AFC Divisional Round Playoff Preview 2018
by Rivers McCown (TEN-NE) and Scott Kacsmar (JAC-PIT)
The AFC South is the weakest division in the NFL. It's been that way for years, and it was expected to be that way again in 2017. There was some change, as Jacksonville was the first AFC South team to rank in the DVOA top 10 since the 2011 Houston Texans. But the AFC South teams still averaged -8.8% DVOA, the lowest of all eight divisions.
And yet, here we are with two AFC South teams advancing to the NFL's final eight. And now the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans are the teams standing between football fans and the New England-Pittsburgh AFC Championship rematch that has seemed like destiny since the moment training camps first opened in July. Do they have any chance at all to keep us from Brady-Big Ben Again?
For those who may be unfamiliar with the Football Outsiders stats, they are explained at the bottom of the page. Scroll down or click this link.
Game charting data appears courtesy Sports Info Solutions, unless noted. All stats represent regular season only, except for weighted DVOA (which goes through the wild-card round) and anything else specifically noted.
Tennessee at New England
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Vegas has made the New England Patriots a big favorite against the Titans. And rightfully so, perhaps, as New England has a history of making mincemeat of inferior opponents with an extra week to game-plan. One thing worth considering, though, is that while it's easy to talk about how down the AFC playoff teams were, that actually includes New England. The record is vintage Patriots, but they finished with the second-worst defensive DVOA in the NFL, ahead of only Oakland. They had the fifth-easiest schedule in the league, and they mixed in their share of clunkers.
I don't put much into the idea that the Patriots will be divided by the Seth Wickersham article about Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and Robert Kraft. It's worth noting as a background distraction, but the only thing that is notable from an on-field perspective is the idea that Brady has slightly slipped. I know this is a hype-and-hate society, as Yahoo!'s Scott Pianowski loves to say, but it's possible for Brady to have both slipped and still be the best quarterback in the NFL. Such are the lofty standards when you are on the short list for greatest quarterback in NFL history.
WHEN THE TITANS HAVE THE BALL
The common thread in New England's losses this year has been a running offense that was able to eat clock. The Panthers averaged 4.8 yards per carry on 29 totes in Week 4. Both Kansas City and Miami were able to establish themselves on the ground in their upset wins against the Patriots. And in close wins against the Chargers and Bucs, the New England run defense also had a run defense DVOA in the positive double-digits. The Patriots are pretty smooth when it comes to defending running quarterbacks -- you've got to beat them at the line of scrimmage -- but it can be done, and has been a key factor of the many close games the Patriots have played (Deshaun Watson's many broken tackles in Week 3, for example).
However, despite Derrick Henry's big week against the Chiefs in the wild-card round, the Titans finished the regular season on a string of bad single-game DVOA scores on run offense. The Titans finished the regular season with four straight negative-DVOA games as a rush offense, three of them double-digit negative scores. Now, the Titans will be missing DeMarco Murray, who was a bit slower through the hole and a lot easier to bring down than Henry. That's probably a reason to believe in their run offense more in this game, given how much Mike Mularkey's staff believed in Murray despite his subpar year. Henry finished with a top-10 broken tackle rate among all running backs with more than 150 carries. The Patriots were in the bottom five of all defenses in broken tackle rate, so if Henry can push them around and generate yards in ways New England isn't used to allowing, perhaps that will keep the Tennessee's run game in control.
Marcus Mariota will be spoiled for choice. While New England was tenth in adjusted sack rate, Sports Info Solutions measured the Patriots with the worst pressure rate in the NFL. (It's improved since midseason, but only to 23rd.) Mariota's biggest weakness was against the big blitz; the Titans averaged 2.6 yards per attempt against blitzes with six or more rushers. But the Patriots only rushed six or more defenders on 2 percent of their snaps, tied for the lowest rate in the league. On a pure talent perspective, Tennessee's offensive line against New England's pressure package is a mismatch in favor of the Titans.
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The cornerback/wideout matchups wouldn't seem to favor Tennessee, but both New England starting corners have had down years. Malcolm Butler was torched early, and Stephon Gilmore missed time with injuries and played hurt. The only position that New England defended at an above-average level in the passing game is tight end, where they were eighth in DVOA allowed at -11.4%. Even that asset, however, is somewhat up in the air as linebacker Kyle Van Noy may miss the game with a calf injury. His absence would likely put strong safety/sometimes nickelback Patrick Chung on Delanie Walker. The Patriots are most commonly a Cover-1 team -- both of these teams are more man-focused -- which means that if the Titans can win one-on-one, they'll be in a good position.
