Kevin Gorman: Steelers' front 5 faces tall order in Jaguars' defensive line
The gamesmanship between the Steelers and Jacksonville Jaguars began long before Sunday's AFC divisional playoff game at Heinz Field, with a hyperbolic campaign of compliments.
After Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger called the Jaguars “one of the best defenses I've ever seen,” Jacksonville coach Doug Marrone said the Steelers possessed “probably the most talented roster that we've played.”
Truth is, they're both right.
The Steelers boast six Pro Bowl picks (including three All-Pro selections) on offense, and the Jaguars have four Pro Bowlers (including three All-Pros) on defense.
Buckle your chinstraps.
For all of the talk about talent and mentions of the matchups between Steelers wide receivers Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and JuJu Smith-Schuster against Jaguars cornerbacks A.J. Buoye and Jalen Ramsey, this game will be won in the trenches.
When asked about Jacksonville's dominating defensive front, several Steelers offensive linemen used the same description: pedigree.
Jacksonville invested heavily in its defensive line, starting with signing Calais Campbell for four years and $60 million and adding nose tackle Marcell Dareus (six years, $95.5 million) in a late-October trade with Buffalo.
So it should come as no surprise the Jaguars rank second in the NFL in total defense (286.1 yards a game), scoring defense (16.8 point) and sacks (55) as four players have eight or more: Campbell (14 1⁄2), Yannick Ngakoue (12) and Malik Jackson and Dante Fowler (eight each).
“They're a penetrating team,” Steelers left guard Ramon Foster said. “No. 1 is their pedigree. The guys they've got up front, their pedigree is A-1 before anything else. They've picked a certain type of guy that they want, and those guys are delivering. They've paid them, and they're delivering. They don't have to do it in other ways than the four guys they've paid to do it. They're stealing right now.”
The Jaguars stole one from the Steelers in a 30-9 victory Oct. 8 at Heinz Field, handing them their most lopsided loss of the season.
Not only did the Jaguars intercept Roethlisberger five times, returning two for touchdowns, but they also sacked him twice for minus-11 yards, had seven quarterback hits and 12 passes defensed. They also held Le'Veon Bell to 47 yards on 15 carries, his second-lowest rushing total of the season.
“Those dudes do a lot to disrupt whatever it is you're doing,” Foster said. “If pass rush is what they're specializing in, they're disrupting your run on their way to the quarterback. We've got our hands full.”
That the Steelers do. Their offensive line faces its greatest challenge of the season against Jacksonville's defense, especially up front.
“Their front four is an elite group, starting with Calais, just one of the great players in the league,” said offensive coordinator Todd Haley, an assistant when the Arizona Cardinals drafted Campbell in 2008. “Across the board, they're as good as we'll see, so that matchup is going to be critical.”
Campbell is a unique talent who can play on the edge and in the interior, and he has the distinction of being selected first-team All-Pro in the former and second team in the latter.
“I think it's his mentality,” Foster said. “He's a 6-8, 300-pound guy who plays like he's 6-1, 240. It feels like he's a linebacker, and that's his best attribute. He's not boxed in.”
Especially not since the Jaguars sent a 2018 sixth-round pick to the Bills for Dareus, a 6-3, 320-pounder who was a two-time Pro Bowl pick and 2014 first-team All-Pro. The Steelers said Dareus is a different player since reuniting with Marrone in Jacksonville, one whose ability to plug the middle allows his teammates to slide up and down the defensive line. That makes it a guessing game for opponents.
“It's a cohesive group,” Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey said. “Obviously, they picked the right-minded guys to be there and play defense the right way. They're young. They're chasing the ball down and making plays, so we've got to be ready to play.”
The Steelers invested heavily in this offensive line, signing All-Pro right guard David DeCastro ($50 million), Pro Bowl pick Pouncey ($44.1 million) and right tackle Marcus Gilbert ($30.8 million) to five-year contracts, Foster for three years at $9.6 million and left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, another Pro Bowler, for four years at $24 million.
“It all starts with us,” said Gilbert, who missed the first meeting with Jacksonville with a hamstring injury. “If we come in and we handle our business and we do what we're supposed to do, then things will turn out in our favor. But it's not going to be easy. We know what kind of guys they have. We have to combat these guys.”
The Steelers know they have to protect Roethlisberger to win, that they have to back up Marrone's talk of their talent with their best against what Big Ben considers the NFL's top defense.
The Steelers know to win the war or words, they first have to win the battle at the line of scrimmage.