STEELERS // JAGUARS OVERVIEW
This game was originally slated for Sunday Night Football — with the schedule-makers naturally expecting this to be an important mid-season tilt for each squad. But while the Steelers have won five in a row and sit alone atop the challenging AFC North, the Jaguars have lost five consecutive games, and they sit in last place in one of the NFL’s softer divisions.
Frustratingly for Jaguars fans, this defense has still allowed the third fewest yards per game in the NFL — and even with the sacks falling off (Jacksonville ranks 27th in sacks), and the turnovers falling off (Jacksonville has the sixth fewest takeaways in the league), and the offense giving the ball away 19 times (the fifth most giveaways in the league), this defense ranks 10th in fewest points allowed per game. Only six teams are allowing fewer fantasy points per game to quarterbacks. Only one team has given up fewer receptions to wide receivers. No team has allowed fewer yards or touchdowns to wideouts. The Jaguars have especially suffered from their inability to run the ball — and while that appears to finally be solved with Leonard Fournette back on the field, this may not be a great week for the Jags to shine in this area against a Pittsburgh team that has allowed the third fewest rushing yards in the league to running backs.
As for the Steelers: they have righted the ship on defense after a rough start to the year — now allowing the eighth fewest yards and the 13th fewest points per game, while tying for the league lead in sacks. On offense, Pittsburgh has been unsurprisingly spectacular, racking up the fourth most yards per game and the fourth most points per game in the league.
In spite of this game being played in Jacksonville, the Steelers have been installed as six point favorites, in a game with a healthy Over/Under of 47.0. This might be moving a bit too far into conjecture, but while the Jags have the talent to turn things around (it was no fluke last year that they reached the AFC Championship and should have reached the Super Bowl), “players’ coaches” tend to get more out of their players deep into a potentially lost season than hard-nosed coaches like Doug Marrone. While teams like the 49ers, Falcons, Seahawks, and Eagles are visibly continuing to play hard each week, teams like the Lions and Jags — teams with hard-driving coaches and a losing record — are starting to show lack of sharpness on Sundays. To be clear: every NFL player comes to play on game day; but without a strong week of preparation, it is difficult to generate results when the weekend arrives.
STEELERS PASS OFFENSE
Ten weeks into the season, there are only two teams in football that are allowing a lower catch rate than the Jaguars, and there are only two teams allowing a lower YAC/R rate as well. Only two teams have allowed fewer pass plays of 20+ yards than the Jags, and — as noted above — no team has allowed fewer yards or touchdowns to the wide receiver position. This week, the Jags return stud corner A.J. Bouye opposite Jalen Ramsey, creating a tough spot for Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Those are the names to highlight, of course, as these two receivers have combined for over 63% of the Steelers’ air yards to date, with AB ranked fifth in the NFL in targets per game, and with JuJu ranked 13th — essentially creating a situation in which each guy is seeing a WR1 workload. JuJu has fallen below eight targets only three times, while AB has fallen shy of eight targets twice.
Those lower-target games for these two have primarily come in lower-volume games for this passing attack as a whole, with Ben Roethlisberger notching pass attempt totals of 29 // 46 // 36 // 47 // 25 during this winning streak. The lower totals came in blowout wins, while the higher totals came in close contests. While the Jags are slightly easier to attack on the ground, the Steelers played this team twice last season, and Big Ben notched pass attempt numbers of 55 and 58 — topping 300 yards both times, while throwing for zero touchdowns and five interceptions in one contest and returning with five touchdowns and only one pick in the playoffs.
In those games — as Ben sometimes does in difficult matchups — Brown was the locked-in number one option, with 19 targets the first time around (10-157-0 receiving), and with 11 targets the next time (7-132-2). With the Steelers also boasting JuJu and James Conner (not to mention Vance McDonald), and with the Jags trusting Ramsey, we are unlikely to see much of an adjustment this week from the Jags. There is no guarantee that A) Ben plays well in an early start on the road (which has long been his kryptonite), or that B) Ben continues to lean on AB so heavily — but if the looks are there this week as they were in this matchup last year, there will be some sneaky upside to target in this spot.
JuJu has carried the lower-upside role in this offense, with an aDOT of 9.0 to AB’s 10.6, and with an 80% slot rate that is limiting his opportunities for big, explosive plays. With that said: the relative weakness of this pass defense is in the slot, giving JuJu a shot at a respectable PPR day, with “broken play upside” for a bigger box score.
