The Steelers are 9-0 and heading to Jacksonville in a game that always seems to be painful one way or another for the Steelers. No matter how bad or good the Jaguars actually are, they play well against the Steelers. The good news is that Ben Roethlisberger happens to be 2-0 in his career when playing in Jacksonville. Still, what are the Steelers getting themselves into on Sunday?
After bringing on Jay Gruden, the Jaguars have inherited his West Coast centric scheme. The results thus far are anything but impressive. The Jaguars rank 26th in points per game and while they have some talent, the offense comes and goes with maddening inconsistency on a week-to-week basis. Even still, the Jaguars have efficient offensive performances this year. For certain, they can put drives together thanks to this simplified, basic system that Gruden runs.
Just as one would expect in a West Coast system, this system is all based on timing. Most of it is based on one quick reads to one side of the field. Whether that is something they see in the play or a route combination they are looking to exploit, Gruden is consistent in that fact. When defenses cover up a combination, the quarterback has to make something happen out of structure. For a modern twist, they have added this quick passing game off of RPOs, like this one here. The Jaguars like the cushion they see on the short side of the field, motion DJ Chark across the formation, and get a quick completion by taking advantage of that coverage.
While the Jaguars explicitly like to hit on mostly short, quick underneath passes like slants, quick outs, curls, and other timing-based routes, they have worked some play action bases that allow them to push the ball down the field at times. The wave that is sweeping the NFL right now are shot plays inspired by the Titans. This is a yankee concept, with an over route and a post route. The Steelers have had trouble defending this play specifically this year, and the Jaguars could pull this one out. Green Bay covers this well, but it is a better throw and catch by Jake Luton and Chark.
Everything they build off of is based through the rhythm of a tempo and running game. The RPOs and play action run through the running game. Gruden has somewhat of an old-minded style in this regard. The zone running scheme that they have employed for the most part this year has been key in the spurts of success that the Jaguars have flashed. Inside zone and outside zone are the primary runs and truly are the bread and butter of this offense.
The Jaguars take a lot of inspiration defensively from the Seattle Seahawks and Pete Carroll. With a 4-3 scheme that employs a single-high look most of the time, the systems have their obvious parallels. They want to be aggressive on the outside, play man coverage, and give room for exotic and creative blitzes out of these looks. They require that box safety to be dynamic and condense a lot of roles in the defense. A lot of Cover 3 looks, including Cover 3 Robber are potent schemes they like to use on the back end. They try to force quarterbacks to defeat them outside of the numbers. That base 4-3 is usually an under front and they two-gap frequently up front, just like the Seahawks. The Jaguars are playing a system that is meant to sell out to stop the run and get upfield after the quarterback first and foremost.
Players to Watch
QB Jake Luton
The Jaguars will be without starting quarterback Gardner Minshew, who is dealing with a thumb injury. That means sixth-round rookie Jake Luton out of Oregon State will start. Luton’s got a nice arm and can make some impressive throws with some nice touch on his throws. Against Green Bay, he flashed some of that consistent accuracy. However, Luton’s mental process is still very much a work in progress. His post-snap process is faulty and he can fall victim to excessive blitzes and disguised coverages on the back end. The Steelers will need to get after Luton to capitalize on that flaw and force errant throws.
RB James Robinson
The star rookie running back in Jacksonville, James Robinson was an unknown name out of Illinois State who has done nothing but prove himself as a potent weapon for the Jaguars. Robinson is dense running back who shakes off tackles with ease, but he has more juice than his frame would indicate. All in all, he has good burst, surprising quickness, and solid long speed. Robinson can lower his shoulder and run tough to grind out the tough yards as well. Think of former Chargers and Falcons running back Michael Turner when thinking of comparison for Robinson. He has that same compact toughness and athletic combination.
DE Josh Allen
Allen revealed this week that he grew up a Steelers fan, but that is not the reason to watch him this weekend. He is one of the most promising young pass rushers in the game today. Allen’s impressive combination of explosiveness and flexibility makes him a tough rusher to handle even for savvy veterans like Alejandro Villanueva. He is the primary pass rusher that Jacksonville likes to free up when they try to get aggressive defensively.
Matchups to Watch
Steelers receivers vs Jaguars secondary
As an aside, the Jaguars secondary has shown some promise as of recent with the upstart play of new acquisition Sidney Jones, but this is a mismatch waiting to happen. Key rookie C.J. Henderson is out for this game and the Steelers can just flex their receiver talent over the 30th ranked pass defense in the NFL. Even with some talented linebackers like Myles Jack in coverage, it is hard to see the Jaguars matching the Steelers five receivers let alone Eric Ebron. As long as Ben Roethlisberger makes smart decisions and takes care of the football, the Steelers should have a lot of offensive success.
James Robinson vs Steelers Run Defense
The Steelers have to slow down James Robinson in this game. There is no doubt about it that the Jaguars will likely string together a few decent runs since Robinson has just been so absurdly consistent throughout the season, but they can not let him gash them all day or otherwise the Jaguars can hang around in this game despite the inherent advantages the Steelers have on the offensive side of the football.
Steelers Offensive Coordinator Matt Canada on Run Game, Roethlisberger
Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada has spoken publicly for the first time since his promotion in late January.
