I spoke with both head coaches, Mike Tomlin and Jack Del Rio, every week during the season and watched their game tapes religiously. The Steelers and Jaguars know each other very well, both want to play a physical style of football, and each team would love nothing more than to turn this into a battle in the trenches.
These teams met in Week 15 in Pittsburgh, and Jacksonville had the last laugh as it beat the Steelers at their own game and won, 29-22. Keep in mind the game was tied, 22-22, in the fourth quarter.
» Pittsburgh has not allowed a TD off a turnover in six games.
» Roethlisberger only throws an interception once every 37 attempts.
» Pittsburgh has the No. 1 defense in the NFL, giving up just 262 yards per game..
» Jacksonville has already beaten Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh this season.
» Fred Taylor has averaged 111 rushing yards in the last five games.
» The last time Jacksonville played Pittsburgh Willie Parker had 109 yards; he is out with an injury.
»The Jags' defense is giving up just 16 points a game in the last five games.
Willie Parker, the Steelers' All-Pro running back, had the biggest day for the Steelers in their loss to the Jaguars but he is no longer available due to broken fibula. Filling in for Parker will be Najeh Davenport, who is very capable of being a 100-yard rusher but lacks the big-play explosiveness Parker possesses.
The Jaguars also shut down another Pittsburgh trademark when the famous Steelers 3-4 blitz scheme couldn't get to Jags QB David Garrard for a single sack in his 33 pass attempts. The Jaguars' defense, on the other hand, beat the Steelers at their own game by getting to Ben Roethlisberger five times in his 33 pass attempts.
Without Willie Parker, the Black and Gold are going to have to throw the ball close to 30 times.
If you like the Steelers (throw out the season finale when backups played) ...
1. Pittsburgh has the No. 1 defense in the NFL, giving up just 262 yards per game.
2. Roethlisberger has thrown 32 TD passes this year.
3. Hines Ward is tied for fifth in the NFL in clutch catches (a third- or fourth-down reception for a first down or TD).
4. Roethlisberger is the leading 'clutch' passer converting 70 of 133 passes on third- or fourth-down passes.
5. The Steelers defense leads the NFL with the fewest broken tackles.
6. The Steelers are 7-1 at home with an average score of 25-12.
7. Pittsburgh has the No. 3 rushing offense and defense.
8. Roethlisberger only throws an interception once every 37 attempts.
9. Pittsburgh has five players headed to the Pro Bowl, the Jags have only one.
10. Pittsburgh has not allowed a TD off a turnover in six games.
If you like the Jaguars (throw out the season finale when backups played) ...
1. The Jags have gained over 400 yards a game and scored an average of 35 points in the last five games.
2. The Jags beat the Steelers 29-22 two weeks ago in Pittsburgh.
3. Fred Taylor has averaged 111 rushing yards in the last five games.
4. The Jags' defense has 11 interceptions in their last seven games.
5. David Garrard only throws an interception once every 108 passes.
6. The last time Jacksonville played Pittsburgh Willie Parker had 109 yards; he is out with an injury.
7. The Jags sacked Roethlisberger five times in Week 15.
8. The Jags' defense is giving up just 16 points a game in the last five games.
9. The Jags have converted 51 percent of their third downs in the last three games .
10. The last time they met Marcus Stroud, Mike Peterson and Reggie Haywood did not play.
1. Steelers NT Casey Hampton vs. Jaguars OC Brad Meester: The Jags want to run the ball 35 to 40 times in this game and it all starts up front. Can Meester handle Hampton by himself and let the guards get up on the linebackers? Hampton will not get credit for many tackles and sacks, but if he can dominate Meester then linebackers James Farrior and Larry Foote will make the plays.
2. Steelers OLB James Harrison vs. Jaguars LT Khalif Barnes: Barnes will be covered up by a defensive end but when Harrison threatens to rush the edge, especially in passing situations, the Jags will slide or fan block the line to let Barnes work against Harrison, who leads the Steelers in sacks. Barnes can't afford to be late out of his stance or be held up by the DE, which would allow Harrison to come free. Keep in mind the fan noise at Heinz Field affects the visiting offensive tackles the most.
3. Steelers LG Alan Faneca vs. Jaguars RDT John Henderson: Faneca is the key to the Steelers running game. In a game of this magnitude, the ball will cross the line of scrimmage behind Faneca 75 percent of the time. Henderson is a big, powerful man who eats up running games and collapses pockets. Big John had one of the Jaguars' five sacks in the last meeting and was a big factor in holding the Steelers to 217 total yards.
