Before either of the AFC's two wild card playoff games had kicked off, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger knew which team he'd like to face in Heinz Field in their eventual divisional round matchup: the Jacksonville Jaguars. And now that Roethlisberger's wish has become a reality -- the Steelers host the Jaguars on Sunday -- he must, in the words of Jacksonville cornerback A.J. Bouye, "be careful what you wish for."
Jaguars CB A.J. Bouye on Big Ben wanting rematch: "Be careful what you wish for. This is what he wanted. This is what he's going to get."- Mark Long (@APMarkLong) January 8, 2018
Roethlisberger's Steelers have lost only three regular-season games this year, but their loss to the Jaguars -- a 30-9 drubbing at home in Week 5 -- has certainly been on his mind for the intervening weeks. That loss was arguably the Steelers' worst of the season and certainly Roethlisberger's worst individual performance. The opportunity for redemption has now presented itself. But the question remains: Will Pittsburgh get it?
The story of the teams' first meeting was of Jacksonville's ability to create turnovers on defense and to run the ball at will on offense. Not only was Roethlisberger intercepted five times, the Jaguars returned two for touchdowns. He was also sacked twice. Meanwhile, the Jaguars' run game totaled 231 yards, including 181 yards for rookie running back Leonard Fournette, who also scored two rushing touchdowns. Though Pittsburgh outgained Jacksonville's offense, thanks to a Blake Bortles-led passing game that netted only 82 yards, Roethlisberger's turnover-heavy performance and the defense's inability to stop the run led to Jacksonville taking a second-half lead it never relinquished. Pittsburgh was held to just three field goals.
Jacksonville's defense hasn't waned in its intensity since then and will be the No. 1 obstacle to the Steelers reaching the AFC championship game for the second year in a row. To the Steelers' credit, they are aware and prepared.
"This one of the best defenses I've ever played against," Roethlisberger said this week. "It's everything. There is not one thing. Pass rush, linebackers, secondary, their stats. You look at what they put on paper, on tape this year. I think that speaks for themselves." However, Roethlisberger noted that, "Hopefully we have all gotten better as the season has gone on," a sentiment echoed by Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin, who believes that both the Jaguars and the Steelers "have evolved" since the early-October loss.
The Jaguars defense certainly hasn't changed much. They ended the regular season with 55 sacks and added two in their seven-point win over the Bills last week. They lead the league in turnovers and have 23 total interceptions, including the wild card round. Yet again, Roethlisberger should expect to find himself under duress thanks to the Jacksonville pass rush. And that pass rush is what led to Roethlisberger forcing hurried passes that were just off-target enough to be intercepted or tipped into picks last time. Though wideout Antonio Brown is slated to play this week after suffering a leg injury in Week 16, having him at less than 100 percent health may mean that the 10 catches for 157 yards he supplied the Steelers in Week 5 is not guaranteed to be repeated.
But Pittsburgh's offense has changed enough that Jacksonville's defense may not have it as easy on Sunday as it did three months ago. The Week 5 matchup was before rookie Steelers wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster became a breakout star -- he had four catches for 58 yards in the game. It was also before running back Le'Veon Bell had fully shaken off the rust that had accumulated after sitting out of the entirety of Pittsburgh's training camp and preseason games; he had rushed for over 100 yards just once by that point and was held to 47 rushing yards on 15 carries. Now, he leads the league in rushing attempts, is third in rushing yardage and has 655 additional yards as a receiver. Roethlisberger has been picked off just seven times in his past 10 games.
There have been changes to Jacksonville's offense, as well. Injuries have ravaged their receiving corps. Though Fournette has exceeded the 100-yard rushing mark three more times since Week 5, he's been held under 70 in Jacksonville's past three games, despite averaging around 20 carries per game. And when Fournette is bottled up, there's often not much that Bortles can do other than rely on the defense to carry him; last week, he had only 87 yards passing (reduced to 75 after being sacked twice), compared to 88 yards rushing. A lackluster offensive performance was mitigated by Jacksonville again showing up defensively.
The Jaguars could have better luck in the rushing category this week because the Steelers will again be without inside linebacker Ryan Shazier, who suffered a severe neck injury against the Bengals in Week 13. Shazier has been an emotional touchstone for the Steelers in their playoff preparations -- he was on the sidelines for Wednesday's practice, as well. But it can't be understated that Pittsburgh's defense has given up over 100 rushing yards to each of its past three opponents, a direct result of Shazier's absence. Fournette could thus have a bounce-back week that will require the Steelers to take better care of the football than they did in Week 5 in order to keep pace. Bortles, too, could see some relief with top Steelers cornerback Artie Burns suffering a right knee injury of unknown severity on Wednesday, which could mean rookie Cameron Sutton starts in his place. But the Jaguars, too, are dealing with defensive injuries that could dictate the outcome of Sunday's game; linebacker Blair Brown was also hurt in practice on Wednesday, leaving Jacksonville with three healthy linebackers just days before kickoff.
Indeed, it was the turnovers, in concert with a struggling second-half run defense, that doomed the Steelers the first time. But without a multiple-turnover offensive effort from Roethlisberger and company this week, the Jaguars and Steelers look set up for a close and physical confrontation in Pittsburgh. Neither team is allowing many points to its opponents, as the Jaguars' defense ranks second in points allowed and the Steelers' defense ranks seventh. With the way Pittsburgh's offense has been performing as of late, it's conceivable that Roethlisberger can get the redemption he's after.
But Jacksonville has been in this position before, in 2007, and in turn became the only non-AFC North team to ever win twice at Heinz Field in a season. This whole year has been a redemption story for the Jaguars. They aren't going to be in a wish-granting mood when it comes to Roethlisberger and the Steelers.