by Zachary Pierpoint
Cold, Hard Football Facts Steelers beat writer
The Jacksonville Jaguars come to the City of Bridges on Sunday to take on the Pittsburgh Steelers. On paper, this matchup is one sided (Pittsburgh holds the edge in every Quality Stat except for Defensive Hog Index
and its components), and the general populous sees it that way as well, evident in the 13 point spread given Pittsburgh by Vegas. However, there are a few causes for concern: Jacksonville historically has had Pittsburgh's number and Pittsburgh has played some pretty bad football at times this year.
Including playoff games, Jacksonville is one of only 4 teams to win more than they lose against Pittsburgh (12-9), and one of only 5 teams to have even broken even in Pittsburgh (5-5). It is even worse in the Roethlisberger era, as Jacksonville has gone 4-2 against Pittsburgh (including 4 of the last 5), including 3-0 at Heinz Field. Pittsburgh fans remember most vividly the two meetings in 2007.
In the 14th game of the regular season, Jacksonville came to Pittsburgh and held a 22-7 lead in the fourth quarter. Roethlisberger led Pittsburgh back to tie the game late in the quarter, but Pittsburgh eventually surrendered another score and lost 29-22. In the wild card round, Pittsburgh looked for revenge as Jacksonville returned to town, but the script remained essentially unchanged. Jacksonville had a 28-10 lead entering the fourth quarter, before a large Pittsburgh comeback culminated in Pittsburgh taking the lead 29-28, but after a controversial fourth down conversion, Jacksonville kicked a field goal with 27 seconds remaining to win 31-29, becoming the first team to ever win two games in Pittsburgh in a single season.
In general, Jacksonville has been a thorn in Pittsburgh's collective side. Even in 2008, a year in which Jacksonville went 5-11 while Pittsburgh won the Super Bowl, Pittsburgh pulled out a narrow 26-21 victory despite holding a nearly 2-1 yardage advantage. So despite the significant advantage from a statistical viewpoint, Pittsburgh has to be careful of a letdown, or of playing like they did in week 1 instead of like they did in week 5.
Two injuries may aid Pittsburgh in their attempt to play as they did last week and not mimic their opening game follies. Due to a shoulder injury, Casey Hampton missed the game against Tennessee; Chris Hoke started in his place.
Chris Hoke entered the league the same year as Casey Hampton, but while Hampton was Pittsburgh's first round draft pick in 2001, Hoke was picked up as an undrafted free agent. Hoke has spent a lot of time in Hampton's shadow, getting only limited playing opportunities, but he has made the most of them. In 17 career regular season starts, Chris Hoke has helped Pittsburgh to a 16-1 record, while holding their opponents to 3.22 RY/A.
Hampton has seemed less effective this year as team's have been doing a good job of using cut blocks to disrupt his ability to eat space. On the first play on Sunday, Chris Johnson broke off a 21 yard run, aided by a very effective cut block taking out Hoke. After that play, Hoke adjusted to the strategy more effectively than Hampton has this season, and Pittsburgh held Johnson and the Titans offense to 2.06 RY/A for the rest of the afternoon.
Hampton may play this weekend, as he is not yet ruled out, but if he does play, Pittsburgh has to hope that he can learn a thing or two from Hoke's play this past week.
The second injury which may work in Pittsburgh's favor is Roethlisberger's foot injury. Playing behind the revolving door that is Pittsburgh's offensive line (both in the sense that the formations are constantly changing and in the sense that they are about as hard to get through as a revolving door), Roethlisberger has had difficulties this season. Through the first four games, Roethlisberger still threw for 8.37 YPA but also took negative pass plays 12.42% of the time.
On Sunday, Pittsburgh changed the game plan, having Roethlisberger throw short, quick routes a much larger percentage of the time. This proved effective, as Roethlisberger was only sacked once and picked off once, and the interception was definitely not related to line play. Additionally, Roethlisberger threw for 5 touchdowns.
