Any Given Sunday
The weekend's biggest upset goes under the Football Outsiders lens.

Any Given Sunday: Jaguars Over Steelers

Any Given Sunday: Jaguars Over Steelers
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Rivers McCown

This column somehow managed to avoid featuring the Steelers more than once in the regular season. Honestly, we probably stayed away from them as much as we did because at this point it's just a known fact that Pittsburgh doesn't always get up for down teams. Whether that's coaching, the atmosphere around the team itself, or something more tangible is up for debate. What isn't up for debate is that the Steelers play down to their competition all the time. Scott Kacsmar ran the numbers and found that it's true: when the Steelers are favorites, they usually underperform.

And that study was done for a Football Outsiders Almanac chapter in 2016. This is such a post-hype meme that I can suggest this without it even being a hot take. These are the Any Given Steelers. There's nothing new about this position. Pittsburgh being a team that plays down to its competition is a molten take that already bubbled back down to the surface, one that has left a sculpted, extremely visible, crater.

But on a more granular level, this was the game that showed just how far the Pittsburgh defense had fallen since Ryan Shazier was injured. The Jacksonville offense is inconsistent, as astute viewers probably noted when they played the Bills. Since Week 13's game against the Bengals, the Steelers as a defense were gashed up and down the field by every semi-competent offense they faced. The Browns had one of their five best passing DVOAs of the season in Week 17, and even the broken T.J. Yates Texans had some success running the ball on the Steelers while they were getting waxed on Christmas Eve.

The Decline of the Pittsburgh Defense: Average Single-Game DVOA Scores

Defense DVOA Pass Defense DVOA Rush Defense DVOA
Weeks 1-12 -15.5% -14.3% -21.8%
Weeks 13-17 8.9% -4.5% 21.4%

Note, especially, how in the dumps the Pittsburgh run defense has been without Shazier. That should have been a glaring alert to anyone who thought the Jaguars would be easy to roll over. All season long, the Jacksonville offense has depended on establishing the run game. If you could take that away, and force Blake Bortles to complete some tough throws, the offense would fold. Instead, the Steelers allowed the Jaguars to rush for 164 yards on 35 carries despite not even breaking a run longer than 18 yards. Jacksonville's first six third downs of the game all needed 5 yards or less to convert. The only stretch of the game where Pittsburgh was actually able to hold Jacksonville scoreless, the third quarter, saw the Jaguars forced to try to convert third-and-long regularly.


Even as awkward as Bortles can be at times, it's hard to mess up third-and-short with the weapons the Jaguars have in the running game. And when Bortles gets to roll out of the pocket and use his creativity rather than being shackled to passing, he becomes a little bit dangerous.

This wasn't supposed to be the script for the Steelers. The defense came on strong down the stretch in 2016, when their adjusted sack rate went through the roof after the first six weeks of the season. They finished 2017 No. 1 in adjusted sack rate, and with the sixth-highest pressure rate according to Sports Info Solutions. This defense was built to win on third-and-long.

It just never got there.

Where the Game Swung

Hard to say there was much interesting early from the perspective of the game being close. The peak the Steelers had to climb was a 28-7 Jaguars lead, with the Telvin Smith fumble return touchdown as a big turning point. EdjSports gave the Smith return the highest Game-Winning Chance boost in this game, moving Pittsburgh from 20.7 percent GWC to 5.1 percent.

The rest of the comeback for Pittsburgh came in fits and starts. They'd stumble their way back into the game, only to blow a possession at an inopportune time, or have a fourth-down call go against them. By GWC, the Steelers' chances of winning in the second half peaked at 34.7 percent. This was when Pittsburgh had first-and-10 on the Jacksonville 40 after a Le'Veon Bell catch, with the score 28-21. The Steelers promptly went three-and-out, and, for the only time all half, punted.