Canada joined the latest edition of The Standard, the Steelers’ behind-the-scenes web series, and discussed a number of topics, including fixing the run game, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and his offensive philosophy.
There is no denying Pittsburgh produced the least successful rushing attack in football a season ago, averaging just 84.4 yards per game and 3.6 yards per attempt.
Canada recognizes the Steelers need to improve significantly on the ground, a mandate he implied came down from Team President Art Rooney II.
“He’s made it very clear that that’s got to get better,” Canada said. “When all of us realized that we didn’t get it done we wanted to with our running game and all of who are here are part of that. And we’ve got to improve upon it in a multitude of ways and we’re certainly focused on it. We’re globally studying who’s running the ball well. We’ve always believed in running the football anywhere that I’ve been. You win up front. I believe that. We believe that. I know Coach Tomlin believes that.”
Not only will the Steelers have to better impose their will in the trenches, but Canada knows they will also have to remove the predictability that plagued them last season, especially in the passing game.
“You have to be able to run the football when they know you’re going to run it,” Canada added. “And you have to be able to throw the football when they know you’re going to throw it.”
Canada also gushed over Roethlisberger, who the Steelers announced will be returning for the 2021 season on a one-year contract Thursday.
“He’s such a great competitor. He competes at everything he does and his competitive drive is so strong and so awesome to be around no matter what we’re doing,” Canada said of Roethlisberger.
He also praised the 39-year-old’s accuracy, which he believes sets Roethlisberger apart from his peers.
“And then just his accuracy. And I’ve said this to one of my buddies who’s a quarterback coach somewhere else. Young quarterbacks, I wish there was some way for them to be here and watch how he practices putting the ball in certain spots. It’s such a unique talent that he’s able to do it.”
While Roethlisberger’s new deal has provided the Steelers some much needed financial flexibility, they will still undoubtedly have some tough departures once free agency begins in earnest.
Regardless which players do or do not remain in Pittsburgh heading into the 2021 season, Canada insists his offense will be multi-dimensional and cater to whatever personnel the Steelers have on the offensive side.
“We are going through and looking at the foundation of our offense. And building an offense that will be conducive to whatever talent that we have,” Canada said. “I don’t believe you have a certain system that works and this is all we’re going to do and we have to have the players for that. We have the players we have each year. Our job is to score more points than the team we play on each Sunday.”
Steelers Sign Center J.C. Hassenauer on One-Year Deal
The Pittsburgh Steelers have signed center J.C. Hassenauer to a one-year deal, first reported by ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler.
Steelers sign center J.C. Hassenauer, an exclusive rights free agent, to a one-year deal, per source.— Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerESPN) March 4, 2021
An exclusive right free agent, Hassenauer was almost a lock to return to Pittsburgh in 2021. His new deal with the Steelers is worth $780,000.
Hassenauer proved a vital piece along the Steelers’ offensive line a season ago, seeing action in 15 games and making four starts. He was on the field for 23% of the team’s offensive stats, while also appearing on 50 special teams plays.
Prior to Pittsburgh, Hassenauer signed with the Atlanta Falcons as an undrafted free agent in 2018, spending the first seven weeks of the season on their practice squad.
He played for the Birmingham Iron of the Alliance of American Football in 2019.
Hassenauer played his college ball at Alabama. He made just three career starts for the Crimson Tide, with his final coming in the 2018 College Football Playoff national championship game, a 26-23 overtime win over Georgia.
Hassenauer’s agent Blake Baratz confirmed the signing on Twitter on Thursday.
Steelers Estimated $3.6m Under Salary Cap after New Contract for Ben Roethlisberger
The Steelers have are salary cap compliant and have an estimated $3.6 million in breathing room after renegotiating the contract of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on Thursday, according to contract figures reported by NFL Network, salary cap data from OverTheCap.com and Steelers Now analysis.
Roethlisberger’s contract, which is technically a five-year deal, but will last only through the 2021 season before being voided will save the team $15.3 million under the 2021 salary cap.
Though the Steelers are finally in the black with regards to the 2021 salary cap, they will still likely need to make additional moves to shore up extra salary cap space. The team will need over $8 million in space to sign its 2021 NFL Draft class, the final two players for the 53-man roster and a practice squad. Only the top 51 contracts count toward the cap in the offseason.
The Steelers’ estimated $3.6 million in cap space is based on a $180 million salary cap, which is based on Steelers Now sources on several national reports. The final salary cap figure for 2021 has not yet been made official.
The team has a three contracts that can be restructured, those of defensive end Stephon Tuitt, kicker Chris Boswell and fullback Derek Watt, that could save the team around another $6 million.
The contracts of guard David DeCastro and cornerbacks Joe Haden and Steven Nelson could also be extended or re-negotiated. All are entering the final season of their contract.
The Steelers have two dozen pending free agents, including starters Tyson Alualu, Zach Banner, Jordan Berry, James Conner, Bud Dupree, Matt Feiler, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Alejandro Villanueva and key reserves Mike Hilton and Cameron Sutton.
Starting center J.C. Hassenauer and backup inside linebackers Marcus Allen and Robert Spillane are exclusive rights free agents. Backup outside linebacker Ola Adeniyi and wide receiver and kick returner Ray-Ray McCloud are restricted free agents.