As we will do every Saturday to get you ready for the week’s game, our X Factor of the week. Sometimes it’s a player, unit, concept, or scheme. What will make or break the Pittsburgh Steelers as they square off against the Jacksonville Jaguars during the Divisional playoffs.
X Factor: Defensive Line
Guys, I gotta be honest. Struggled with this one. Could’ve gone in a lot of different directions. Considered the secondary, I’ve harped on them all week, the offensive tackles (they have a tough challenge), and some of the obvious suspects (Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell).
In the end, I went with where it all begins. The good ‘ol defensive line. Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave are available this week, an enormous sigh of relief to Steelers’ Nation. They’ll need those two and Cam Heyward on several fronts.
One, to stop the run. That’s still the bread and butter of the Jaguars’ offense. It hasn’t always been effective but is certainly an identity and they pair that with a physical front five to block for a 230 pound running back. On paper, that’s a problem for any team. Their interior linemen do a good job on combination blocks, double-teams at the point of attack before peeling off to the second level.
Then there’s the pass rush. As has been the ideal all year, Keith Butler wants pressure from his defensive linemen and outside linebackers. That begins with Heyward and Tuitt, who combined for 61 pressures and 15 sacks. For Heyward, it’s just being his usual awesome self. Tuitt has to work on finishing plays, a problem he’s had over the last two seasons.
At the least, pressure from both is required, though nothing beats a QB sack. Quarterbacks, even Blake Bortles, can make throws under pressure. And I’ve repeated myself like crazy talking about the need to keep Bortles within the pocket, not allowing him to escape, especially when the Steelers play man coverage and vision isn’t on the football. That goes beyond just the DL, it’s anyone who is rushing, but of course, those guys will be doing it most often.
Expect Hargrave to play a lot of snaps. The Steelers played their base defense 67% of the time in that first matchup. A little of that has to do with the game circumstance but it wasn’t until the mid/late 3rd quarter the Jaguars took control of that game. Again, the Jags have an identity and as mentioned on Friday’s Terrible Podcast, run plenty of “heavy personnel.” Going to see a fullback, going to see tight ends, going to see both at the same time. Hargrave’s role will be as large against them as it will be versus anyone.
Here’s my thought process. The Steelers win if these guys succeed. Their success means stuffing the run, getting pressure, two or three sacks, and forcing Bortles to win with his arm, not his legs. All that happens? Yeah, the Steelers odds of winning this one look pretty good.