Except Tennessee's receivers haven't been all that impressive this year outside of Walker. Rishard Matthews has been hurt, but is Tennessee's best outside receiver and could do some damage in this game. But it seems like Corey Davis, despite the physical talent, has a few disappointing plays every game. Taywan Taylor could provide some speed and field-stretching ability. The middle of the New England defense is very soft, with throws targeting the short middle allowing a 34.2% DVOA, 30th in the league. There are ways for the Titans to attack in theory, but a lot of Tennessee's passing game stagnates in their base offense.
The Patriots finished 31st in defensive DVOA, but are currently 22nd in weighted defensive DVOA. Five of their six worst games by pass defense DVOA came in the first six weeks. And because of New England's sterling red zone defense, it again all seems to come back to the run game. The Titans were second in the NFL with a 43.9% run offense DVOA in the red zone. To put points on New England, the Titans are going to have win decisively at the line of scrimmage.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
The Patriots have the best passing offense in the NFL by DVOA, but this isn't their traditional dink-and-dunk pass offense. Brady attempted 130 deep passes, more than any quarterback but Russell Wilson (135) and Ben Roethlisberger (131), and 841 of Brady's 1,599 DYAR came on deep balls. Combine this with the primarily Cover-1 tendencies of the Titans, who per Sports Info Solutions ran the fourth-most man coverage in the league, and you have a recipe for deep balls. That can be an easy win for the Patriots, or it could play out differently. Remember, though the research is new, that Cian Fahey has noted that older quarterbacks tend to lose arm strength late in the season. A bye should help, but the Titans are likely to make Brady beat them deep.
Man coverage against the Patriots leaves you with one real question: what do you do about Rob Gronkowski? The Titans were a tight end funnel in the regular season. Nobody allowed more receptions per game to tight ends, and they were 24th in defensive DVOA against that position. They were, in fact, quite fortunate that Travis Kelce was concussed in the middle of last week's game. None of Tennessee's single-coverage options are particularly appealing (not that any defenders are appealing options against Gronkowski), so the Titans may have to try to vary their coverages up at some point. Dick LeBeau and Brady have probably clashed so many times at this point that they can each call out the opponent's next adjustments anyway.
The real swing in this game might be that the Patriots also have the No. 3 run offense DVOA. Rex Burkhead's potential absence may be felt, but Dion Lewis came out of nowhere for the second time in three years to take over the backfield. The Titans actually have a pretty good run defense -- seventh in DVOA over the course of the season and without a positive DVOA allowed in a game since Week 10. Last week, they swarmed Kareem Hunt and made the Chiefs one-dimensional. If they can do that in this game as well, that's one step closer to the correct upset formula.
Burkhead and Lewis were keys in the passing game down the stretch, and the Titans ranked dead last in defensive DVOA against running backs in the passing game. The return of Chris Hogan could also shift some things in the New England offense. The Patriots didn't have a wideout who easily won against press coverage without Hogan. Brandin Cooks actually had a negative DYAR on his shorter targets. If Hogan can come back and provide some of that, it would go a long way towards keeping the Titans honest.
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I haven't talked much about the Tennessee pass defense yet for a reason -- they're just not that interesting of a unit. The Titans regularly limit big plays, as they had a -22.1% DVOA on deep passes that ranked third in the NFL. None of their cornerbacks had particularly effective years. They were 12th in adjusted sack rate, but most of their high-sack games came against bad quarterbacks. Twenty of the team's sacks came in three games against Blaine Gabbert, Jay Cutler, and Jacoby Brissett.
Brady was played by teams as if he is functionally immune to blitzes. Only the Chiefs were blitzed at a lower rate than the Patriots. The Titans blitzed five percent more than the NFL average, but got a below-average pressure rate when they blitzed. So, how likely are the Titans to be able to have a game where the defensive line carries them to pressures on three- or four-man rushes? Jurrell Casey, Derrick Morgan, and Brian Orakpo are going to need to win against New England's offensive line to blunt the disadvantages that this pass defense faces. Casey, in particular, will be important as an interior disruptor, which is traditionally the pressure that bothers Brady the most.
