Back to Basics

The Pittsburgh Steelers are underdogs at home tonight when they host the Jacksonville Jaguars in the first round of the NFL playoffs. Here's the preview:

PITTSBURGH – Dick LeBeau has seen it all, taught it all, so this one particular defensive fundamental shouldn't faze him tonight when the Steelers host the Jacksonville Jaguars in the first round of the NFL playoffs:


"Well, you never want to see a missed tackle," said the Steelers' defensive coordinator after seeing missed tackles for the better part of three weeks.

"If we're to be successful, we have to get in the right spot, get in the right gap, and we have to tackle the football."

LeBeau was pressed on the issue: What can be done to ensure that tackling will actually take place tonight?

"We've been working hard to make sure everyone understands the communication and the responsibility," he said. "Most of the runs that have gotten in on us recently, we've kind of shot ourselves in the foot, so we have to cut that out."

Actually, Aaron Smith didn't shoot himself in the foot. He tore a biceps muscle. The big defensive end couldn't play against Jacksonville and the Jaguars rushed for a stadium record. He couldn't play against St. Louis but the Rams fell too far behind to run much. He couldn't play against Baltimore and two backups rushed for 155 yards combined.

The stats without Smith are ugly: In three games, the Steelers have allowed an average of 27 points, 357 yards per game and 5.1 per rush against the composite No. 18 offense. Now, all of the sudden, the Steelers are supposed to start tackling? Against the Jaguars?

"They're as good as any in the league," LeBeau said. "Maybe somebody has a back here or a back there might have a few more yards, but they got two backs. They can roll 'em in and keep 'em fresh, and to me that's the biggest difference in their offense. They don't have to have one tailback carrying the ball all the time. They got two or three guys who are very productive."

Fred Taylor of course is the main entrée. The soon-to-be 32-year-old pounded the Steelers for 147 yards on 25 carries three weeks ago. He's in the midst of a five-game 100-yard rushing streak, but if he gets tired, human bowling ball Maurice Jones-Drew -- a lightening-quick tank of a back whom Steelers wanted in the 2006 draft -- might be even more dangerous.

LeBeau said the key to stopping the Jaguars' running game is for the Steelers to maintain their gap integrity, but the Steelers have been saying that for three weeks. Why has it become so difficult to accomplish?

"The gaps, it's not like we're just standing here," LeBeau said. "The gaps move. And they have to understand where they go and then it's a physical effort to get in that gap, and then they must maintain that position and get to it. The gap is never going to be stationary. It's not a static situation. It would be pretty easy if it were."

By stopping the Jaguars' running game, the Steelers would force the Jaguars to rely on quarterback David Garrard and his ordinary group of receivers.

Garrard will be playing his first playoff game and will probably do so against a healthy Steelers' secondary. Troy Polamalu expects to play, as do cornerbacks Ike Taylor and Bryant McFadden.

McFadden, the dime back, has recovered from a sprained ankle and Taylor has bounced back from a 104-degree fever that forced him to the hospital Thursday night for an IV. Polamalu will test his sore knee before the game, but expects to play.

"(Polamalu) is very important, not only in terms of what we want to do against the Jaguars, but in terms of what we do," said Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin.

Polamalu would also help the Steelers' run defense, as will the expected use of Chris Hoke as a rotational defensive end.

Offensively, the question mark for the Steelers revolves around Trai Essex, who'll start at left tackle. But Essex can't play any worse than Marvel Smith did with his enflamed back the last time the Steelers played the Jaguars. And as for special teams, the Jaguars have many problems in that area as well.

The Steelers are 2.5-point underdogs, but Tomlin hasn't sensed any nervousness in his locker room.

"They don't appear to be," he said. "Hopefully they're wired and ready to go and a little angry about being an underdog at their home. That's my hope, but we'll see at eight o'clock."

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