A lot has been said this week already about individual players on the rosters of both the Pittsburgh Steelers and Jacksonville Jaguars as the two teams prepare to face off in the 2017 NFL playoffs at Heinz Field. With both teams fighting for a dominant performance, there are several individual matchups that will be key in deciding the outcome of Sunday's game. There are some matchups that are less obvious that may have an even bigger effect.
Getting Watt involved in containment
"You know the guy you're goin' up against as a one-on-one battle more than anything...other than that both teams have the film," said linebacker T.J. Watt this week.
Most fans expect that Keith Butler will dial Watt up to go head-to-head with the Jaguars' left side of the offensive line so that he can apply pressure on quarterback Blake Bortles. If you look at Jacksonville's depth chart, you might assume that means Josh Wells, Cam Robinson or even Patrick Omameh. What you may not realize is that Jacksonville has utilized a committee type approach to that side of their offensive line this season.
With Watt's ability to not only burst into the offensive backfield after the quarterback, he's likely to be tasked with dropping into coverage and getting heavily involved in containment as well. Watt is perfectly suited for limiting tight end Marcedes Lewis' ability in the passing game and out-manning his blocks in order to stop running back Leonard Fournette, Chris Ivory, and T.J. Yeldon. With Watt assisting, especially on the edge, it will allow the Steelers' defensive line to place more focus on gap assignments and get the pressure they need to create a strong front. It also allows the remainder of the Steelers' linebackers to get the stops they need as well.
Against Jacksonville earlier in the season, Watt recorded six tackles (five solo), 1.0 sacks and one stuff. Over the course of the season, Watt combined for 54 tackles, 14.0 sacks, seven forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, one interception, eight passes defended, five stuffs and one blocked kick. Expecting Watt to be nothing more than the 'typical' outside linebacker who goes for the quarterback play after play is naive. The Steelers will utilize Watt's athleticism to help break down the Jaguars' offensive scheme and give his teammates opportunities to handle the one-on-one matchups they've been assigned and expected to execute effectively.
Villanueva and DeCastro versus Ngakoue and Campbell
The Steelers' offensive line never gets many accolades from the NFL pundits, but they'll be a huge factor in how Pittsburgh is able to not only convert downs and move the chains but give Ben Roethlisberger opportunities to spread the offense and keep it balanced. The Steelers know that defensive end Yannick Ngakoue and Calais Campbell are dangerous defensive ends that can disrupt even the best-laid plans.
It may seem obvious that left tackle Alejandro Villanueva will have a one-on-one matchup with Ngakoue along the line, but where things get interesting is in how pulling guard David DeCastro (similar to how they played the Jaguars earlier in the season) will help seal that edge. Ngakoue was shut out in that game - no sacks, little pressure. In the Wild Card game against the Buffalo Bills last week, Ngakoue logged a single tackle. If Villanueva and DeCastro can keep Ngakoue shut down, expect the Steelers to rush the ball that direction with Roosevelt Nix offering an extra block for Le'Veon Bell.
Their [defensive] front four is an elite group... that matchup is going to be critical - Coordinator Todd Haley
Villanueva does not pull or rotate, so he'll be little aid against Campbell on the other side of the line, but DeCastro will get plenty of action against the AFC Defensive Player of the Year as named by the NFL Committee of 101 this past week. Campbell was limited to just 0.5 sacks against Pittsburgh the first time these two teams met, mainly because Mike Munchak helped Todd Haley by inserting extra blockers when Roethlisberger struggled. The Jaguars were able to get seven quarterback hits. Expect DeCastro and the right side of the line to get in some good shots as the Steelers' line fights in the trenches to give Roethlisberger time to execute a much better game plan with teammates that have been in sync since watching things break down early in the season.
Watch for the twist/jet moves that the Jaguars utilize up front. If the Steelers' offensive line can identify and time those moves (typically the twist on one side with the jet on the other), they will have an advantage.
"I'm looking forward to our group responding to the challenge," tackle Marcus Gilbert told Missi Matthews this week. "I know (the Jaguars) threw some challenges at us... we're the hardest working corps group out there... a lot of guys are gonna be after it."
McDonald and James versus a banged-up Jaguars linebackers corps
The Jaguars have seen four of their six starting linebackers plagued by injury. Starting middle linebacker Paul Posluszny (abdomen) returned to practice on Thursday, as did weak-side linebacker Telvin Smith (ankle). Rookie Blair Brown was unable to go due to a foot injury. Donald Payne (quadriceps), Myles Jack and Lerentee McCray are ready to go against the Steelers.
With players possibly hustling back into the lineup because it's a playoff game, the Steelers should get tight ends Vance McDonald and Jesse James involved more in the offensive game plan. Neither tight end had spectacular games against the Jaguars in the first meeting, but James did catch three passes for 24 yards (his longest for 15). The biggest reason they couldn't help open the playbook more was that they were heavily utilized as extra blockers.
Haley mentioned that he may use the tight ends again this week in blocking, but against a linebacker corps that isn't as healthy as it was earlier in the season, opportunities look to open up for McDonald and James to alleviate some of the pressure on both the run game and the outside receivers.
Watching game film between the Buffalo Bills and Jaguars in the Wild Card round, the Bills made the mistake of not adding help to the outside of the line to prevent defenders from swatting at the ball. When they did bring in a tight end or extra lineman, they made them 'eligible' and Jacksonville stacked the box. Smart utilization and rotation of James and McDonald will be an important factor in keeping the Steelers offense moving in the right direction.
The obvious matchups
Jalen Ramsey and Antonio Brown may go toe-to-toe all game. The Jaguars defense will be keyed in on Bell and perhaps an occasional rush by Stevan Ridley. Cameron Heyward will be getting the Steelers' defensive front to pressure Bortles and stop the run. Those are all relatively obvious matchups that both teams have been talking about leading up to the game.
In the playoffs, it is often the intangibles - the unexpected - that help secure victories. Big games from JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant will force the Jaguars to account for them in the defensive backfield and pull double-teams off of Brown. Play-action and misdirection should help keep the Steelers offense from being one-dimensional. Defensively, the Steelers would do well to 'spy' the run game and Fournette while allowing Mike Mitchell and Sean Davis opportunities to force Bortles to throw to a group of wide receivers who have not played their best games lately or choose to use his own feet to gain yardage. Both of these teams are relatively evenly matched, which always makes for a tough showdown, but the team that controls the clock, the ball and limits the opponent's intangibles should walk away as the victor this weekend.