Special teams may be generally inconsistent from year to year, but the Patriots and Chiefs have been consistent exceptions over the past five years. New England only finished third in special teams DVOA this year, mostly because their punt coverage was average-ish and Steven Gostkowski missed a few kicks he would normally make. Special teams ace Matthew Slater has battled injury all season and will probably be as healthy as he has been all year in this one.
The Titans have no major weaknesses on special teams, but no real calling card either unless Adoree Jackson lines up for returns. (He did a few times against Tennessee.) Ryan Succop has been basically automatic inside the 40 for the last few years, and the Titans appear to have a lot of trust in him. With the weather expected to be pretty fair for New England in January, it wouldn't surprise us if Mularkey made some questionable tactical decisions riding with Succop just inside of New England's side of the field.
How you feel about the Titans in this game relies a lot on how much credit you are willing to give the Patriots for this season. New England certainly had more warts in this season than they normally have. In a vacuum, it's easy to look at what Tennessee does and see that it's a decent matchup for how the Pats play. If the running game can get going for the Titans, this has the potential to be a much closer game than the point spread indicates. In theory, the Titans have a good underdog game plan.
And then you see that the coaching matchup is Mike Mularkey versus Bill Belichick. That's what freezes me in my tracks from calling out the Patriots as especially vulnerable in this game. Because while I do think there are ways to beat the Patriots this year, it's hard to predict just how the Titans will do it if they are married to the traditional way Mularkey plays unless they average six yards per carry.
Jacksonville at Pittsburgh
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Believe it or not, but this is Pittsburgh's first playoff game off a bye week since the 2010 season. The Steelers made the Super Bowl that year, as they also did in 2008, when they won it all after a first-round bye. Pittsburgh has only lost three of its last 26 games in regulation, and they were all games against the Patriots and Jaguars. To make it to another Super Bowl, Pittsburgh is likely going to have to slay those dragons.
It is a challenge the Steelers are eager to accept. Ben Roethlisberger was clamoring for the Jaguars even before last weekend's slate started, because he knows the headline from the Week 5 meeting was his career-high five interceptions. The game was an oddity in many ways, as we'll get to later, but the undeniable facts are that it was Pittsburgh's worst game of the year and Jacksonville's only victory against a 10-win team in the last five seasons.
Jacksonville is in a rare position to pull off a road sweep, much like it did by beating the Steelers twice at Heinz Field in the 2007 season. Of course, these opportunities are rare since there aren't many instances of two playoff-bound teams meeting in the regular season with the road team winning the first matchup. The Jaguars are the 21st team since 2002 to win the first road matchup before a playoff rematch on the road. The road team is 10-10 at completing the sweep.
|NFL Playoff Rematches Where Road Team Attempted Road Sweep (Since 2002)|
|Home||Road||Year||Week||REG Final||Round||POST Final||Notes|
|IND||DEN||2003||16||L 31-17||AFC-WC||W 41-10|
|SD||NYJ||2004||2||L 34-28||AFC-WC||L 20-17 OT|
|SEA||STL||2004||5||L 33-27 OT||NFC-WC||L 27-20||Division foes|
|CIN||PIT||2005||7||L 27-13||AFC-WC||L 31-17||Division foes|
|PHI||NYG||2006||2||L 30-24 OT||NFC-WC||W 23-20||Division foes|
|NE||NYJ||2006||10||L 17-14||AFC-WC||W 37-16||Division foes|
|PIT||JAC||2007||15||L 29-22||AFC-WC||L 31-29|
|MIA||BAL||2008||7||L 27-13||AFC-WC||L 27-9|
|SD||IND||2008||12||L 23-20||AFC-WC||W 23-17 OT|
|NYG||PHI||2008||14||L 20-14||NFC-DIV||L 23-11||Division foes|
|IND||NYJ||2009||16||L 29-15||AFC-CG||W 30-17||IND: rested starters in 2H|
|Home||Road||Year||Week||REG Final||Round||POST Final||Notes|
|ARI||GB||2009||17||L 33-7||NFC-WC||W 51-45 OT||ARI: rested starters|
|PHI||GB||2010||1||L 27-20||NFC-WC||L 21-16|
|PIT||BAL||2010||4||L 17-14||AFC-DIV||W 31-24||Big Ben suspended for Week 4|
|CHI||SEA||2010||6||L 23-20||NFC-DIV||W 35-24|
|PIT||NYJ||2010||15||L 22-17||AFC-CG||W 24-19|
|DEN||SD||2013||15||L 27-20||AFC-DIV||W 24-17||Division foes|
|HOU||KC||2015||1||L 27-20||AFC-WC||L 30-0|
|MIN||SEA||2015||13||L 38-7||NFC-WC||L 10-9|
|CIN||PIT||2015||14||L 33-20||AFC-WC||L 18-16||Andy Dalton injured in Week 14|
In these last 20 matchups, the home team closed the scoring gap by an average of 10.6 points from the first matchup. Only four home teams saw the margin get worse, which is almost impossible in this case given that the Steelers lost by 21 points to the Jaguars in Week 5. It was only the second time in the Roethlisberger era (since 2004) that the Steelers lost a home game by more than 17 points. The worst loss was a 31-7 beating against the 2006 Ravens, another team with a superb defense and a "hide the quarterback" (old Steve McNair) offense.
