Jaguars at Steelers: Jacksonville's defense need Blake Bortles to step up

Shutdown Corner

Jacksonville Jaguars at Pittsburgh Steelers
Sunday, 1:05 p.m. ET, CBS


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Key player: The obvious one is Blake Bortles, but let’s go with Jalen Ramsey. The first-team All-Pro cornerback has quickly become arguably the best in the NFL at his position, and will likely spend much of the day shadowing another All-Pro, Steelers receiver Antonio Brown, whose teammates said he hasn’t missed a beat since returning this week from a partially torn calf muscle. How good was Ramsey this season? According to Pro Football Focus, in eight of the 17 games he has played, including last week against Buffalo, he allowed 30 receiving yards or less. And in a game like this, one big play can decide the outcome – Ben Roethlisberger’s postseason touchdown-to-interception ratio is nearly even (25 to 23 in 20 games).

Why they’ll win: Their defense. It is why the team won last week against the Bills, and it’s Jacksonville’s best shot to win Sunday. Blake Bortles has shown this season to be a front-runner: if you give him a lead, he’ll play well and hold onto it. But if the game is close, or if Jacksonville gets behind, that’s when Bortles reverts to punch line Bortles (10 of his 13 picks this season came in the Jaguars’ six losses). Our pick for defensive player of the year, Calais Campbell, and teammates Yannick Ngakoue, Malik Jackson and Dante Fowler combined for 42.5 sacks, 74 quarterback hits and 41 tackles for loss in the regular season. Linebackers Telvin Smith and Myles Jack are rangy playmakers, and both starting corners, Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, were named to the Pro Bowl. The Jaguars have built a dangerous defense.

Why they’ll lose: If the offense can’t get anything done against the Steelers and if Bortles doesn’t play better than he did last week in his postseason debut, it will be a long afternoon. Even with their defense, it’s hard to see the Jaguars winning with just 10 points against a team that has offensive firepower like the Steelers. A repeat of last week, when Bortles was barely over 50 percent on his pass completions and rushed for more yards (88) than he threw for (87), would spell certain doom.

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Keep in mind: When last we saw these teams on the field together, on Oct. 8, the Jaguars pestered Ben Roethlisberger into one of the worst performances of his career: he had five interceptions, two of them returned for touchdowns. Jacksonville’s win, in Pittsburgh, made many of us realize these aren’t the same old Jaguars. They need to go back to that day.

Jacksonville defensive end Calais Campbell, Yahoo Sports’ pick for NFL defensive player of the year, and the rest of the Jaguars will be looking for an upset in Pittsburgh on Sunday. (AP)
Jacksonville defensive end Calais Campbell, Yahoo Sports’ pick for NFL defensive player of the year, and the rest of the Jaguars will be looking for an upset in Pittsburgh on Sunday. (AP)


Key player: Le’Veon Bell. If the Jaguars’ defense has a weakness, it’s against the run. The Jags have allowed 108 yards rushing or more in six of their past seven games, and their nadir was against the Jets in October, when they allowed 256 yards. Bell ran for just under 1,300 yards this season, going over 100 against the Patriots in Week 14, one of four times he ran for over 100 yards in a game.

Why they’ll win: You can’t get to 13-3 in the NFL on dumb luck. After the October loss to Jacksonville, the Steelers fell to 3-2 and responded with an eight-game win streak that ended with that controversial loss to New England in December. Pittsburgh is balanced – strong on offense, strong on defense, and experienced, making it to the postseason for the fourth straight year. The “Killer Bs” – Ben, Brown and Bell, lead the way, but rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster was one of the surprise performers of 2017. When the Steelers are clicking, they’re hard to stop.

Why they’ll lose: Yes, the Steelers won 13 games to get a first-round bye and host this game, but looking back, they didn’t face many top-flight teams. Only three of those wins came against teams that went on to the playoffs: the Vikings in Week 2, at Kansas City in Week 6, and against the Titans in Week 11; two of their three losses, against these Jaguars and against the Patriots, were to playoff teams, and both of those were home games. And has Roethlisberger gotten over that terrible outing against Jacksonville in October? It was the first five-interception game of his career, and after he groused that maybe it was time for him to retire.

Keep in mind: Don’t underestimate the emotional bump the Steelers get from Ryan Shazier. The linebacker, who suffered a heartbreaking spinal injury last month, is still in a wheelchair but was at the team’s practice facility this week and was in the meeting rooms. His teammates have made no secret of a desire to play for their young leader and of the inspiration they’re drawing from Shazier.

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