson lives up to the billing he got from Tomlin this week.
“I cannot say enough about him and the respect I have for what he has done,” Tomlin said Tuesday.
“He’s a strong runner. He has built-in leverage. He is not an extremely tall guy at 5’9” or so. His angle to body positions, the pad level is impressive and that allows his power to fall forward.”
His own coach, Doug Marrone, is also high on the Illinois State product. The undrafted rookie began this week’s schedule fifth in the NFL in rushing.
“He’s a one-cut guy that can press the hole. He’s tough. Built low to the ground. Good ball security. Routes out of the backfield. And the line has done a nice job for him,” Marrone said.
Even subtracting that 39-yard fake punt against the Cincinnati Bengals last week, the Steelers have still yielded 169.6 yards per game rushing over the last three contests. The Houston Texans currently have the worst rush defense in football at 167.4. So consider that as a barometer.
Look for the Jaguars to capitalize on that trend and extend possessions by grinding it out on the ground.
Ground game grind
The ground game will be something to watch when the Steelers have the ball as well. The Steelers rush attack has been a point of much consternation in town this week. Over the last three games, the rushing offense has averaged a putrid 46 yards.
When it comes to stopping the run, Jacksonville is poor (131.7 yards per game allowed, 25th in the NFL).
They were better last week, though, against the Green Bay Packers, yielding just 80 yards on the ground. And they hung around the 7-2 Pack, losing 24-20.
So if the Jags can make Randy Fichtner’s offense one dimensional and shorten the game when they get the ball back, maybe they can do the same thing to the Steelers.
Then again, Aaron Rodgers popped off for 325 yards through the air last week. So don’t be stunned if Ben Roethlisberger and his receivers do something similar.
Get to Glennon?
Marrone said this week that the Jaguars will move forward with Jake Luton as the quarterback on Sunday.
“This will be Jake’s third start,” Marrone said Wednesday. “We feel like we are still trying to see what direction he is going. See where he can get better. See where he is at.”
Luton was 26 of 38 for 304 yards, a touchdown, and an interception in his first start against the Texans on Nov. 8. Last week against Green Bay was more of a struggle. The rookie from Oregon State only completed 18-of-35 passes for 169 yards, again with one interception and one touchdown, plus three sacks.
“We have to keep him in the pocket,” Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick said on Thursday. “He is mobile. Not the greatest athlete in the world. But he is mobile and gets out of the pocket. That happened to us in the Dallas game (with Garrett Gilbert).”
The Steelers better be careful, though. If they get to Luton, don’t hit him too hard. Because if they knock him out, Mike Glennon will come into the game. And Glennon has twice beaten the Steelers as the QB of a big underdog. Once with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2014. And once with the Bears in 2017.
Granted, Glennon only needed 101 yards through the air to do it in Chicago. Still, the Steelers may wanna keep the rookie in there.
The Jaguars have only forced nine turnovers. But they got two last week against Green Bay, and that’s part of the reason why Jacksonville stayed within one score of the Packers.
And when the Steelers have had issues against Jacksonville, it’s had a lot to do with ball security. Like 10 turnovers in their last three games against the Jags. Jacksonville won two of those contests in 2017.
But even Doug Marrone isn’t buying that one.
“Defensively, we’ve lost pretty much everyone,” Marrone said. “Myles (Jack) is the only one out there. That defense we had in ‘17 was outstanding. We are a different type of team now.”
By different, he means not nearly as good. Which is why even if all those things happen, the Jags probably still don’t win this game.
Unless the Steelers are already mentally preparing for their Thanksgiving dinner. And their Thanksgiving opponent.
Jamal St. Cyr of WJXT4-TV in Jacksonville joins me for Friday’s “Breakfast With Benz” podcast to preview Sunday’s Steelers-Jaguars game.
Listen: Tim Benz and Jamal St. Cyr preview the Steelers-Jaguars game.
Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at email@example.com or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.
Sports | Steelers/NFL | Breakfast With Benz
Get your CompTIA A+, Network+ White Hat-Hacker, Certified Web Intelligence Analyst and more starting at $35 a month. Click here for more details.