This is one of the classic "offense vs. defense" matchups, and in the playoffs, there's not much of an advantage there. Since 1986, top-five DVOA offenses are 44-43 in the playoffs against top-five DVOA defenses. It sure helps to play at home, where the offensive team is 25-11 (.694). If we think of this as a strength vs. strength matchup where the units cancel each other out, then this game could very well be decided by what the Steelers' slumping defense does against a quarterback whose natural state looks like slumping.
WHEN THE JAGUARS HAVE THE BALL
If you watched the playoff game against Buffalo last week, then you know that Jacksonville has a pretty limited offense. Those days of winning a playoff game by throwing for fewer than 100 yards on 20-plus passes are pretty rare, but Blake Bortles pulled it off last week. Four wide receivers are on injured reserve, and Allen Hurns has missed six games and spent much of the others in the witness protection program. Keelan Cole led the team with 748 yards in the regular season, but didn't have a catch on his lone target against the Bills. They broke the glass on Marcedes Lewis in London when he caught three touchdowns against the Ravens, but he has mostly been an antique collecting dust this season. The running backs have had some receiving production, but Leonard Fournette only ranked 20th in receiving DYAR this season. No one's going to confuse him for Christian McCaffrey or Alvin Kamara.
Before we get down on Bortles, we should highlight the one area where he is statistically quite good. He has been an effective scrambler in this league. Bortles' average of 6.32 yards per carry is the fourth highest in NFL history (minimum 200 rushes), trailing only Michael Vick (7.00), Bobby Douglass (6.47), and Randall Cunningham (6.36). Quarterbacks are destined to dominate that list when you set the minimum attempt threshold so low, but it's still impressive for Bortles, who has also decreased his sack percentage each season. I would point out that a lack of winning in his career has helped keep the yards-per-carry average high, because you're not going to add many kneeldowns for negative yardage at the end of the game when you win 11 of your first 45 starts.
But Bortles can run, and run he did against the Bills for 88 yards, or one more than the 87 he passed for. Bortles may have to scramble a lot again this week, but the Jaguars would prefer to run the ball more conventionally as they did in Week 5 when they compiled a season-high 231 rushing yards. That's also the season-worst total for the Pittsburgh defense, which had some issues with long runs this year after backs broke into the second level (ranked 30th) and open field (also ranked 30th). Pittsburgh's tackling leaves a lot to be desired. The Steelers allowed a broken tackle on a league-high 14.1 percent of their plays according to Sports Info Solutions. Jacksonville may not be high on playmakers, but its skill players did break tackles on 12.1 percent of plays, ranked fifth in 2017.
