Stillers vs. Jags Preview (Game #9)
The 3-5 Jacksonville Jaguars come north to Pittsburgh this Sunday in a matchup of AFC Central foes. In past years, this game has almost always had some heavy playoff implications, but this year's tussle has lost some of its luster due to the raggedy 5-game losing streak suffered by the Jags earlier in the season. The Stillers, of course, are well within the playoff hunt, and are on the prowl in hopes of securing a high playoff spot during the second half of the season. Although not in the playoff hunt, rest assured that Coughlin and the Jaguars will love nothing more than to play spoiler and hand the Stillers a critical division loss.
* When the Jags have the ball, they�ll bring an offense that is a bit less than what the Stillers faced on opening. Star RB Fred Taylor, who gouged the Stillers for 234 yards in the loss at 3 Rivers last season, is hobbled by a torn groin tendon and likely will not play. Even if he does, his durability and stamina will be a problem for the Jags. RB Stacy Mack is an adequate backup, but simply not in the same class as Taylor and not the homerun threat that Taylor is. Frank Moreau will probably also see some work at RB. QB Mark Brunell has also been nagged by some small injuries, although he's having a very solid season. Of course, it's always nice being able to throw to all-world WR Jimmy Smith, as well as over-rated but solid WR Keenan McCardell. The O-line, once a dominant strength of the Jags, has been frayed by free agency and injury. LT Tony Boselli is out for the season with shoulder surgery (maybe he shouldn't wear those tiny QB shoulder pads after all�.), which takes away the main anchor of the Jaguar line. And their overall offense, which is ranked 2nd-to-last in the AFC, has suffered immeasurably due to Boselli's injury. Todd Fordham will start at LT, with highly touted rookie Maurice Williams starting at RT. Ex-Jet Kyle Brady, who hurt the Stillers with a couple clutch grabs in week 1, will start at TE. The key matchup will be the Jaguar receivers against the Blitzburgh defense. Without Taylor and Boselli, the Jags won't be able to piece together any kind of running game against this defense. This leaves the game in the hands of Brunell, Smith and McCardell, a trio that had the big 2nd quarter in week 1 and carried the Jags to victory. But this is a different Stiller defense, playing with much more confidence. DeWayne and Chad will have to minimize the damage by the WRs, and the front 7 is going to have to put heat and harassment -- something that rarely happened in week 1's timid gameplan -- in order to disrupt Brunell's passing. The Stillers have faced a host of weak, inept offense the past two months, ranging from Buffalo to KC to Tampa to Tennessee, Baltimore, and Cleveland. Sunday is a chance for the Stillers "D" to go against one of the league's most dangerous offenses, and the D's ability to dominate or at least minimize damage will go a long way in determining the winner.
* When the Stillers have the ball, they hope to have at least a bit more success than they had in week 1 down in Jax, when the entire offense was slovenly and disoriented. Back on that miserable day, Bettis rushed only 12 times for 28 yards, and the offense never once looked in synch. By now, however, the offense has rounded into a pretty good midseason form. Bettis has been rumbling for good yardage, aided by an O-line that has dominated some pretty solid front 7's in Tamp and Balt. The Jaguar defense has pretty much lingered around mid-to-low pack of the AFC, although they have several solid players. Up front, Wynn, Payne, Walker and Brackens are a formidable front four that combines veteran savvy with good quickness and toughness. Ex-Stiller Hardy Nickerson roams the middle of the LBs, with the solid Kevin Hardy at one OLB. The secondary has some talent, but has not shut down the opponents' passing game in '01. Bryant and Beasley are pretty solid at the corner, and Donavan Darius hits like a mack truck at SS. DC Gary Moeller prefers a soft coverage scheme, and the result has been too much yardage given up far too easily on the underneath stuff. The key matchup will be the Jaguar front 7 versus the Stillers ground game. Jax won this battle in round 1 fairly handily in week 1, and that allowed them to dictate the flow of the game. Because of Bettis' success in OT last week, look for Cowher and Mularkey to take a "back to basics" approach with a steady diet of smashmouth football. Of course, even if the Stiler move the ball "between the 20's", they still must find a way against Jax to punch the ball into the EZ once or preferably 2-3 times.
* Spec Teams: Last week, the Stillers special teams distinguished themselves by not allowing any blocked FGs, blocked punts, or hideous fumbles. It's not much, but it was a nice start to recovery. The Jax spec teams, while maybe not saddled with the plethora of big negative plays, are fairly similar to Pgh's�..ok punt returns, weak KO returns. Stiller PK Kris Brown seems to be back in the groove, which is essential for this soccer team. PK Mike Hollis is a reliable placekicker for the Jags.
* Synopsis: The last two meetings against the Faguars have been nightmares that most Stiller fans would like to forget. The Jags came to 3 Rivers last Nov. in a must-win setting for the Stillers, and literally ran the Stillers out of their own stadium with an embarrassing thumping. Then, on opening day this year, the Jags gave the Stillers a rude welcome down in Florida with a thorough whipping. But without Fred Taylor, the Jags lack the key element they need to mount a balanced attack. The time is ripe for some payback. And the Stillers cannot afford to allow a chance like this -- padding their division record with a home game against a beaten-up opponent -- to slip through their fingers. The Jags have often been a thorn in the side of the Stillers, but the Stillers release a lot of pent up frustration with a sound 23-13 whipping of the Jag-warrrs.