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Considering how it played out the first time, no one expects any guarantees out of the Pittsburgh Steelers this week with the Jacksonville Jaguars coming to town. The way Pittsburgh has played at Heinz Field, though, a little confidence is warranted.
The Steelers (9-4) look to complete their home schedule 8-0 and stay atop the AFC North on Sunday when they host the Jaguars, who are looking to solidify their standing in the wild-card race.
Safety Anthony Smith guaranteed Pittsburgh would go into New England and knock off the undefeated Patriots last Sunday, and both Smith and his team were burned by the remark. Smith was out of position on two long touchdown passes and the Steelers didn’t score after halftime in a 34-13 loss.
“If that (game) is the measuring stick, we’re not close,” coach Mike Tomlin said.
Pittsburgh played the Patriots tough in the first half, but couldn’t get anything going offensively in the final 30 minutes. Smith was taunted while on the sidelines with chants of “guar-an-tee, guar-an-tee” from the New England crowd.
Though their record still has them in a good spot, Smith’s teammates realize that nothing is certain unless the Steelers play better.
“We’re not guaranteed into the playoffs right now, so we need to take care of business (against Jacksonville),” linebacker Larry Foote said.
The Steelers can change that this week, as they clinch a playoff berth with a win, and wrap up the division with a victory and a Cleveland loss.
Pittsburgh has dealt with some significant injuries this season, as safety Troy Polamalu and receivers Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes have missed time. Ward is healthy now, Holmes returned last week after missing two games and Polamalu could play against Jacksonville.
While those players are getting healthy, though, the Steelers saw defensive end Aaron Smith suffer a season-ending injury to when he tore his biceps against New England.
Also banged up is Ben Roethlisberger, who came out of the Patriots game with a sore shoulder. It’s not expected to affect the fourth-year quarterback, who is having his best season. His career-high 26 touchdown passes tie him for fourth-most in the NFL, and his quarterback rating of 101.4 is also fourth. However, he’s been sacked 38 times - second-most in the league.
Pittsburgh leads the league in scoring defense (14.5 points per game) and total defense (245.5 yards per game), but the Smith-less unit will be in for a tough test against Jacksonville, which ranks second in the NFL in rushing (143.8 ypg) thanks to the duo of Fred Taylor and the versatile Maurice Jones-Drew.
“They are very different runners but great in their own right,” Tomlin said. “They do have the added dimension of running a fresh guy at you when you see two.”
The Steelers are just 8-10 against Jacksonville since the Jaguars entered the league in 1995, and though they’re 5-3 in Pittsburgh, they’ve dropped three of the last four meetings with Jacksonville there. The teams’ most recent matchup was last Sept. 18 in Jacksonville, which the Steelers lost 9-0.
The Jaguars are all but eliminated from the AFC South race, trailing Indianapolis by two games and having been swept by the Colts. Jacksonville, though, can clinch a wild-card spot with a win and a Tennessee loss, and depending on how the seeding plays out, could be back at Heinz Field in January for a playoff game.
Even though their typical home winter weather is 75 and sunny rather than cold and blustery, the Jaguars insist they won’t be affected by the conditions in Pittsburgh.
“We’ve never shied away from the cold,” Taylor said.
Weather has played a major role in two Steelers’ home games. Rain soaked Heinz Field during their 38-7 win over Baltimore on Nov. 5, and forced a 30-minute delay before Pittsburgh’s waterlogged 3-0 victory over the Dolphins on Nov. 26.
The early forecast for Sunday calls for 30-degree temperatures with a chance of snow.
Taylor should be happy to be playing in Pittsburgh. That’s where he had his best game as a pro - a 234-yard effort with three touchdowns on Nov. 19, 2000. And though Anthony Smith hasn’t made any lofty predictions like he did against New England, Taylor would welcome some chatter from the Steelers’ defense.
“When you play a team like Pittsburgh with the history and tradition, some games you feel a little more energized and focused. The more they talk the more inspired I become,” Taylor told the team’s official Web site.
Taylor and Jones-Drew have found it easier to run with strong-armed David Garrard playing so effectively at quarterback. In his first season as the team’s full-time starter, Garrard has thrown for 2,113 yards and 13 touchdowns with just one interception in the 10 games he’s played. His 103.3 quarterback rating is third in the NFL.
Garrard threw for 230 yards and two scores in Jacksonville’s 37-6 win over Carolina on Sunday, though the highlight of that game was Taylor’s franchise-record 80-yard touchdown run.
Like Pittsburgh, Jacksonville will be missing a key defender for the rest of the season. Tackle Marcus Stroud, who was playing his first game since a four-game suspension for using banned supplements, reinjured his ankle against Carolina and was placed on injured reserve Wednesday.
“It’s a shame to lose him, but that’s the situation,” Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio said. “Like we’ve done all year when we lose people, we’ll do the best we can to have other people step up, step in and play well, and we expect to continue to play good football.”
Even without Stroud, Jacksonville’s defense has been outstanding. Though the Jaguars are only 17th in the league in total defense (330.7 ypg), they’re sixth in scoring defense (17.6 ppg) and have 26 takeaways.
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