The Jaguars (0-4), who play host to the Steelers (2-2) on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET at EverBank Field in rookie quarterback Blake Bortles’ first home start, haven’t lost by fewer than 17 points, but the schedule offered a pretty tough start. Three of the first four games were on the road, and three of the opponents were playoff teams in 2013 (Indianapolis, Philadelphia and San Diego).
The Steelers are coming off a 27-24 home loss to Tampa Bay in which the Bucs scored the go-ahead touchdown with seven seconds remaining. That was the same Bucs team that lost to Atlanta by six touchdowns 10 days earlier.
Steelers reporter Scott Brown and Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco break down this week's matchup.
DiRocco: That was a crushing loss to Tampa Bay last week. Tough, hard-nosed defense used to be the Steelers’ identity, so is the Bucs’ last-second victory at Heinz Field a sign that Dick LeBeau has lost a bit off his fastball or is it a case that they’re just not as talented on defense?
Brown: There has been a drop-off in talent, and the Steelers are also in transition, having gotten younger on defense while also working in some new players such as free safety Mike Mitchell and defensive end Cam Thomas. I simply don’t buy into the notion that LeBeau is too old or that the game has passed him by. Yes, he recently turned 77, but he could pass for 57 and is known to rip off pushups during breaks in practice. LeBeau is still very sharp, and believe me when I say that the Steelers’ defensive players feel awful when they don’t play well. They simply love the man and want to succeed for him in the worst way.
The problem is that a LeBeau-coached defense needs outside linebackers who can consistently harass the opposing quarterback. The Steelers don’t have those kinds of pass-rushers unless Jason Worilds breaks out of his early-season slumber. I think the defense will get better as the season progresses, but the Steelers might have to score a lot of points to return to the playoffs after consecutive 8-8 seasons.
The Jaguars whiffed on the Blaine Gabbert pick in 2011, but early indications are that they got their quarterback of the future when they took Bortles third overall in the 2014 draft. The future is now with Bortles starting. What are your early impressions of him, and how do you expect him to play in his first home start?
DiRocco: I like what I’ve seen from the rookie from Central Florida. The things I’m most impressed with are his poise and demeanor on the field. He never gets rattled. He could be facing a jailbreak blitz or a four-man rush with great protection and you couldn’t tell the difference in the way he looks or acts. No panic, no happy feet, no bailing out. He has all the physical traits you want in a quarterback: size (6-foot-5, 230 pounds), good arm, the athleticism to move in the pocket and the ability to run with the ball. But it’s the things I mentioned before that I believe give him the chance to be a special player.
As for how he’ll play Sunday, I expect him to certainly be a little jacked-up at the beginning. In fact, offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch joked about Bortles’ first pass being so terrible last week because he was so fired up to make his first start. Maybe he’ll call all-go on the first play and let the kid air it out just to get that out of the way. Seriously, though, I expect Bortles to play the way he did against San Diego. He completed a lot of shorter, high-percentage passes but took a couple shots downfield. He missed a few chances to go downfield more, so I expect him to take more shots this week.
What are the Steelers hoping for and what do you think they will get out of James Harrison? Was it a smart move to coax him out of retirement?
Brown: They really had no choice but to convince Harrison to play for one more season. Jarvis Jones is out until at least the middle of November, and the Steelers were dental-floss thin at outside linebacker before Jones got hurt. Harrison knows this defense and keeps himself in such good shape that it shouldn’t take long for him to get in the necessary football shape. The Steelers aren’t expecting him to be the James Harrison who made five consecutive Pro Bowls from 2007 to 2011, but he will play his share of snaps with Jones out. If Harrison can give them 25 to 30 snaps a game and help the anemic pass rush, I think the Steelers will be more than happy.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin made the Jaguars’ defensive line sound like the second coming of the Steel Curtain. Is the Jaguars’ front seven their biggest strength, and do you see Jacksonville winning the battle against the Steelers’ offensive line?
DiRocco: It was supposed to be the defense’s biggest strength and it has been, but that’s not saying much because the defense has been terrible. The Jaguars are last in total defense, scoring defense and pass defense. They are tied for second with 12 sacks, but five of those came in the first half of the season opener. Defensive tackles Sen’Derrick Marks and Roy Miller have been the most consistent of the group and have played pretty well, but ends Chris Clemons and Red Bryant -- both of whom were signed after being cut by Seattle -- have been a bit of a disappointment. They haven’t played badly, but neither has made the kind of impact that was expected. Maybe those expectations were unfair because they’re both in their 30s, but they played in coach Gus Bradley’s system in Seattle. I can see the Jaguars having some success rushing the quarterback, but I think it’s going to be rough against the run because the Jaguars haven’t been able to consistently set the edge, which is dangerous against a back like Le’Veon Bell.
Speaking of Bell, is he the AFC’s version of Matt Forte, a back who contributes nearly as much in the passing game as he does on the ground? He’s not your typical Steelers back, is he?
Brown: That is what you heard a lot after the Steelers took Bell in the second round of the 2013 NFL draft, and certainly the former Michigan State star has done nothing to discourage comparisons to Forte. Bell is a complete back, and he quickly earned the trust of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger with his ability to pick up blitzes. I will be honest and say that I thought Bell was a nice all-around back but that I didn’t see him emerging as one of the top runners through the first four weeks of the NFL season. Bell has been a dynamic player with uncanny patience for such a young back. He gives Pittsburgh the balance it desperately lacked the previous two seasons, and there is no question that the Steelers haven’t had as well-rounded a running back as Bell since Tomlin took over as head coach in 2007.
I didn’t give the Buccaneers much, if any, chance to beat the Steelers last week, but they came into Heinz Field and sprung the upset. What do the Jaguars have to do to pull off a similar upset this week?
DiRocco: The main thing would be to quit blowing coverages and stop giving up big plays. The Jaguars have given up 25 pass plays of 20 yards or longer this season, including six that have gone for touchdowns. Both of those numbers are, by far, the worst in the league. Bradley said earlier this week that he doesn’t think the defensive backs are doing enough to challenge receivers for the ball, citing the fact that Philip Rivers threw the ball 39 times and the defense broke up only two passes -- and one was a deflection at the line of scrimmage. The defense has been torched because players have been out of position or missed an assignment. That has to stop happening. The Jaguars can’t let Roethlisberger throw to wide-open receivers and still have a chance to win the game.