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Tim Benz

Tim Benz: Steelers defense echoes Roethlisberger's desire for redemption against Jaguars

| Sunday, Jan. 7, 2018, 7:51 p.m.
Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette dives over the Steelers defense for a first-quarter touchdown Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017, at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette dives over the Steelers defense for a first-quarter touchdown Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017, at Heinz Field.

Ben Roethlisberger just got a belated Christmas gift from his wish list.

On his 93.7 FM radio show last week, Roethlisberger said he wanted to play the Jaguars again in the divisional round of the playoffs. When the two teams played earlier in the season, the Steelers quarterback threw five interceptions in a 30-9 defeat at Heinz Field.

“For me, personally, I'd love to prove that five interceptions wasn't me in that game,” Roethlisberger said Tuesday during his club's bye week .

Ask, and you shall receive.

The Jaguars survived a 10-3 tussle against the Bills in the first round, so they will return to Heinz Field a second time Sunday afternoon.

What about the Steelers defensive players, though? Do they share their quarterback's opinion about wanting a rematch with Jacksonville?

“They took care of us early in the season,” former Jaguar Mike Hilton said. “We feel like if we get another shot at them, we'll take care of business.”

One can understand Hilton's enthusiasm. Based on the way Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles looked throwing the football Sunday, any defensive back should be excited at the prospect of facing him.

The Jaguars quarterback did a nice job scrambling against the Bills. He picked up 88 yards on the ground.

But Bortles completed just 12 passes for 87 yards. He wasn't much better through the air against the Steelers on Oct. 8 at Heinz Field, either, going 8 for 14 for 95 yards and an interception. He threw five picks over his last two regular-season games as well.

“If we force them into situations where they have to pass and they can't run the ball, we can really create havoc and really force that quarterback into some bad mistakes,” defensive end Cameron Heyward said.

But therein lies the dilemma: stopping Jacksonville's run.

You think Roethlisberger needs to redeem himself against the Jags? Take a look at the rush defense, too.

The Jags tallied 231 yards on the ground in that first game. Leonard Fournette paved the way with 181 yards rushing and two touchdowns. Chris Ivory chipped in with 41 yards on eight carries.

Buoyed by that result, Jacksonville led the NFL in rushing yards this season at 141 yards per game.

Despite that result, the Steelers were 10th in the league in stopping the run at 105 yards allowed per game.

Heyward claimed “it was just three or four plays” that hurt his team in the first game against Jacksonville.

Numbers support that belief.

Fournette and Ivory accumulated almost half of their individual yardage totals on one carry apiece. Nineteen of Ivory's 41 yards came on one handoff. And Fournette got 90 of his 181 on a long touchdown run with 1 minute, 47 seconds remaining.

Throughout his other 27 attempts, Fournette averaged just 3.3 yards.

“If you watch the film, guys weren't really getting blocked off the ball,” Stephon Tuitt said. “It's just holes. Gaps. They exploited our gaps really well.”

Here's the problem, though. Despite being a top-10 defense against the run overall, the Steelers allow 4.4 yards per attempt. That's 27th.

In the last month alone, Cincinnati, Baltimore and Houston averaged between 5.8 and 6.3 yards per carry en route to respective rushing totals of 130, 152 and 176 yards.

None of that is to mention the ghastly 222 yards Chicago gobbled up on the ground in Week 3.

There's more evidence to suggest Roethlisberger's five picks were an anomaly than there is to suggest the Steelers will put up a brick wall against Jacksonville's run game.

“That wasn't our best performance on any side of the ball,” said Tuitt. “That'll be a redemption opportunity for us.”

Jacksonville's pass defense is the best in football. Their rush game is also the best in football.

So what they did against the Steelers, they tend to do against pretty much everyone.

Are these Steelers defenders right? Is this really looming “redemption?” Will Big Ben live up to his this-time-will-be-different bravado?

In both cases, the Steelers will be better because they can't possibly be worse.

I think that will be good enough. Steelers 23 Jaguars 17.

Tim Benz hosts the Steelers pregame show on WDVE and ESPN Pittsburgh. He is a regular host/contributor on KDKA-TV and 105.9 FM.

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