Sunday, December 16, 2007, 1:00 p.m.
Kickoff temperature: 28 degrees, 70% chance of snow
Line: Steelers by 3.5
Records: Jacksonville- 9-4, second place in the AFC South, Pittsburgh- 9-4, first place in the AFC North
Pittsburgh offense- 14th overall (24th passing, 3rd rushing); Scoring- T7th- 23.8 ppg. Vs. Jacksonville defense- 17th overall (27th passing, 5th rushing); Scoring- T6th- 17.6 ppg.
As the statistics clearly show, Pittsburgh loves to run the football, and they do it very well with the talented Willie Parker and Najeh Davenport. Parker already has 1217 yards rushing this season with two touchdowns. Davenport is a nice backup as he averages 5.0 yards per carry, and has four touchdowns on the season.
Ben Roethlisberger is the Steelers signal caller and he has rebounded in a big way from a tough 2006 campaign. Roethlisberger is on pace for over 3300 yards passing and 32 touchdowns, and has the fourth-best quarterback rating in the NFL at 101.4. Roethlisberger can do it all as a quarterback, as he can throw the out, throw the ball short with accuracy, throw the long ball, and move in and out of the pocket.
When the Steelers air it out, their primary target is former Super Bowl MVP Hines Ward. Ward leads the team with 62 receptions and six touchdowns, and makes all the tough catches in traffic. Ward is also one of the best blocking receivers in the entire league. The Steelers best deep threat is Santonio Holmes, who has averaged 16.9 yards per catch, and leads the team with 677 yards receiving and seven touchdowns. Tight end Heath Miller is a great red-zone target as he's caught 41 passes this season and six touchdowns. Nate Washington and Cedric Wilson are both average to above average receivers.
Pittsburgh often likes to throw the football early to get leads, then pound opponents on the ground to put them away. The Steelers main weapon in this game could be tight end Heath Miller, as he's one of the very best receiving tight ends in the game, and the Jaguars have had big problems covering tight ends effectively this season. Jacksonville must get pressure on Ben Roethlisberger to have a legitimate chance to disrupt the timing of the Pittsburgh passing game.
The Jaguars are all about running the football, but Jacksonville has found an effective passing game to balance out the offense since David Garrard returned from injury. Garrard is the league's third-ranked passer with a 103.1 rating, and Fred Taylor has gone over 100 yards for three consecutive games and seems to be peaking. Reggie Williams has turned into the Jaguars big play receiver in the passing game as he's scored seven touchdowns.
The Pittsburgh front three consists of Pro Bowler Casey Hampton at nose tackle, along with Brett Keisel and either Travis Kirschke or Nick Eason on the outside. Kirschke or Eason will replace defensive end Aaron Smith, who has gone down for the season with a torn biceps injury. The Steelers get a great pass rush from outside linebacker James Harrison, who is playing at a Pro Bowl level as evidenced by his 81 tackles, 8.5 sacks, and seven forced fumbles. Opposite Harrison is Clark Haggans, who has chipped in with 50 tackles and four sacks. Starters on the inside for Pittsburgh are James Farrior and Larry Foote. Off the bench the Steelers sub-in rookies Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley.
The Steelers secondary is headed by Pro Bowl strong safety Troy Polamalu, who has missed the last three games with a knee sprain. At the free safety spot is Anthony Smith, who made headlines last week when he delicately guaranteed a victory over the undefeated New England Patriots and was then burned repeatedly. Pittsburgh has a solid set of corners in Ike Taylor and veteran DeShea Townsend. Taylor and Townsend have combined for four interceptions this season.
The Jaguars offense must find a way to gain positive yardage on early downs to stay out of third and long situations which the Pittsburgh defense thrives. The Jaguars must find a way to block James Harrison, because he is playing like one of the best linebackers in the game.
Steelers kickoff return- 21st (21.9 ypr.); punt return- 29th (6.4 ypr.); punting- 19th (42.5 gross); net punting- 20th (38.3 avg.); kickoff coverage- 14th (22.3 ypr. allowed); punt coverage- T19th (9.8 ypr allowed)
Jaguars kickoff return- 8th (24.1 ypr.); punt return- T8th (10.5 ypr.); punting- 24th (41.6 gross); net punting- 23rd (37.8 avg.); kickoff coverage- 1st (17.5 ypr. allowed); punt coverage- 9th (7.3 ypr. allowed)
Steelers: PK Jeff Reed , P Daniel Sepulveda, LS Greg Warren, KR/PR Allen Rossum.
Reed is 21/23 on field goals with a long of 49 yards. Rossum is averaging 23.3 yards per return on kickoffs, and 6.6 yards per punt return.
Scobee is 11/12 on field goals with a long of 48 yards. Jones-Drew is averaging 26.7 yards per kickoff return. Northcutt is averaging 11.9 yards per punt return.
The Jaguars coverage units are a little better than Pittsburgh's, and their return men are certainly more explosive. Both kickers are very good, but Pittsburgh's Jeff Reed is used to kicking in poor weather, so he would have an edge over Jacksonville's Josh Scobee. Both teams have rookie punters, and the Steelers' Daniel Sepulveda has averaged nearly a yard more per punt.
Charlie Bernstein is the Editor-in-Chief of JagNation.com, and a regular syndicated contributor to FoxSports.com, Sirius NFL Radio, MySpace Sports and Sportsillustated.com. Charlie is also a member of the Pro Football Writers Association, and is a columnist for the New Smyrna Observer. Feel free to contact him -HERE- with questions or comments.
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