Steelers expect Jags to run right at them
Technically it went into the scorebook as a 2-yard touchdown run.
The highly GIF-able reality told a more compelling story, one that served as the symbolic launch point for both the Jacksonville Jaguars’ breakout season and the rookie running back at the center of it all.
The Jaguars were driving deep in Pittsburgh territory early in the second quarter at Heinz Field on Oct. 8.
On second down at the Steelers 2, Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles took the snap and stuffed the ball in Leonard Fournette’s gut.
Fournette took two steps then vaulted into the air at the 4.
All 240 pounds of him sailed over the line of scrimmage and landed untouched at least a yard into the end zone.
Just like that, Fournette and the Jaguars arrived, making the Steelers believers in the process.
“Fournette is good,” said Steelers linebacker Bud Dupree, who then immediately corrected himself. “Fournette is great.”
Yet for all of Fournette’s breathtaking feats of athleticism — including a 90-yard bolt to the end zone that served as the exclamation point on Jacksonville’s 30-9 victory three months ago, he’s just part of a group that led the NFL in rushing.
While Pittsburgh (13-3) will be focusing on Fournette’s No. 27 wherever he goes on Sunday when the Steelers host the Jaguars (11-6) in the divisional round of the playoffs, they’re well aware they can’t take the other players in the backfield lightly.
Sure, Fournette finished with 1,040 yards rushing and nine touchdowns, Chris Ivory, T.J. Yeldon, Corey Grant and Bortles combined for 1,205 yards and seven touchdowns. Even fullback Tommy Bohanon found the end zone twice.
“Minimizing their run is more than just focusing on Leonard,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday.
“Obviously, we have to do a good job there, but we have to do a good job for 60 minutes and in all areas. We want to minimize the ways that they run the ball and the ways that they possess the ball and control the game.”
The Jaguars finished with 231 yards rushing in the first meeting, the most allowed by the Steelers this season.
While Fournette’s late burst skewed the numbers a bit, it was a run made possible by the 36 attempts that came before it as Jacksonville simply wore down Pittsburgh until the Steelers yielded.
More of the same likely arrives this weekend. The Jaguars are hardly apologetic for their approach, one that emphasizes controlling the clock and the tempo.
It’s a formula that helped them reach the playoffs for the first time in a decade and one they used effectively — if not exactly glamorously — while outlasting Buffalo in the wild-card round last weekend.
“They stick to the run the whole game,” Pittsburgh rookie outside linebacker T.J. Watt said. “It’s not like we’re going to shut it down for a couple plays and they’re going to pass the rest of the game. We have to stop it through all four quarters.”
Bortles included. For all of his occasional issues throwing the ball, Bortles can make up for it with his legs.
He actually ran for more yards (88) than he passed for (87) against the Bills. He had four runs of 10 yards or more. He only had five passes that traveled at least that distance.
“People talk about his skillset or whatever,” Steelers safety Mike Mitchell said. “At the end of the day they won the game. It’s dangerous, we respect it. Our job is to be able to cover.”
And tackle. And not get so caught up in trying to get to Bortles that they let him squirt loose, a bad habit Pittsburgh picked up at times this season even as it led the NFL and set a franchise record with 55 sacks, one more than the Jaguars.
“You’ve got to be controlled,” Dupree said. You’ve got to stay in your rush lane. You don’t want him to hurt you with his feet. It might be third-and-12, he might get 10 yards. You don’t want that to happen. You’ve got to make sure you’re constricting the rush lane, pushing the pocket. Just get him to step up in the pocket, we can chase him down then.”
And, the Steelers hope, run all the way to the AFC title game in the process.