#STEELERS PREGAME STRETCH: Wakeup call?

Is a Pittsburgh visit just what the doctor ordered for the unfocused Jags?

WEEK 11

PITTSBURGH STEELERS (6-2-1) VS. JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (3-6)

CBS, SUNDAY, 1 P.M., TIAA BANK STADIUM 67,814

Last week in a nutshell

Headline: SHOWSTOPPERS / Behind perfect QB play, the Steelers overwhelmed the Panthers in front of a national TV audience last week. It was perhaps the best Steelers performance in a decade or more, but was it the sign of a team ready for a playoff run or one peaking too early?

This week’s announcers: Not Ian Eagle (Jim Nantz), not Dan Fouts (Tony Romo) and not Evan Washburn (Tracy Wolfson). Yay. Even though this game was flexed out of prime time, it’s still getting CBS’ No. 1 team. This will be our first game with Romo this year and it will be interesting to see how/if he’s changed since his meteoric freshman campaign. Information courtesy www.the506.com.

Weather – or not: Clouds, sun, chance of a shower, 72. Remember how we mad such a big deal about the frigid temps in January in Pittsburgh and how so many of Jacksonville’s key players had never dealt with them? Meant nada, zip, zilch. Information courtesy www.accuweather.com

Referee: Walt Anderson. This Walt is the retired dentist from Texas, not Walt Coleman, the dairy farmer from Arkansas, who did a Steelers game a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, this Walt is by far the worse Walt and his crew this year is averaging 14 accepted penalties and 136 penalty yards assessed (!!!!!!!) per game (!!!!!!!) against league average of 13 penalties and 112 yards. That league average has been coming down each while while a few clueless crews, like this one, keep racking up huge totals. Information courtesy www.footballzebras.com, www.profootballreference.com and www.nflpenalties.com.

The last time: The Steelers Super Bowl dreams crashed down with a thud as the upstart Jaguars dominated them physically in a way that rarely happens en route to a 45-42 playoff victory before a stunned crowd last January at frigid Heinz Field. Blake Bortles played flawless football and Leonard Fournette rushed for 100 yards and three touchdowns on the afternoon. The Steelers made a late run in the game with three fourth-quarter touchdowns to make the final appear much closer than the actual game had been.

The line: Pittsburgh -5/47. Smarts say: Yikes, that seems like a big number in this game featuring one team who pummeled the other team twice last year and most of the players for both teams are unchanged. Putting the line and the O/U together, you get something like Steelers 26-21. Information courtesy www.pregame.com

When the Steelers have the ball:

PIT offense, 3rd passing, 21st rushing, 4th scoring (31.0 ppg), 3rd sacks allowed (12)

JAX defense, 1st passing, 18th rushing, 10th scoring (22.1 ppg), 27th (19)

When the Jaguars have the ball:

JAX offense, 14th passing, 26th rushing, 29th scoring (17.8 ppg), 13th sacks allowed (22)

PIT defense, 19th passing, 4th rushing, 13th scoring (23.2 ppg), 1st sacks (31)

Giveaway/Takeaway: JAX -11 (30th in league); PIT -1 (19th in league)

Strength of schedule (games played so far): JAX .533; PIT .528

So…: The one stat jumping off the page above is Jacksonville’s -11 in the turnover category. The Steelers are still not a good team in forcing giveaways so turnovers will be more important to watch than usual. Information courtesy www.nfl.comand www.espn.com.

On the spot:

Pittsburgh: Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargraves, Tyson Alualu

Why: Pittsburgh’s defensive line, especially, were manhandled by the Jaguars in last year’s double beatdowns. A season later, they’re leading a Steelers defensive renaissance (although it looks like Tuitt may miss this game with an elbow injury) and the once-rising Jaguars offensive line has been decimated by injuries and poor performance. If Pittsburgh is to keep its momentum, the tone will be set by the defensive line.

