Pittsburgh will be hosting the Jacksonville Jaguars this Sunday, and while the Steelers are favored in this contest, there may be reasons to be concerned if you rep the Black and Gold.
Although the Steelers run defense ranked 10th in the NFL by the end of the regular season (105.8 YPG), the Week 5 matchup between Pittsburgh and Jacksonville teams did not pan out well for the Steelers in securing the ground game. Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette ran the ball 28 times for 181 yards; 90 of which was on a single run.
In total, the Jaguars rushed for over 230 yards in a dominating 30-9 win against Pittsburgh... in Pittsburgh.
This time around fans should hope for a different outcome from a different looking defensive front. Ryan Shazier played in the Week 5 matchup, but the job is now in the hands of a rotating group of linebackers including Vince Williams, L.J. Fort, Sean Spence, and Tyler Matakevich.
In that rotation, Williams has been and will continue to be the vocal leader and captain of the linebackers; the others, on the other hand, have not had the experience needed to make tackles on a downhill runner such as Fournette. Sean Spence has only played 79 run defensive snaps this season, according to Pro Football Focus (PFF).
For Fort and Matakevich, they have played a combined 38 defensive run snaps.
My point about these linebackers? If the front three cannot make a tackle from the first hit, there will be many woes to witness once Fournette hits that second level of the defense. Without the lateral quickness of Shazier, it will take a group contribution to hold Fournette to a minimum on Sunday.
The positive position from the run defense is the front three. Heyward, Hargrave, and Tuitt have all had tremendous seasons. If you subscribe to PFF ratings, they have posted an 84.7, 75.7, and 81.0 grade respectively.
Their presence in the front will be crucial to stopping the run game, especially with the issues we could potentially see in the linebacker position. Bortles threw the ball 14 times for just over 90 yards in the Jaguars Week 5 win. Though I expect him to throw the ball more in this Divisional Round game, I will also prepare to watch Fournette run the air out of the ball.
Unless the Steelers tighten up on their rushing defense, this game will be a clock-draining, low-scoring, brutal game to watch, even if it does result in a Pittsburgh win.