Steelers: Pittsburgh is matched up against one of the league's very best defenses during the regular season; that's the negative. Only the Vikings allowed fewer yards or points than Jacksonville. The Steelers themselves didn't get in the end zone when they lost back in Week 5 ....
-- the only time all season their 3rd-ranked offense didn't score at least 2 TDs. But risky to underestimate them, especially at home. Pittsburgh played five other games against teams ranking in the top 10 in scoring defense and put up 14 touchdowns in those games.
|Steelers vs. top-10 defenses|
Jacksonville's defense is better than Baltimore's; Pittsburgh will be hard-pressed to put up those kind of numbers. But average should be within reach, and that should be enough for the Steelers to score in the low 20s and move on to the next round. ... Antonio Brown missed the last two games with a calf injury, but it looks like he'll be healthy for this one. He practiced fully on Tuesday. Brown caught 10 balls for 157 yards against Jacksonville's elite secondary in the earlier meeting. That was on 19 targets, and Roethlisberger ...
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... threw the ball 55 times; neither is likely to happen again. But he's the game's best wideout, and good as this secondary is, it won't be able to completely take him away. And there were cracks down the stretch anyway: just 1 TD by wide receivers in the first 10 games, but 7 in the final six. Buffalo couldn't take advantage last week, but Brown and this passing game are dramatically better than what the Bills could put on the field. Assuming no setbacks with his injury, no one should be considering sitting down Brown. ... Ben Roethlisberger threw for 312 yards in Week 5, but that's not a recipe that the Steelers will likely follow. He attempted 55 passes and 5 were picked off, and that wasn't only a case of Pittsburgh falling way behind; at halftime he'd thrown 21 passes, while LeVeon Bell had only 9 carries. Especially perplexing since Jacksonville came into the game ranked 1st against the pass and last against the run. Jacksonville is better against the run now, but that's how Pittsburgh should attack, resulting in somewhat lesser numbers for Roethlisberger. Definitely fewer attempts, and fewer yards too. Not that this defense is playing at as high a level as it was earlier in the season. It allowed 4 TD passes the first half of the season; 13 in the second half. And in those last eight games, several capable passers put up serviceable numbers. Philip Rivers (235 yards, 2 TDs), Blaine Gabbert (241, 2), Russell Wilson (271, 3) and Jimmy Garoppolo (242, 2) -- those guys did fine. Roethlisberger is as good as or better than those quarterbacks, and Heinz Field tends to bring out the best in him. We're putting him down for 250 yards and 1-2 TDs, with 2 a little more likely. A lesser matchup, and as noted earlier, the potential for adverse conditions (it will definitely be cold). But reasonable chance of at least average numbers. ... LeVeon Bell was underutilized in Week 5, that's a given. In the first half he carried the ball 9 times against the league's bottom-ranked run defense -- criminal. Jacksonville acquired Marcell Dareus and was a lot better against the run after that (they finished 21st, allowing 99 yards per game in the 10 games following that deal), but they're still a lot tougher on the pass. So Bell should get more carries, and he's arguably the league's best receiver at the position. He caught 10 balls for 46 yards in Week 5, and that's not superfluous production in a lopsided loss; he caught 6 for 32 in the first half, when it was a 7-6 game. Bell didn't play in Week 17 so he's had a three-week rest; should be healthy and ready for this game. In a similar situation a year ago (a home playoff game against Miami, after being held out of the regular-season finale) Bell carried 29 times for 167 yards and 2 TDs, while also catching 2 passes. The Jaguars allowed only 9 rushing scores during the season, but did allow 4 TD receptions by running backs; Bell caught 2 in his last four games. Stevan Ridley (who was a workhorse in Week 17) and Fitzgerald Toussaint won't necessarily carry the ball at all unless Bell needs a breather. ... Antonio Brown will dominate targets, but JuJu Smith-Schuster looks like a viable No. 2. In Brown's last seven games, Smith-Schuster (in the five he played in) averaged 94 yards and scored twice; he then scored 3 TDs (including one on a kick return) in the two games Brown missed. He caught 4 balls for 58 yards back in Week 5. If Jacksonville pays more attention to Brown, which seems likely, that will benefit Smith-Schuster. As a large receiver, he might also benefit from the likely adverse weather conditions (potentially making it harder for defenders to stay with him and get him on the ground). We're less enthused about Martavis Bryant. In the last four games both of those other wideouts were available, Bryant went for 42, 30, 40 and 59 yards, with 1 TD. Definitely the No. 3 in the pecking order (and we're expecting only average numbers out of the passing game). ... With Jacksonville having the elite cornerback duo, maybe the tight ends will play a bigger role. The Jaguars allowed 5 TDs to the position during the season, only slightly fewer than to wide receivers (8). But Jesse James caught only 1 TD after Week 1, while Vance McDonald -- sidelined multiple times with a variety of injuries -- caught only 1 all season. When healthy in the final month, McDonald had a couple of productive games, catching 4 balls for 52 yards against both the Ravens and Texans. James was even better against Baltimore (10 for 97), although that was very much an outlier game; he averaged just 23 yards on the season. He caught 3 for 24 in Week 5. McDonald looks like the slightly better bet in this one. ... Chris Boswell looks solid. Scoring might be down, but maybe the Steelers will be more willing to settle for a couple of field goals against a limited offense. The Jaguars allowed under 6 kicking points per game, but that number went way up in losses: 63 points in six games. Steelers should win this one, making Boswell a candidate for double-digit points. Weather could make kicks of 45-plus yard difficult. ... The Steelers Defense should have some opportunities for turnovers. Blake Bortles threw 13 picks during the season, fewer than he threw in any of his previous three seasons (16-18 in all), but keep in mind he attempted about 100 fewer passes than in either of his last two. Buffalo defenders dropped a couple of opportunities last week. Pittsburgh had an interception and 2 sacks in Week 5, and Bortles attempted only 14 passes that day. With 56 sacks and 16 interceptions during the season, this is the type of defense that will cause problems for Bortles if he's required to do more than that (which is likely). Pittsburgh had a pair of defensive touchdowns during the season, including JuJu Smith-Schuster's Week 17 kickoff return, while the Jaguars allowed 2 (including a kickoff return against the Rams).