The last big swings in the game came after Antonio Brown's touchdown (GIF'ed below) brought the Steelers within seven with 9:05 left. That brought the Steelers back up to a 13.5 percent chance to win the game. But those chances were immediately dashed on T.J. Yeldon's long catch-and-run on third-and-5 from the JAcksonville own 40:

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Could this sideline be any more open? The Steelers would never again get to a double-digit GWC percent.

One other thing that I thought deserved some discussion was Pittsburgh's onside kick down 42-35 with a two-minute warning and two timeouts left. GWC agreed with the decision by a very small margin, favoring the onside kick 4.2 percent to 3.8 percent for the kickoff. Certainly the circumstances of Pittsburgh's defense getting their ass kicked helped as well. I get it, but it's so hard to come back from 10 points down at that point in time I probably would've kicked it off regularly and hoped for the best.


By the VOA

JAC 43.0% 52.8% 10.3% 0.6%
PIT 32.2% 69.2% 40.8% 3.8%
JAC 23.8% 51.1% 27.9% 0.6%
PIT 3.6% 42.9% 43.1% 3.8%

That actually was only tied for the worst single-game defensive DVOA the Steelers allowed this season, with the Cincinnati Monday nighter. (They also had a 39.0% defensive DVOA against Baltimore in Week 14.)

How to Attack the Jacksonville Defense(?)

A big contributing factor to the Steelers' loss in this game was that they made a lot of situationally aggressive calls and lost some of them. They went for it on fourth down six times in this game, and didn't convert two of them. Those were both in Jacksonville territory, in a close game that they wound up losing by three after a failed onside kick.

But by going for it on fourth-and-short, the Steelers were also able to pick on the Jacksonville secondary. I was on a plane while this game was happening, and was pretty surprised when I landed to see that the Jaguars gave up this many points. Let's look at some of the big plays:

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Note the linebackers playing short zones and Roethlisberger getting plenty of protection, because those things will come into play again here:

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So let's make a list of things the Steelers needed to have for these plays to work:

  • A Hall of Fame quarterback with a working deep arm.
  • Wide receivers who can win jump balls against A.J. Bouye and the middle of the Jaguars secondary.
  • Enough protection to give their receivers time to get deep in their routes.

Seems easy enough, right?

The Steelers were also able to get guys open deep with their route concepts. This crosser to Antonio Brown was well-designed to hold the safety who could have made a play on it.

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Outside of the obvious conceit of falling behind early and not having a sustaining running game, it's hard to pick much at what the Steelers did on offense. How much of this gets picked up by New England and whether Tom Brady's deep ball can play up to the challenge will be big questions for next round. The other thing to note is that Vance McDonald carved the Jaguars up for 112 yards on 10-of-16 receiving, and Rob Gronkowski is not Vance McDonald.

The New England O-Jacksonville D matchup should be one of the most fascinating single-unit showdowns in a game we've seen in a while if Jaguars defensive coordinator Todd Wash keeps his end of the bargain and doesn't get too static.


12 comments, Last at 19 Jan 2018, 10:31am

1 Re: Any Given Sunday: Jaguars Over Steelers

"The other thing to note is that Vance McDonald carved the Jaguars up for 112 yards on 10-of-16 receiving, and Rob Gronkowski is not Vance McDonald."

You pick your poison. He's also not Bell, Brown, Bryant, or Smith-Shuster,

3 Re: Any Given Sunday: Jaguars Over Steelers

I don't know if it's the diversity of their passing game, exactly (and the Patriots' is also pretty diverse), but moreso that the Jaguars' strong passing defense focused on shutting down the more dangerous Steeler weapons, so McDonald was often open (especially as a checkdown).

If the Jaguars use that strategy Sunday, it won't be Gronkowski going off, but rather some lesser Patriot options.

4 Re: Any Given Sunday: Jaguars Over Steelers

If Rob Gronkowski ends up being the checkdown option, that's still a potential problem as he's able to just power through 1 on 1 tackles or at least, fall forward 2 yards.

The Jags are fantastic against WRs, but they're much more down-to-earth against TEs and RBs per DVOA, and the Patriots are perfectly happy to throw dozens of passes that way if it's working better than anything else.