4. Steelers WR Hines Ward vs. Jaguars CB Brian Williams: Ward is really much more of a possession receiver and may do his best work against Williams when the Steelers are in two-back sets and Jacksonville drops a safety down in the box, leaving Williams outside without help. Quick slants, stop routes, and mid-range curl routes should be there against Williams and the 17th-ranked pass defense. Williams may press Ward if he is not threatened by his speed. Keep in mind, Ward's longest reception all year was 25 yards.
5. Steelers TE Heath Miller vs. Jaguars SS Sammy Knight: Both teams count on these two men. Knight, who has often led the team in tackles this season, had seven in the first meeting. Miller only caught two passes in the first matchup but one was a touchdown. In a game like this expect "Big Ben" to go to Miller at least six times.
When the Jaguars have the ball
Jacksonville has been on fire the last five weeks, putting up 35 points a game. The Jaguars had 29 points against the Steelers in Week 15 and put up 24 against the Chargers, the only other 3-4 defense they've played this year. Occasionally the 3-4 defense can present blocking and protection problems for teams like Jacksonville that don't see it in practice or on their schedule. In 2007 it appears like Jacksonville knows how to play the 3-4 package but doesn't generate the points they have against some 4-3 teams. It might have something to do with the fact both 3-4 teams they have played are playoff teams.
The Jags' first-down calls against the Steelers in Week 15 were interesting. They ran the ball 21 times for 66 yards (3.1 per carry); 10 of those first-down runs went for two yards or less. Pittsburgh came up to stop the run on first down. But where Jacksonville found some success was with its first-down passing attack. The Jaguars went 5-for-10 for 104 yards (20.8 per completion) and two touchdowns. Look for Jacksonville to expand the first-down pass attack on Saturday.
Third downs have been a very successful situation for the Jacksonville offense in the last three games (not including Week 17). The Jaguars have moved the chains 51 percent of the time. Garrard doesn't throw interceptions, rarely gets sacked and his wide receivers, especially Reggie Williams, have improved their play lately.
The Steelers can't let the Jags run on them like they did the first time (5.8 per carry). It may be the second and third down calls that have to be cleaned up to solve the problem. On the other hand, a few new zone-blitz calls to rattle Garrard will be necessary. A few years ago the Steelers switched to more inside linebacker pressures and I expect them to do that Saturday. That will help against the run and should affect the timing of the passing attack.
When the Steelers have the ball
Pittsburgh is in a strange place offensively without Parker, who had more than 100 yards of offense on 16 touches in the last meeting. Davenport can handle the load but he only had three touches for minus-2 yards in the first meeting. Roethlisberger is going to want to throw the ball and use his feet to create opportunities. His 32 touchdown passes this year make a strong case for a 40-pass attempt day. The problem is protecting Roethlisberger. The QB has been more disciplined in the pocket this year but a game like this could easily have him revert back to his old ways of reading the No. 1 receiver and then taking off if he is covered and looking for a big play.
Early in the game I think the Steelers will try to establish the run game. But a score or two by the Jags could force the Steelers to think pass first. Pittsburgh had some deep pass opportunities in the last meeting, but wound up averaging less than five yards a catch on first-down pass attempts. There are a few guys on offense besides Roethlisberger who can throw the ball -- WR Ced Wilson threw a TD pass against Jacksonville last time, and they will be looking for it again -- but keep in mind, Santonio Holmes can throw the ball well and I always expect some trickery from the Steelers.
Jacksonville plays defense with great passion and gang tackles with the best of them. Grady Jackson will be in the game to plug up the middle on run downs alongside Henderson. The Steelers may have better luck with an outside running attack. In the past few weeks WR Nate Washington has come alive and I could see more three wide receiver packages to spread out this defense.
It's hard to beat a team like Pittsburgh twice in the same season. But the Steelers are wounded and have lost three of their last four games (including Week 17 when they rested some starters).
I remember Jack Del Rio telling me in the week leading up to the first game against the Steelers that he really hoped it would snow in Pittsburgh when the Jaguars got there. A strange request from a coach of a Florida team. He got his wish and his team played like it loved the cold and snow. This time it's an 8 p.m. ET start in January, and Del Rio might get his wish again.
The popular pick is Jacksonville as it has been labeled the "most dangerous team" in the playoffs by a lot of people. But until I see the Steelers lose I will go with the home team in a very low-scoring game. Just about every objective football piece of information points to Jacksonville, but the emotional factor and the history of the Steelers should be an equalizer.