Jaguars bring much-improved rush defense to Heinz Field
The last time the Jacksonville Jaguars came to Pittsburgh, they lugged a league-worst rushing defense into Heinz Field. That the Steelers failed to take advantage irked their star running back.
“I don't think we got enough attempts,” Le'Veon Bell said among sometimes-curt remarks to the media after the Steelers' 30-9 loss to Jacksonville on Oct. 9.
Limiting Bell to 47 rushing yards on 15 carries helped pivot the Jaguars' rushing defense. By the end of the season, Jacksonville's ability to stop the run was more commensurate with its overall talent level on defense and elite numbers against opposing passers.
The Jaguars were the NFL's No. 2 defense in total yardage and in scoring, and the 169.9 passing yards per game it allowed was one of the lowest figures in the NFL over the past decade-plus.
But while the rushing defense finished the season at 21st in the league (116.2 yards per game), over the final 10 regular-season games, the Jaguars allowed 98.6 rushing yards per game — a number that would have ranked eighth in the league over the full season.
Whereas they were allowing an unsightly 165.5 per game heading into that Week 5 matchup in Pittsburgh and were at 145.7 through six weeks, the Jaguars have turned into a statistically formidable run-stopping unit.
“We have done a good job — a better job — (against the run) in the second half (of the season),” Jacksonville coach Doug Marrone said.
It's easy to point to the Oct. 27 trade for former All-Pro defensive tackle Marcell Dareus as the turning point. He arrived one week into the period in which the stats flipped. But Marrone contends it's more than that.
“(Dareus) obviously helped,” Marrone said. “(But) both Abry Jones and Malik Jackson have been playing better from the inside from what was going on earlier in the year. So, basically, we have been able to pick it up better from that end and play a little bit better.”
Four times over the first six weeks of the season, Jacksonville allowed an opponent at least 142 rushing yards. No team had that many rushing yards over the final 10 games against the Jaguars.
“There's been some big runs broke off (early), that sometimes makes it a little misleading. They're a good group,” Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley said. “Their pass rush gets a lot of the fanfare, but they are very good against the run and I would say probably more so when they know you are going to run it, or when you have to run it. ... This is a very good group.”
Bell was coming off what would end up as a season-high in touches (39 in a win at Baltimore) the week before. The 15 carries he had against Jacksonville were fewer than all but 11 of the 60 full games Bell has played in his career.
“I feel like we got a little bit behind the 8-ball when we played them the first time,” Bell said this week. “We gave them two touchdowns (on interception returns). We didn't necessarily stick to our gameplan. We had to play catch-up a little bit. So we really couldn't run the ball as much as we wanted to, but we will see how (this) game goes.
“We want to be balanced. We want to beat those guys with run, play-action, dropback pass, whatever it is, and keep those guys off-balance.”
Bell and the Steelers have a recent precedent of vast improvement against a team in a playoff rematch. Last season, 12 weeks after being held to 53 yards on 10 carries at Miami, Bell set a franchise playoff rushing record with 167 yards on 29 carries in a wild-card win against the Dolphins.
The record lasted only a week because Bell broke it the next week in a divisional-round victory at Kansas City. Because of a groin injury, Bell lasted barely more than one quarter of play in the AFC championship seven days later, he carries a streak of two consecutive full playoff games played in which he has broken the team single-game postseason rushing record.
“That was awesome. That made us feel good as offensive linemen, but that was last year,” center Maurkice Pouncey said. “If you can do it again, then do it.”