Pittsburgh was favored by 7 points in the Divisional round of the AFC Playoffs, but lost in a shootout to Jacksonville. Here’s what happened.
After a first-round bye, Pittsburgh came into the AFC Divisional playoff round heavily favored, as they hosted a warm-weather Jacksonville team which put up just 10 points in its previous matchup. While the Steelers fan base thought that they would get an easy win in route to the AFC Championship, the Jaguars came ready to rock.
The Jags’ defense used its athleticism to force turnovers early and their offense featured a deadly rushing and play-action passing attack to lead 28-7 at one point. Here’s what happened to cause the Steelers’ playoff implosion, what this game means for the team’s future, and which obstacles lie in front of Pittsburgh heading into the 2018 season.
What Happened Against Jacksonville:
The matchup began with the Pittsburgh defense leaving the flats wide open. The linebacking unit was also completely frozen on play-action throughout the game:
Rookie Jacksonville running back Leonard Fournette was kryptonite for the Steelers defense all day - even after twisting his ankle in the third quarter. Fournette racked up 109 yards on 25 attempts for three touchdowns as a key piece of a Jacksonville ensemble which rushed for 169 yards, averaging 4.7 yards per rush. In the regular season, the Steelers defense had allowed an average of 106 rushing yards per game and 4.4 yards per rush.
The Steelers defense also neglected to produce a pass rush or make any big plays up front. Their front seven was completely outmatched and accumulated zero sacks and zero tackles for loss. The Pittsburgh offense was on fire, accumulating 545 yards and 42 points. However, the Jaguars defense made some athletic plays which kept turning the tide in their favor throughout the matchup, including this tip-toe interception by second-year linebacker Myles Jack in the first quarter:
In the second quarter, Jaguars defensive end Yannick Ngakoue made his move to get around the edge to Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. When a lane opened back inside, Ngakoue shifted to his left to strip the ball from Roethlisberger. The fumble took a very favorable roll for Jacksonville while linebacker Telvin Smith was sprinting to just the right spot for one of the most beautiful scoop-and-scores of the season. This defensive touchdown put Jacksonville up 28-7, a deficit that Pittsburgh could never overcome.
Key Stat: Jaguars Offense:
8-of-14 on Third Down Conversions (57%)
The Pittsburgh defense allowed a 38% third down conversion rate during the regular season. The worst third-down defense in the league, Tampa Bay, allowed a third-down conversion rate of 48%. On Sunday, Pittsburgh allowed the Jacksonville offense to convert 57% of its third-down attempts, allowing the Jags to stay on the field and eat small chunks of yardage down the field en route to 45 points on the day.
Biggest Issue Of The Season:
Nearly a year following Pittsburgh wide receiver Antonio Brown’s Facebook Live video of Head Coach Mike Tomlin trash talking the New England Patriots in the locker room, the Steelers’ off-the-field issues were back up and running. The issues started when Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley injured his hip in a New Year’s Eve bar fight.
Leading up to the matchup with Jacksonville, running back Le’Veon Bell’s tweets confirmed the widely-held notion that Pittsburgh was looking past Jacksonville, ahead to getting another shot at New England in the AFC Championship:
Bell also chose the week of the matchup with Jacksonville to vent about his upcoming contract. Bell rushed for 67 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries on Sunday.
Plan for the Offseason:
1. Secure Ben Roethlisberger
Older quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Drew Brees have shown that signal callers can play their best football toward the end of their careers.There is no doubt that Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger can still get the job done - he threw 58 times for 469 yards and five touchdowns.
However, Big Ben has recently flirted with retirement and has gone on record on numerous occasions expressing dissatisfaction with the coaching in Pittsburgh. He and the coaching staff must get on the same page heading into the 2018 season, or else Big Ben will have less reason to stick around.
2. Re-sign Le’Veon Bell
Five-year veteran running back Le’Veon Bell was franchise tagged this season after sitting out the entire preseason with a contract dispute, and is up for renegotiation again. These negotiations will be a key storyline this offseason, and Bell is threatening to retire if he is franchise tagged for a second year. Bell is arguably the best all-around running back in the league, and if Pittsburgh doesn’t lock him down for 2018 and beyond, they will find their offensive attack one-sided.
3. Improve the Linebacker Unit
To improve its rush defense (which ranked 27th in the league this season in yards allowed per rush with 4.4), Pittsburgh can target veteran linebackers like NaVorro Bowman, Mason Foster, Nigel Bradham, and Dee Ford, who are entering free agency. They can also target Draft prospects like Texas’ Malik Jefferson and Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edwards, potential first-round linebackers who may fall towards the end of the round where the Steelers can pick them up.
2018 is the time for the Steelers to strike. The Patriots will be rebuilding under new offensive and defensive coordinators next season after coaches Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia leave to take head coaching jobs. Pittsburgh has all of the pieces it needs to win a Super Bowl next season, if the team can get out of its own way.
Edited by Brian Kang.
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