The highlight of Jacksonville's rushing in Pittsburgh was Fournette's 90-yard touchdown romp to put the Steelers away with 1:47 left. Pittsburgh played eight defenders in the box (and all 11 players in tight) looking to stop the run, but safety Sean Davis took a terrible angle to the back, and Fournette had an easy run. That's a nice play that allowed Fournette to finish with a season-high 181 rushing yards, but is there anything about that play that is really significant or repeatable for this week's game? You're not going to get that defensive look in the first half or in a tight game. Also, Fournette could have gone down at any point after a 2-yard gain to run out the clock, but he went for the big score instead. So to say Fournette destroyed the Steelers' run defense that day would be rather misleading. Prior to that run, he had 27 carries for 91 yards and a touchdown. Maybe the Jaguars would sign up for a repeat of that, because it shows that they were able to stick with the run and got some production. However, just seven of those 27 carries were successful plays, a success rate of 26 percent. For reference, Detroit's Ameer Abdullah ranked dead last in rushing success rate this season at 35 percent, so 26 percent is really bad. Further, backup Chris Ivory hasn't been very efficient for Jacksonville. He runs hard, but he finished 44th out of 47 backs in success rate (38 percent).
Even though Jacksonville ran the ball more than any offense, Bortles used play-action passing 21 percent of the time, which ranked 11th this season according to Sports Info Solutions. It helped since the Jaguars averaged 9.0 yards per play (ranked fourth) with play-action compared to 6.0 yards per play (ranked 19th) without it. This could be a very good matchup for the Jaguars to use play-action, with the Steelers expecting to stop the run against a quarterback who threw 14 passes in the first matchup and didn't break 100 yards a week ago. Pittsburgh's defense also allowed 9.6 yards per play on play-action passes, which ranked 30th among defenses. On other plays, the Steelers were much stronger at 5.7 yards per play (ranked sixth).
Passing is still the key to attacking this Pittsburgh defense, which has fallen off dramatically since the bye week. Through Week 9, the Steelers ranked third in DVOA, but since Week 10, Pittsburgh fell to 21st in DVOA. That drop of 18 spots in the rankings ties Detroit for the largest fall in the second half of the season.
What could be causing this? Injuries and the schedule are often good answers. Cornerback Joe Haden was injured in Week 10 in Indianapolis and missed five games. He actually hasn't charted too well this year, and certainly not better than Artie Burns, who has had his own share of struggles in this defense. According to Sports Info Solutions, Haden allowed 7.3 yards per pass (ranked 52nd), compared to 6.5 yards per pass for Burns (ranked 30th). Burns had a non-contact knee injury in practice this week, but could play. Defensive end Stephon Tuitt left Wednesday's practice with his arm in a sling, which isn't great news.
The most devastating injury was obviously when linebacker Ryan Shazier injured his spine in Cincinnati in Week 13. He's one of the unit's very best players and his loss has had a big impact, but the team is also rallying to support him. He's not the best defender on the team, because that is still Cameron Heyward, who made his first All-Pro team with a career-high 12 sacks. Heyward didn't play in Week 17 when the Steelers allowed DeShone Kizer to post his first 300-yard passing game in a near-upset by Cleveland, but the rest of the starting defense did, and that's a troubling sign.
Early in the season, the Steelers feasted on Kizer in his first start (Week 1), and also got Case Keenum in his first start for the Vikings in Week 2. They lost to Mike Glennon (at Chicago) and Bortles despite little production from either of those passers. They also got to play against Andy Dalton and Joe Flacco, but both of those quarterbacks had it much better the second time around when the Bengals and Ravens forced the Steelers into wild comebacks in Weeks 13 and 14.
Starting with that Week 10 game in Indianapolis, the Steelers began surrendering big plays at an alarming rate. Since Week 10, Pittsburgh has allowed five touchdown passes with at least 30 air yards, or two more than any other defense. Overall, Pittsburgh has allowed eight touchdown passes that gained at least 30 yards since Week 10, or three more than any other defense. Oddly enough, the Jaguars allowed five of those plays down the stretch too, but Pittsburgh was doing this against the likes of Brett Hundley (Packers) and Jacoby Brissett (Colts).
In fact, the Steelers have allowed the following scoring totals in their last four home games: 28, 38, 27, and 24. It's one thing to give up 27 points to Tom Brady and the Patriots, but when Hundley, Flacco, and Kizer are averaging 30 points per game in your building, then something is rotten in the Keystone State.
If Bortles can get the Jaguars to 24 points in this game, then that should give them a great shot to get the road win. It sounds like a lot for a struggling offense, but we have seen similar or lesser quarterbacks do that to this defense. Bortles will just have to scramble to make a few things happen on third downs, and the Jaguars need to finish in the red zone, where the Steelers are 32nd in DVOA against the run.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
It is understandable why Roethlisberger would want a shot at redemption against Jacksonville's defense. Jacksonville won 30-9 in Week 5 after two of Roethlisberger's five interceptions were returned for touchdowns in the third quarter. The performance even led Roethlisberger to say, in jest, that "maybe I don't have it anymore."
