Pittsburgh Steelers free safety Mike Mitchell was not on the field for the defense on Sunday, but he still saw the tape. And he was on the field the week before in Chicago when the Bears put up 220 yards on the ground against them, sending them from among the top run defense through two games to near the bottom just like that, such is the fickle nature of cumulative statistics when the sample size is so small.
Mitchell is working his way back from a hamstring injury that has been bothersome since the beginning of August and caused him to miss the first start of his Steelers career over four years, but he did practice fully yesterday.
As he prepares to return to the field in advance of Sunday’s game at Heinz Field, he also knows just what to expect from the visiting Jaguars: power run formations, and lots of outside zone looks. Why? Because those are the bad plays that the run defense has put on tape over the course of the past two weeks.
“They’re for sure going to get off the bus running an outside-stretch based on what we’ve done the last two weeks”, he told reporters after practice yesterday. “They’re also going to come out, like we’ve said, in their two-running back formations and run power, because that’s their personality. But if you don’t think they’re going to try to hit us on plays that we haven’t played right; that’s NFL football”.
Through the first four games of the 2017 regular season, the Jaguars have relied upon a rather inefficient run game, in which their featured runner, Leonard Fournette, has been averaging just 3.5 yards per carry. But their attrition approach has so far served them generally well, ranking second in the NFL with 148.8 rushing yards per game. They trail only Kareem Hunt and the Chiefs in that category.
Fournette, the rookie first-round draft pick, has compiled 285 rushing yards on 81 carries and three touchdowns, and he has been supplemented by Chris Ivory, the veteran, who has 118 yards on 30 carries so far.
Both backs are capable of utilizing the stretch run plays that have hurt the Steelers over the course of the past couple of games, so Mitchell and the defense are wise to be on the lookout for it. And they not only have the personnel to run it, they have been using it.
The Jaguars have featured fullback Tommy Bohanan frequently, already logging 91 offensive snaps this year, averaging about 23 snaps per game. The Jaguars also do not frequently feature their tight ends as wide receivers, even Marcedes Lewis, who had just 36 such snaps out of 226 on the season.
“It’s a huge challenge for us. It’s going to be a big game for the front seven. We have to stop the run”, Mitchell said of their upcoming opponent. “I know what my job is. My job is to turn this guy around. I look forward to trying to do that on Sunday”.