Jacksonville: Blake Bortles

Why: It was only two months ago that the Jaguars manhandled the Patriots to grab the mantle of AFC favorites behind Bortles’ four-TD performance. Since then, Bortles has thrown seven TDs and six INTs as his team has lost six of seven games. He showed signs of a turnaround last week against Indy. If there’s any chance of salvaging Jacksonville’s once-promising season, it starts with a big Bortles performance in this game.

Key matchups:

Jaguars CB Jalen Ramsey vs. Steelers WR Antonio Brown. Why: Two of the most unlikeable players in football (both of who have begun to turn off their own fan bases this season), but undeniably two of the best. Ramsey intimated in the offseason in his infamous quarterback rankings that it’s Brown, not Ben Roethlisberger, who makes the Steelers passing game go, so it will be very interesting to see how interested Ramsey is in covering Brown and how interested Roethlisberger is in throwing that way if Brown is open.

Quick hits:

+ Improbably, the Steelers have gotten themselves into the No. 2 slot in the AFC playoff picture, but staying there (and getting a first-round bye) will be a tall task with three likely playoff teams ahead (Chargers, Saints, Patriots) along with traditionally brutal road trips to Denver and Oakland before a season-ending slugfest with the Bengals. Pittsburgh likely would need to go 5-2 in its final seven to have a chance at holding the second spot and even that might not be enough.

+ Not much to add on the Le’Veon Bell saga. We think his social media has provided good insight into what he was going to do and why and that’s ground we’ve already have covered in this space. Time will tell how badly Bell and his agent botched the situation. The question now is… What are the Steelers going to do? Their options are four: 1) Try to negotiate a long-term deal with Bell, which they have the exclusive right to do until early March. 2) Failing that, place a third franchise tag on Bell and pay him $25 million+ to play next year IF he signs the tag. 3) Place the transition tag on Bell for a lower amount likely to be decided via an arbitrator and retain the right to match any competing offer for Bell’s services, forfeiting any compensatory draft pick if Bell leaves. 4) Allow Bell to enter free agency and get a third-round compensatory draft pick in the 2020 draft. You can pretty much cross Option #2 off the list but we’d caution you not to cross of Option #1 just yet. Option #3, the transition tag, is being touted in some national corners as a legitimate option, but we just can’t see it happening because of the loss of the compensatory pick. Pittsburgh has ridden this thing out for far too long to come out of it with nothing for Bell. Option #4, of course, is the path of least resistance and the most likely outcome. Pittsburgh has until March 5 to decide whether to apply either of the tags. If he is not tagged or is transition tagged, Bell can start talking to other clubs on March 11. If he is not tagged at all, he can sign with another team at 4 p.m. on March 13.

+ One of those advanced stats made the rounds this week showing Ben Roethlisberger leading the league in throwing 54 screen passes. It seems to use that more and more of those passes are traditional screens while a decent amount of them remain WR screens. Isn’t it amazing, though, how much less annoying those WR screens are when the team and quarterback are converting third downs and keeping drives rolling?

+ It’s just a superstition, but we feel like the Steelers always fare better in the playoffs as underdogs, rather than favorites. There’s a lotta football left to be played, but it seems certain that if Pittsburgh qualifies they’ll be underdogs to at least one team (Kansas City), likely to another (New England), and possibly to a third (San Diego). Of course, the Steelers already lost to the first team and still have to play the other two so a lot could change before January.

The pick: This Jaguars team destroyed the Patriots less than two months ago and destroyed the Steelers twice last year. That fact they are a 5-point underdog at home is ridiculous. Both Blake Bortles and the Jaguars defense seemed to come out of their funks in the second half last week against Indianapolis and we expect that to continue this weekend. Whether the Jags are waking up in time to sneak into the playoffs is yet to be seen, but from the Steelers perspective, a loss to Jacksonville certainly puts a dent in their 2019 postseason plans. … Jacksonville 24-21.

Last week: Our strategy of picking against the Steelers every week continues to not pay dividends as we faced two double losses last week while on vacation, leaving us 2-6-1 straight up and 2-7 against the spread.

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