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With an injury report that seems to be growing each week, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ physical style of football appears to be catching up to them.
They’ve had a tough enough time catching up to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
After losing twice at home to the Jaguars last season - including a playoff defeat - Pittsburgh will have revenge on its mind in Jacksonville on Sunday night as it looks to avoid a fifth straight loss to its former AFC Central rival.
Mike Tomlin’s team started 9-3 in his first year as coach in 2007, but the Steelers (3-1) stumbled at season’s end, losing four of their final five games.
The Jaguars handed Pittsburgh two of those defeats, both at Heinz Field. Jacksonville jumped out to big leads before holding on in the fourth quarter to extend their winning streak over the Steelers to four straight, the second victory being a 31-29 win in the wild-card round Jan. 5.
“We have some recent history with those guys,” Tomlin said this week. “They are a very good football team.”
Jacksonville (2-2) sacked Ben Roethlisberger 11 times in the two games last season, and the Steelers have struggled to protect their quarterback again in 2008. Roethlisberger has been sacked 15 times through four games - most in the AFC - and Pittsburgh’s already shaky offensive line took another hit when it lost guard Kendall Simmons for the season during Monday night’s 23-20 overtime win over Baltimore.
The Steelers overcame a 10-point deficit to beat the Ravens, but also lost rookie running back Rashard Mendenhall for the season with a fractured shoulder. Mendenhall was filling in for Willie Parker, who sat out with a knee sprain.
“Injuries always happen at a bad time,” Tomlin said. “They’re part of the game. I’m not going to complain about them and go `Woe is me.’”
Jacksonville - 12-8 all-time against Pittsburgh dating to their AFC Central rivalry from 1995-2001 - can certainly relate to the Steelers’ growing injury concerns. The Jaguars have already lost two starting offensive linemen for the season in addition to backup Richard Collier, who was shot and paralyzed just before the team’s opener.
Those two were missed as the Texans’ Matt Schaub threw for 307 yards and three touchdowns, but David Garrard’s solid play kept Jacksonville in the game and the Jaguars escaped with a 30-27 overtime win.
Garrard had 236 yards passing and a team-high 41 yards rushing, including the go-ahead touchdown late in regulation.
“Thank God we have a quarterback like David who can do it with his arms and legs,” running back Fred Taylor said.
The Steelers are very aware of what Garrard can do with his legs. He led the team with 58 yards rushing in the playoff win in January, scrambling for 32 yards on a crucial fourth down on the Jaguars’ winning drive.
“If you put the ball in his hands at the end of football games, those guys have a good chance of winning,” Tomlin said.
Running against Pittsburgh won’t be easy, though. The Steelers are fourth in the NFL in rush defense at 74.0 yards per game and second in total defense at 236.3.
Jacksonville was the league’s second-best rushing team a year ago, averaging 149.4 yards behind Taylor, Garrard and Maurice Jones-Drew. They’ve gotten the running game going in wins the past two weeks, gaining 187.5 ypg after averaging 65.5 in their opening losses.
With all the blitzes the Steelers are known to bring, Garrard knows the Jaguars will have to keep their offense balanced.
“They have so many (different looks),” Garrard said. “We’ve seen them all. You just never know who they’re blitzing and what kind of coverage you’re going to get behind it. That’s what makes playing against them so difficult.”
The Steelers re-signed running backs Gary Russell and Najeh Davenport this week to fill the void left by the injuries to Parker and Mendenhall. Third-down back Mewelde Moore will start and fullback Carey Davis is questionable, leaving the onus on Roethlisberger to make plays.
Pittsburgh didn’t make many in the first half against Baltimore. The Steelers only came back after Roethlisberger pleaded with Tomlin to run a no-huddle offense - which the quarterback also employed to rally the Steelers from 18 points down in the wild-card game against the Jaguars.
Tomlin said he won’t hesitate to use it this week despite being on the road.
“Ben has always been an advocate of no-huddle,” Tomlin said. “He likes to get the keys to the car.”
The Steelers haven’t won a conference road game outside the AFC North since Oct. 10, 2005 - a span of seven games.
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