Well, since that calamity, Roethlisberger proved he still has something in the tank. Since Week 6, Roethlisberger had 1,000 passing DYAR, which ranked third behind only Philip Rivers (1,144) and Tom Brady (1,062). He didn't play in Week 17, but Roethlisberger was the only quarterback to throw for at least 200 yards in every game he played this season (minimum six starts). He had his third 500-yard game against the Ravens in a memorable 39-38 comeback. From Week 6 on, Roethlisberger's numbers were back on point with 8.15 yards per attempt and 22 touchdowns with only seven interceptions. The Steelers' only loss was against New England after it looked like Roethlisberger threw the go-ahead touchdown pass to Jesse James. The fake-spike-to-interception was as regrettable as any pass in his career, but Roethlisberger only threw multiple interceptions in one other game this season besides The Five-Pick Day.
Despite the fierce pass rush from the Jaguars (55 sacks), Roethlisberger was actually protected fairly well in Week 5. He was sacked twice on 57 passes. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Roethlisberger had the lowest pressure rate (18.4 percent) of all quarterbacks this season, and his pressure rate against Jacksonville (15.8 percent) was his sixth-lowest game of the season. The Jaguars also blitzed him one time in the game, but it led to the first of those five interceptions, which was snatched by All-Pro corner Jalen Ramsey.
It's hard to throw five interceptions without catching some unlucky breaks. Both of the passes Jacksonville returned for touchdowns were tipped balls, and a third interception was thrown when Roethlisberger's receiver slipped. The Steelers can't live on third-and-17 prayers thrown into harm's way again in this matchup, but I think Roethlisberger had the right mindset about that performance. If you play long enough in the NFL, games like that one where the ball bounces terribly against you a few times are bound to happen. He just can't put the team in position for it to happen again against this opportunistic unit with All-Pros at different levels.
I wanted to fix some of the narrative behind the Week 5 matchup. One of the biggest complaints has been that the Steelers went needlessly one-dimensional. Le'Veon Bell only had 15 carries for 46 yards while Roethlisberger had 58 dropbacks. That's a bad mixture, but it should be noted that Bell had 10 catches (for only 46 yards), which can serve as an extension of the running game. So Bell still received his 25 touches, but he just wasn't very effective that day.
As for the ratio of runs to passes, the Steelers were balanced in the first half. Before the two-minute warning, the Steelers had 10 runs and 12 called passes. In the final two minutes of the half, of course you are going to see the hurry-up offense and mostly all passing. Roethlisberger threw 10 passes in the final two minutes, including a spike, while only handing off once. That skews the numbers. In the third quarter, the complaints pick up some support. After getting to a first-and-goal at the 5, Roethlisberger threw three passes and the Steelers kicked a field goal to take a 9-7 lead. Yes, they actually led before the back-to-back pick-sixes happened. Suddenly, it was 20-9, and it probably wasn't wise to abandon Bell, but his next two carries were gains of 1 and 2 yards. It was a lousy third quarter all around for the offense. Then, after Jacksonville's long drive to take a 23-9 lead with 6:43 left, it's natural to see a lot of passing again. The Steelers called 13 passes in a row to start the fourth quarter, and then just ran out the clock after it was 30-9 in the final two minutes. So you can nitpick over some calls in the third quarter, but I don't think the imbalance was all that unreasonable with the way the game was playing out.
This time around, the Steelers actually could learn something from Buffalo by taking it conservatively, especially early in the game. The Bills stuck around for 60 minutes because they did not make any real big mistakes against this defense. With Brown returning from a serious calf injury and the stars not playing since Christmas, there could be some early rust for Pittsburgh to shake off. It's easiest to shake that off with a good dose of Bell on the ground. That doesn't mean to avoid the pass entirely, as offensive coordinator Todd Haley has done in the past, but getting Bell going early should be paramount to a good day for Pittsburgh's offense. Showing that Brown can play at full strength might be an attractive option, but I'm not sure starting the game with a bomb for Brown against Ramsey would be a good idea. That happened in Week 5 and Brown caught the pass for a 49-yard gain. It was all downhill from there of course.
