But whether they go with the old pro under center or the injured young superstar, the Pittsburgh Steelers (3-1) will need to run the ball. And waiting for them on the other side of the line is perhaps the NFL's best tandem of defensive tackles – the monstrous duo of Marcus Stroud (6-6, 312) and John Henderson (6-7, 328).
Both are former first-round draft picks for the Jacksonville Jaguars (3-2); both are Pro Bowl players; both dominate the middle of the line of scrimmage as if they were the Goliath and Goliath.
"You can't let them get rolling," said Steelers guard Kendall Simmons. "Once they get that two or three yards, you need to shoot them with a bazooka to stop them."
Yet, for all of their size, strength and athletic ability, the two defensive tackles haven't helped the Jaguars' run defense – at least statistically. The Jaguars rank 29th against the run (130.4 yards per game) and allow opponents 4.3 yards per carry.
With those tackles, how can that be?
"There are some statistics out there that say we're not very good," said Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio. "We're going to find out because I know that one thing coach (Bill) Cowher does with his football teams is run the ball at you. If you have a problem, he's going to expose it."
Part of the Jaguars' problem against the run was a cover-2 scheme they use to stop passing teams. Last week, though, Rudi Johnson was held in check with only 76 rushing yards on 18 carries for the Bengals.
Other factors contributing to the poor Jaguars statistics are the loss of hard-hitting safety Donovin Darius to injury and the aggressive play of the Jacksonville linebackers, who tend to overpursue and leave cutback lanes wide open. It's something Willie Parker will anticipate today for the Steelers.
Another factor, according to Simmons, is the style of those defensive tackles. Simmons and center Jeff Hartings had their hands full with San Diego nose tackle Jammal Williams last week, but Simmons believes their work will be easier today.
"The difference with Jammal is that he's a shorter guy," Simmons said. "With these two big guys, they kind of stand up. That helps. With those guys, you just stay under them.
"You kind of have to take advantage and use leverage on guys that big because you can't just sit there and fight with them. You have to stay lower than them. That's the only way that's going to work."
Simmons said that while it makes sense for the Steelers to run Parker wide, they won't be afraid to attack the middle with Jerome Bettis.
"That's something I'm not worried about," Simmons said. "You just have to try to outwork them; that's it. They want you to come at them, but you just have to be more physical than them and I know we'll be able to do that."
Simmons, the right guard, has been the weak link on the Steelers' offensive line. A former No. 1 pick, he's dealt with diabetes and a torn ACL in his four-year career. He was also a lightning rod for fan and media criticism after the loss to New England. Simmons said he played better last Monday night against the Chargers.
"The New England game, honestly, I felt I played pretty good," Simmons said. "It was just a couple mental mistakes that got the line in bad position. But overall, the little details we worked on this past game made the play a lot better. I think I played pretty good. I paid attention to the little stuff: watching people move around, how they're tipping stuff off. That's one thing we tried to do this past game is anticipate stuff they were doing and I think we did a good job of it."
Simmons – not to mention Hartings and left guard Alan Faneca – will need another solid game today if the Steelers are going to beat the Jaguars.
Neither Maddox nor Roethlisberger will be able to utilize the type of mobility required of a team planning to pass over the Bunyan-esque middle of the Jaguars' line. Leading wide receiver Hines Ward may also miss the game with an injury. That leaves it up to the running game, or more specifically, the middle of the Steelers' offensive line. Simmons has no doubts.
"We're going to rise to the challenge," he said.
Steelers to test Jags' run defense
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