Steel City Pre-Game

<b>Pittsburgh at Jacksonville</b><p> What was a brief, but intense rivalry concludes this weekend in Jacksonville. In the late 90's the Steelers and Jaguars battled for supremacy in the AFC Central. The Steelers were victorious in 1996 and 1997, but Jacksonville took control in 1998 and 1999. From the period of 1995 - 1998 the home team in the series exited victorious.<p>

The Jags have also been source of some of the lowest moments in recent Steeler history. Pittsburgh in 1995 lost on the road to the virgin franchise Jaguars when Neil O'Donnell's fourth down pass went incomplete. Then in 1996, the Steelers lost Greg Lloyd for the season after suffering a torn knee in the opener at Jacksonville. Lloyd would never return to his All-Pro form.

In 1997, the Steelers traveled to North Florida for a much-anticipated Monday Night battle. Norm Johnson's last second field goal attempt to tie the game was blocked and returned for a touchdown by Donovin Darius. As Darius flew down past the Steeler sideline, Bill Cowher feigned an attempt to give Darius a forearm to the head. Finally, in 1998, the final game of the season on Monday, the Steelers finished a woeful season by being annihilated by the Jags 28 - 3 once again in Jacksonville.

The Jags in fact have been the Steelers' Achilles heel in many ways. Players like Jimmy Smith and Fred Taylor have played their best football when the Steelers come to town. There is no doubt in my mind that they'll show up on Sunday with a bit of revenge factor.

You see, as we've learned with Tennessee, the Steelers made quite a few enemies last year while racking up wins, their mouths spoke too quickly. And as we also learned in Tennessee, players like Lee Flowers, Joey Porter, and Plaxico Burress couldn't follow the talk with anything more than a gimp.

The Steelers received a huge scare this weekend. The defense came up with a season-defining goal line stand against the Bengals. It remains to be seen if that moment was enough to give them some much-needed confidence. It's obvious that the swagger is gone.

Players in the locker room are grumbling and Tim Lewis' job may be in jeopardy. The Steelers have the opportunity to right the defensive ship with a solid effort. They should consider performing a solid if unspectacular effort rather than pressuring themselves to perform at last year's lofty standards.

Pittsburgh - NFL Rank 20 (Rush 3rd, Pass 28th). Don't let that rushing defense ranking fool you. This isn't your father's Steeler defense. Teams are slowly getting the hint that they can line up and attack the front 7 with success. The reason the ranking is so high is that teams have focused on passing the ball more often than not against this surprisingly weak and stagnant defensive unit.

Jacksonville - NFL Rank 17th (Rush 17th, Pass 18th). You look at this defense and have to wonder how they're ranked ahead of the Steelers. The fact is that they are playing to their full capabilities with middle of the road rankings.

Advantage: Not to sound like a broken record, but the Steelers have the advantage - in theory.

Pittsburgh - NFL Rank 6th (Rush 10th, Pass 5th). Hines Ward can officially be called All-Pro. He's on pace to have the most successful season of any Steeler receiver in history. He leads the AFC with 11 touchdowns and should garner more double teams. But then that would open up Plaxico Burress. Oh, the predicament for defenses.

Jacksonville - NFL Rank 17th (Rush 8th, Pass, 24th). This team is much different when Fred Taylor is healthy. He'll attack the Steelers' tendency to over-pursue. And with the 8th best rushing game in the league, we'll see plenty of Fred Taylor. But, the real key for their offense is the efficiency of Jimmy Smith. If he's allowed to pick up over 150 yards with say 7 - 10 catches, the Steelers will be in for a long day.

Advantage: The Steeler offense is just too powerful right now. I think in a shoot out, the Steelers have the edge.

I hate this idea of going with the hot hand. Who really has the hot hand right now? Stewart? Maddox? I'll agree with Jim Wexell that the Steelers are probably allowing Maddox one more week to be sure about his condition, but does that mean that Stewart will have still be on a short leash?

Mark Brunell just keeps throwing. His mobility is nothing like when he was in his prime, but he continues to be an above-average quarterback. He has the weapons around him and if Fred Taylor runs well, he'll have his play-action abilities in full use.

Advantage: I've got to give this to Brunell by default.

Outlook: Against Tennessee, I changed my pick. This week I go with my initial gut feeling. Jacksonville by 3.

--The Steel Apple

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