However, Roethlisberger was not his usual prolific self in terms of YPA, throwing for just 6.59 YPA on the day, well below his career average of 8.00 YPA. In the past, a low YPA game from Roethlisberger has nearly always been coupled with a low Completion Percentage. That is, Roethlisberger was still throwing the ball down the field, just not completing as many passes. On Sunday, however, Roethlisberger completed 70.6% of his passes. It was the 29th time that Roethlisberger had completed at least 70% of his passes in a game, but only the third time that he had managed below 7.00 YPA. Similarly, in 49 career games (including Sunday) in which Roethlisberger completed 65% or more of his passes, on 42 occasions he bettered 7.0 YPA.
With Pittsburgh's offensive line still in flux (Marcus Gilbert aggravated his shoulder on Sunday) and Roethlisberger's foot still a concern (although reports suggest it will have little impact on Sunday), it will be interesting to see if Pittsburgh maintains this new dink and dunk attack against Jacksonville.
All in all, Pittsburgh faces what should be an easy opponent in Jacksonville, but as is the mantra, "any given Sunday." While the game certainly could be interesting in and of itself, even if the game turns into the laugher many are predicting, it will be worth following Pittsburgh's schemes to see how they continue to evolve as a team.
Matchups of Interest
Blaine Gabbert vs. Pittsburgh's Defense
Over the last 4 seasons Pittsburgh has faced 5 different rookie quarterbacks a combined 7 times. On 3 occasions, the rookie QB put together a passer rating of over 80, on 3 occasions, the rookie QB put together a passer rating of under 50, and John Beck fell squarely in between with a passer rating of 76.7.
Pittsburgh's pass rush is less fearsome this year than in many past seasons, and the secondary is not intercepting many passes (or any actually, since Lamarr Woodley has Pittsburgh's only INT of the season). However, Pittsburgh is holding opponents to a league leading 5.57 YPA, and only one of the previous seven rookies has managed better than 6.5 YPA.
Perhaps most importantly, rookie QBs playing against Pittsburgh are 1-6 in their last 7 games and 3-17 since the turn of the millennium. Gabbert looks to buck these trends, but it will be no easy task.
As mentioned above, Pittsburgh asked less of its Offensive Hogs last week, running fewer lengthy passing plays. As effective as the strategy was (season best 5.56 NPP% surrendered), if Roethlisberger is healthy, Pittsburgh may return to their previous attack plan. In terms of the run, Jacksonville holds the edge, with the No. 8 DRY/A mark, but Pittsburgh moved up 8 spots in the RY/A rankings last week, improving their season mark by 0.54 RY/A, a hefty 15% increase. It is unclear which version of Pittsburgh's rushing attack will show up this week, but with a strong unit coming to town, Pittsburgh's Hogs look to step up again.
Similarly, Pittsburgh put together its second strongest Defensive Hog day this past Sunday, allowing just 3.67 DRY/A and forcing 7.69 NPP%. So once again, the question is: will Pittsburgh maintain the strong play seen last weekend? If Pittsburgh does, then they will have an opportunity to manhandle a weak Offensive Hog unit, but if Pittsburgh's defense lapses, than a tight battle of weak units will emerge, with No. 22 RY/A against No. 22 DRY/A, No. 29 NPP% against No. 30 DNPP%, and No. 24 3rd% against No. 19 3rd %.
Based on the first five weeks of the season, Sunday could feature a lot of yards but not all that many points. Pittsburgh and Jacksonville are two of the least efficient teams in the league at scoring points, ranking No. 26 and No. 31 in Scoreability respectively. This is another place where Pittsburgh showed great improvement this past week, but even in Pittsburgh's other impressive showing (vs. Seattle in week 2), Pittsburgh managed a lowly 17.54 YPPS. Jacksonville also showed great improvement last week in a loss, putting together 14.80 YPPS, while entering the game with 27.10 YPPS.
These two units have both struggled over the course of the season, but both are looking to build on a strong showing last week, which makes this a clash to which it is worth paying attention.