Will 3rd time be charm for Steelers against Jaguars' Leonard Fournette?
Keith Butler has watched Leonard Fournette break free on a 90-yard run to cement a 181-yard rushing day in the regular season. He has observed Fournette cross the goal line three times to help oust the Pittsburgh Steelers from the playoffs.
What the Steelers defensive coordinator hasn’t seen is his defense slow down — let alone shut down — the bruising Jacksonville Jaguars running back.
While two games isn’t enough of a sample size to constitute a trend, Butler is keenly aware Fournette can’t make it a hat trick if the Steelers hope to finally solve the Jaguars running game and extend their winning streak this season to six games.
“I don’t want to say he’s got our number, but he’s played well against us,” Butler said, “and we have to play well against him.”
That didn’t happen in either matchup in Fournette’s rookie season as the 6-foot, 228-pound runner combined for 290 yards and five touchdowns in Jacksonville’s two victories at Heinz Field, including that stunning upset in the AFC divisional round.
Butler’s defense will get another chance to answer the challenge Sunday when the Steelers visit TIAA Bank Stadium.
“We know what we’ve got to do,” cornerback Joe Haden said. “We know we have to stop the run.”
The Steelers believe they are better equipped for this matchup, and the numbers support their confidence. They are ranked No. 4 in run defense, holding teams to an average of 90.8 yards during a 6-2-1 start. They have gone seven consecutive games without allowing a team to reach 100 yards on the ground.
Then again, the Steelers showed similar improvement after Fournette and the Jaguars thrashed their defense for 231 rushing yards in Week 5 last season. They went six games in a row without allowing an opponent to reach 100 yards.
But that changed when Ryan Shazier sustained his spinal cord injury against the Cincinnati Bengals. Minus their star linebacker, the Steelers yielded 127.4 rushing yards over their final five regular-season games. And, of course, the Jaguars rushed for 164 yards in their 45-42 playoff win.
“We played bad, simple as that,” defensive tackle Cameron Heyward said. “We didn’t execute, we didn’t get off our blocks, we didn’t control the line of scrimmage. We didn’t (create) turnovers.”
Plugging the leaky run defense was an obvious goal in the offseason, and the addition of inside linebacker Jon Bostic and safety Morgan Burnett, playing in subpackage situations, has improved the tackling and limited big plays.
The Steelers have permitted only six runs longer than 20 yards and none over 40. And they’ve shown an ability to make in-game adjustments. After allowing the Carolina to rush for 48 yards on the opening drive of the game, the Steelers held the Panthers to 47 the rest of the way.
“We are trusting a little more, trusting the defense and guys are tackling better,” Heyward said. “That’s what we’ve done in the past, and now we have to see if we can do it against (the Jaguars).”
Perhaps helping the cause is that Fournette, after rushing for 1,040 yards as a rookie, has missed six games this season because of hamstring injuries. His absence has contributed to the Jaguars’ 3-6 start.
With Fournette last year, the Jaguars led the NFL in rushing at 141.4 yards per game and in attempts. Without him, they are No. 26 in rushing, averaging almost 50 fewer yards a game (94.6). The Jaguars also have been ravaged by injuries on the offensive line and are playing a third-string tackle and backup center.
“I don’t know how significant that is,” coach Mike Tomlin said about the injuries along the line. “I think that Fournette is a significant element of it. When you start talking about a top-five draft talent that has the playing demeanor and the run demeanor that he has, that’s significant.”
Fournette returned to the field last week against Indianapolis and carried 24 times for 52 yards and a touchdown.
“He’s played a game, so I’m sure he’s going to be feeling a lot better about this game than the game he came back,” Butler said, “so we’ve got our work cut out for us.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.