The flip side is a bit more interesting to me; New England isn't great or even good against the run, but at "only" +3% DVOA, they're not objectively incapable of stopping it either.

6 Re: Any Given Sunday: Jaguars Over Steelers

I get that the standard's incredibly high in Pittsburgh, and people are calling for Haley's head, but they scored 42 points against a great defense that was actually playing well (I expect, with the tempo stuff, Brady'll probably get his, but Rberger made some incredibly-high-degree-of-difficulty throws in that game, and the talk of attacking the jags run d seems not to take into account that the jags run d isn't an undersized line they can just push.over like the colts in 2014;. if the Pats use a run-first game plan, I think the jags will be thrilled). I'll be curious to see how healthy Fournette is, but he missed almost.half the season, and they still led.the league in rushing; also, saw on Reddit that the jags ran 61 plays, and lost yards on one play (a kneeldown to run out the clock in the first half); if they dominate the LOS like that, they'll have a great chance

7 Re: Any Given Sunday: Jaguars Over Steelers

Forget Haley, half of the people on Steelers' boards want Tomlin's head on a spike right now. The O piled up a bunch of points and yards, but Haley didn't really have much to do with it. Their TDs came on exceptionally well executed playground style plays by exceptional talents. Haley's done some good things as OC, but I think his time with the team has run its' course. His play calling is sub par at times and I don't think he's that great at adjusting.

There's been rumours for years of friction between him and Ben for some time and many believe that Ben's quick decision to come back in 2018 (he also reportedly told teammates he wants to play at least three more years) means that all the retirement talk last year was a power play to get the team to agree that 2017 would be it for Haley. Randy Fichtner, who's been with the Steelers for a while as WRs and presently QBs coach would likely be promoted to take Haley's place.

8 Re: Any Given Sunday: Jaguars Over Steelers

I think Ben's quick announcement is more a function of who is signed now and who wasn't last year. In the last 12 months, Antonio Brown was entering the last year of his contract and received an extension, Bell was entering free agency and was franchised, Bryant was on suspension and since re-instated, Smith-Schuster hadn't been drafted, and the starting left tackle was a free agent. That's a lot of uncertainty at key positions. I can understand Ben's hesitating. Bell is the only open question today.

9 Re: Any Given Sunday: Jaguars Over Steelers

The tough thing about stopping the Pats running attack isn't that they just run over your base set - its that they're so ridiculously flexible.

Gronkowski can go from being a ridiculous asset in the run game to being flexed out wide (and while Allen isn't great, he's fine as a second TE), and several of their running backs work pretty well flexed out (White, Lewis, Burkhead) - so they can basically go from a power running set to 4 or 5 wide without personnel changes and be reasonably effective at it. And they can do it while running no-huddle up tempo and not allowing you to make substitutions.

IE, the Patriots aren't going to be running the ball down the Jaguars set when the Jaguars are set up to stop they run - they'll be doing it when they have 5 dbs on the field, and their defensive lineman really need to be rotated but aren't being allowed to.

12 Re: Any Given Sunday: Jaguars Over Steelers

The key word here is designed. The problem is that there isn't a safety in football that can match up with Gronk 1-1 blocking near the LOS. When teams apply a zone-LB under safety double team, you see a lot of catches made ~ yds downfield at the transition point. As a result big nickel sets frequently struggle to stop the run against the Pats 21 or 12 personal groups. Struggling to stop the run in big nickel with 2 safties applied to Gronk (in a man-under double team) & one free safety in big nickel might still be the best option for most teams - but the Pats will usually run effectively in that matchup.

At the end of the day the answer to Gronk is a LB that has the speed to really cover (Kuechly has done this a bit), or a safety that hits hard enough to intimidate him out of making catches in the LB-Safety transition (Kam Chancellor has done this a bit). The trouble is, there aren't a lot of players like that around in a league that is primarily focused on stopping WR's (and giant WR's that nominally play TE).