Big Ben gets second chance against vaunted Jaguars secondary

Updated: January 12, 2018
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If you survey a postgame box score and notice that one team’s quarterback had 95 passing yards compared to 312 for the opposing quarterback, you’d pretty much assume the latter came away victorious. But on Oct. 8, when the Jacksonville Jaguars faced the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field, that was far from the case.

It was an absolute struggle for the Steelers in that game — and that’s an understatement. They entered Week 5 as the favorites, but left it with a sour taste in their mouths after suffering a disheartening, 30-9 loss. Jacksonville’s vicious defense forced Ben Roethlisberger into throwing five interceptions on the day, two of which were returned for scores. And the usually high-powered Steelers offense was held without a touchdown.

Blake Bortles, who was the QB to throw for only 95 yards, was in cruise control for much of the afternoon. He only had eight completions but was able to lean on rookie running back Leonard Fournette, who rushed for 181 yards and two touchdowns, including a 90-yarder in the fourth quarter that put the cherry on top for Jacksonville.

Big Ben told the media “maybe I don’t have it anymore” following his dismal five-interception performance, but that comment seemed to light a fire under both himself and the team. The Steelers went on to win 10 of their next 11 games to finish with a 13-3 record and the No. 2 seed in the AFC, with the only loss coming to the top-seeded New England Patriots, a game which ended on a controversial call that reversed a late touchdown scored by Jesse James.

As for Roethlisberger, he got back to doing his thing. The future Hall of Famer finished fifth in the NFL with 4,251 passing yards (fourth-most of his career) and threw for 28 touchdowns, which was tied for fifth alongside Philip Rivers and Jared Goff.

He wanted another opportunity to face the Jaguars and their top-ranked passing defense, and he’ll be getting exactly what he asked for. The starting secondary of Jalen Ramsey, A.J. Bouye, Barry Church and Tashaun Gipson has been putting the clamps on opposing offenses. The four of them combined for 18 interceptions during the regular season, and Ramsey added another to that total with his game-sealing pick of Nathan Peterman during their wild-card victory over the Buffalo Bills. The Jaguars also have a ton of speed at the linebacker positions, with Myles Jack, Telvin Smith and Paul Posluszny making it difficult for teams to take advantage in the passing game with their running backs. It’s all a recipe for a suffocating group that should make it tough on Roethlisberger and the Steelers once again.

I think there’s a slim chance Big Ben will turn the ball over as much as he did in the first outing, but this Jacksonville defense poses a serious threat to any quarterback. All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown was one of the few bright spots in the last meeting, catching 10 passes for 157 yards. But he’s coming off a torn left calf muscle that forced him to miss the final two games of the regular season. He’ll likely be paired against Ramsey, who has become a star cornerback in his second year out of Florida State. It’ll be a matchup to keep a close eye on, as both are elite players at their respective positions.

Expect Roethlisberger to target Brown early and often, which is a norm for the quarterback-wideout duo. But if Brown isn’t having much success against Ramsey & Co., it’ll take a big game out of JuJu Smith-Schuster and/or Martavis Bryant in order for the Steelers’ passing attack to get rolling. However, to keep the Jaguars’ defense off balance, the Steelers will need to provide a heavy dosage of Le’Veon Bell. He’s one player who can give Pittsburgh’s offense life. Jacksonville’s rushing defense was ranked only 21st in the league this season. If Roethlisberger is dropping back and throwing the ball 40 to 50 times, that’s not a good sign for the Steelers. He has to make plays, but he can’t try to do too much.

For the Jaguars to win this game and move on to their first AFC Championship since the 1998 season, they’ll need to keep it low scoring and make every offensive possession a challenge for the Steelers. If it turns into a shootout of any kind, Jacksonville’s in trouble. Handing the ball to Fournette and playing stifling defense has been the formula to lead the Jaguars to the playoffs. That’s something that must continue if the Jaguars want to stay alive for another week.

Many expect the Steelers to bounce back in this meeting and secure a second consecutive AFC Championship appearance, but it won’t come easy. Not against this Jaguars defense, which excels at both getting after the passer and locking down receivers on the outside.

So which version of Roethlisberger will show up? The one that became a turnover machine and questioned if he still had it in Week 5, or the signal-caller that has led his team to 13 playoff victories during his 14-year career? Come Sunday, the onus will fall on the two-time Super Bowl champ to be the deciding factor in whether or not the Steelers’ title aspirations will remain this season.

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