This isn't a matchup that requires a real deep dive into the season-long statistics. We know the Steelers bring arguably the most talented offense in the league with five Pro Bowlers into this matchup. Martavis Bryant can still make some freakishly athletic plays when given a chance. JuJu Smith-Schuster was phenomenal as a rookie, and actually finished first in DVOA among wide receivers. He has become more involved in the offense than he was back in Week 5, and Bell has also gotten stronger as the season has gone on. The only real question mark is how Brown will be after the calf injury, but let's not forget he had 10 catches for 157 yards in the first matchup. However, the Steelers have enough playmakers to attack the Jaguars without having to force the ball to Brown.
Patience and ball security are key for the Steelers this week. Don't give Bortles any short fields, and don't get greedy against this defense. The Jaguars are 30th against the run on first down and 24th on second down. They are also 29th against the run in the red zone. Pittsburgh must effectively use Bell on those early downs to keep third down favorable. If the Steelers can do that, then they should score enough points to win this game. Jacksonville has held nine opponents to 10 or fewer points, but that's another way of saying the Jaguars are 2-6 when they allow more than 10 points this year. I'll eat my keyboard if the Steelers score a net negative amount of points on offense again.
On what should be a very cold day in Pittsburgh, the Steelers have the advantage on special teams. Chris Boswell has been a fantastic kicker, making 35-of-38 field goals this season. Josh Lambo was shaky with the Chargers (go figure), but he has made 19-of-20 field goals for Jacksonville this year. He has 10 missed extra points in the last three years, and Heinz Field is still arguably the toughest kicking environment in the NFL.
The return units aren't much to write home about this year. Jaydon Mickens had a punt return touchdown for the Jaguars this year, while Corey Grant handles the kick returns. Pittsburgh has tried just about everyone at kick returns, including some wild adventures with Martavis Bryant. In Week 17, JuJu Smith-Schuster proved he can do just about anything by returning a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown against the Browns. The Steelers have three kick return touchdowns in the Roethlisberger era (since 2004), and he wasn't even active for two of those games to enjoy it. So that's not a likely play again this week. It would also seem reasonable that Eli Rogers should return punts instead of Antonio Brown in his return from injury. Brown averaged just 5.5 yards per punt return this season.
Simply put, Roethlisberger cannot screw this game up more than Bortles can for Jacksonville. That's what happened last time, and the Jaguars were glad to let the game script play out in hiding Bortles. They should not be able to do that this time around, and Bortles will have to make plays with his arm against this defense. That shouldn't just be ruled out given the struggles of the Pittsburgh defense down the stretch, but it doesn't look too optimistic if last week's game is any indication.
While Bortles must step up, Roethlisberger can't decide to play hero ball against the top pass defense in the league when the situation isn't even calling for it. An early interception and lead for Jacksonville could produce a snowball effect again.
In the divisional round, the team favored by 7 or 7.5 points is 20-5 straight up. Then again, the Steelers were favored by 7.5 in Week 5 too, and we know how that one turned out. If Roethlisberger wants to have the John Elway ending to his career (with Bell as his Terrell Davis), then he better hope this isn't the 1996 portion of that story. That year the Jaguars, fresh off a playoff win over the Bills, walked into Denver and stunned the heavily favored Broncos before nosediving in New England the following week.
The AFC sure isn't a conference for originality. Let's see if the Titans and Jaguars can write a new story.
DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You'll find it explained further here. Since DVOA measures ability to score, a negative DVOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.
Team DVOA numbers incorporate all plays; since passing is generally more efficient than rushing, the average for passing is actually above 0% while the average for rushing is below 0%.
SPECIAL TEAMS numbers are different; they represent value in points of extra field position gained compared to NFL average. Field goal rating represents points scored compared to average kicker at same distances. All special teams numbers are adjusted by weather and altitude; the total is then translated into DVOA so it can be compared to offense and defense. Those numbers are explained here.
Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) We also list red zone DVOA and WEIGHTED DVOA (WEI DVOA), which is based on a formula which drops the value of games early in the season to get a better idea of how teams are playing now (explained here).
Each team also gets a chart showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to total DVOA. In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team's trend for the season, using
a rolling average of the last five games. Note that even though the chart appears in the section for when each team has the ball, it represents total performance, not just offense.