Bettors that are worried about laying the big number with the Pittsburgh Steelers against the Jacksonville Jaguars have a right to be afraid. Some will scoff at that notion, since Blake Bortles threw for 87 yards in Jacksonville’s win over Buffalo, but a lot of the key Steelers are going to play for the first time in three weeks. We’ve seen the bye do some crazy things. Pittsburgh takes the field with what amounts to a double bye for guys like Ben Roethlisberger and Le’Veon Bell. Still, the Steelers are favored by 7.5 with a total of 40.5 for Sunday afternoon’s 1:05 p.m. ET kickoff at Heinz Field in the Divisional Round against the Jaguars.
Jacksonville won in the Wild Card Round, but failed to cover in the 10-3 win over Buffalo. It was not a great day for offense, as the teams combined for just 593 yards, but we didn’t really have high hopes for the offenses anyway. That win bumped the Jaguars to 11-6 on the season, but they fell to just 9-8 ATS on the year. With consecutive unders in Week 17 and the Wild Card Weekend, the under is now 9-8 in Jaguars games.
The Steelers finished off Cleveland’s imperfect season to improve to 13-3 and 8-8 ATS. Pittsburgh also enters this game at 10-5-1 to the under, as that Steelers defense has really driven the bus for most of the season. Pittsburgh has won at least one playoff game each of the last two postseasons, while the Jaguars just won their first playoff game since 2007, which, ironically, came against the Steelers.
The Jaguars will have a much different mindset this week against the Steelers. With LeSean McCoy less than 100 percent, Jacksonville simply wanted to play as mistake-free as possible and grind out a win. That type of approach is unlikely to work against a Pittsburgh team with a lot more offensive firepower. Jacksonville got 75 net pass yards from Blake Bortles, who was 12-of-23 for 87 yards with a touchdown, no picks, and he was sacked twice. Bortles did get the job done with his legs, as he had 10 carries for 88 yards. Leonard Fournette, who really hasn’t been a factor since he missed three games early in the season, only had 57 yards on 21 carries, including 16 on one of those runs. Dede Westbrook was the only wide receiver consistently able to get open, as Marqise Lee and Allen Hurns showed further signs of injury. The Jaguars scored a lot of points in the regular season and did manage 5.4 yards per play, but a lot of that had to do with turnovers and field position. The Jaguars were a potent red zone offense, though, as they ranked second in the NFL at 64 percent, so they did capitalize when given the chance.
The “Sacksonville” defense didn’t quite live up to its moniker with only two sacks, but the Bills found very little room to pass or run. Even hobbled, LeSean McCoy had 119 yards on 25 touches and led the team in targets, receptions, and receiving yards, along with his 3.9 yards per carry on the ground. Bills quarterbacks were just 18-of-40 on the day. The strength of this Jacksonville team has been its defense. The Jags defense forced 33 turnovers and held the opposition to just 4.6 yards per play. Only the Steelers, coincidentally, had more sacks than the Jaguars, who had 55. But, the Jaguars were far and away the best team against the pass in terms of adjusted net yards per pass attempt against. Opponents only completed 56.8 percent of their passes and threw 21 interceptions. These two teams played in Week 5 and Jacksonville rolled Pittsburgh by forcing five turnovers in a 30-9 win.
It has been a long season, so most of us have probably forgotten, but that five-interception effort against the Jaguars was enough to get Ben Roethlisberger to talk about retirement. Big Ben threw for 312 yards in the loss, but he was clearly frustrated in the postgame. Since then, things have gone a lot better, and Ben has a 22/7 TD/INT ratio with over eight yards per pass attempt. Antonio Brown, who was targeted 19 times in that first meeting, is allegedly 100 percent and will be ready to get back in there after missing the last two games of the season. It is impossible to overstate what Brown means to this offense, as he had 101 catches for 1,533 yards and nine touchdowns. The emergence of JuJu Smith-Schuster has been huge for the Steelers as well. Early in the year, the Steelers were struggling to produce chunk plays. They finished the regular season tied for sixth in yards per play and sixth in adjusted net yards per pass attempt. Over the last five games of the season, Le’Veon Bell had 4.55 yards per carry and 9.6 yards per reception, so Smith-Schuster’s emergence created more openings and opportunities for others.
The Steelers defense didn’t excel as much as it could have defensively because the team allowed some big point totals late in the year. The Packers had 28 in Week 12. The Ravens had 38 in Week 14. The Browns had 24 in the finale, as some guys sat out. Even with some of those games late in the year, Pittsburgh was still seventh in points allowed per game. Pittsburgh led the league in sacks with 56 and finished eighth in adjusted net yards per pass attempt as a result. The loss of Ryan Shazier really hurt the defense, but the recent news that Shazier has regained some feeling in his legs after one of the most terrifying sports injuries we’ve ever seen was good news during Pittsburgh’s downtime. The Steelers, like a lot of teams that excelled against the pass, were suspect against the run, so we’ll have to see if Leonard Fournette and the Jaguars ground game can get going. That would be the key to this game.
Free NFL Picks: Pittsburgh Steelers -7.5
And my answer is no. Since his Week 9 return, Fournette has 3.2 yards per carry. That isn’t going to cut it and putting the game on Blake Bortles’s shoulders is not a great idea. It is hard to take a team favored by more than a touchdown in a game with a low total that appears to be moving down, but after last week’s offensive showing for Jacksonville, it’s easy to see why the market is skeptical of its ability to up points. The Steelers defense gets all the accolades for this season, but the offense really got better in the second half of the year. The worry here is how slowly the Steelers start with effectively three weeks off from game conditions and also with the health of Antonio Brown. Perhaps waiting this one out to see if Jacksonville scores first to live bet the Steelers at a better number is the way to go.