McDonald rounds out the main pieces on this passing attack, with recent target counts of 2 // 8 // 3 // 6 // 4. The Jags got smoked by “number two tight end” Eric Ebron last week, but they are still allowing an average per-game line to the tight end position of four catches for just under 52 yards, with six touchdowns allowed on the year. This is a below-average matchup for tight ends — but with no clear and easy way to move the ball on this defense, there are opportunities for tight ends to pop. Last year in the playoffs, Vance went 10-112-0 on an incredible 16 targets vs the Jags. That game finished with a score of 45-42 (an unlikely setup, given how well the Steelers’ defense is playing and how poorly the Jags’ offense is playing), but Vance should at least be mentioned and considered.
STEELERS RUN OFFENSE
All year when talking about the Jags’ run defense, we have been removing the sick 68-yard run that Saquon Barkley had against them in Week 1, as that was a run only Saquon is really capable of — and outside of that one run, the Jags are allowing only 3.61 yards per carry to running backs, which would rank near the very top of the league. The Jags have also been stingy through the air against running backs (fifth fewest yards allowed), and they have been stellar at touchdown prevention, with only two teams allowing fewer scores to the position.
With that said: the Ravens have also allowed only five touchdowns to running backs (same as the Jags), and they have allowed the fewest receiving yards to the position, with a YPC allowed to running backs of 3.63. As I pointed out on the #OWSChatPod the last time the Steelers played the Ravens: James Conner has a big enough role that he still warrants tourney consideration in tough matchups. As we note all the time on the site: a tough matchup lowers the chances of a player hitting his ceiling, but it does not make it impossible for a player to hit his ceiling. The matchup gives Conner a broader range than normal, with a lower floor than he typically carries, but his huge role (recent touch counts of 25 // 23 // 29 // 31, before ducking out early last week with only 14 touches) still gives him an opportunity to hit.
JAGUARS PASS OFFENSE
While a deep aDOT typically benefits an offense, it is by design that the Steelers allow one of the deeper aDOTs in the league, as this team likes to take away short, easy throws while getting pressure on the quarterback — a recipe for success so far this year, as the Steelers are tied for the league lead in sacks, and they have offset the deep aDOT with a below-average catch rate allowed and the lowest YAC/R mark allowed in the league. Add it all together, and Pittsburgh has allowed the fourth lowest yards per pass attempt this year.
On the plus side for opposing QBs: the Steelers’ offense typically generates enough explosive plays for opponents to have to attack through the air — and so far this season, only one team is facing a higher opponent pass play rate than Pittsburgh, while only five teams have allowed more fantasy points to the quarterback position. The Steelers rank middle of the pack in passing yards allowed, but only seven teams have allowed more passing touchdowns.
All of this is noteworthy for a quarterback in Blake Bortles who can paint some ugly box score masterpieces when forced to attack. Through nine games, Bortles has three absolute duds and another disappointing game…but he also has four games of 320+ passing yards (three games of 376+ yards), with at least two touchdowns in each of those games. If the Steelers jump out to a big lead, it won’t be surprising to see Bortles trip and stumble toward another big weekend. As a bonus: Bortles quietly ranks third in the NFL in quarterback rushing yards, and the Steelers have allowed the ninth most rushing yards to the position.
While it is easy to see that Bortles could sneak his way to a strong game if the Steelers take a big, early lead, it is more difficult to pinpoint where that production is likeliest to come from. Donte Moncrief (61 out of 76 snaps last week), Dede Westbrook (60 snaps), and D.J. Chark (44 snaps) are all clearly ahead of Keelan Cole at this point (Cole played only 22 snaps last week and 15 snaps in the Jags’ previous game), but targets have remained unpredictable. Across their last three games, these three guys have looked like this:
:: Moncrief — 10 // 7 // 4
:: Dede — 4 // 6 // 10
:: Chark — 7 // 5 // 2
In theory, the Steelers are most attackable in the slot (where Dede plays 92% of his snaps), but after getting smoked by Jarvis Landry, Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, and John Brown to begin the year, this team has not allowed a single receiver to top even 82 yards across their last five contests — including games against Julio Jones, A.J. Green, and Tyler Boyd. The Jags’ pass game pieces are “guess and hope” plays.
Among sneaky “floor plays,” James O’Shaughnessy should be mentioned, as he returned last week to see six targets, after seeing target counts of 3 // 6 // 4 before missing a few weeks. The Steelers have faced the third most targets to tight ends and allowed the third most receptions, while giving up the eighth most yards. O’Shaughnessy played 53 out of 76 snaps in last week’s game (69.7%) — and while he doesn’t provide much upside outside of an unpredictable touchdown, he does provide a lot of savings on DraftKings and FantasyDraft, and a respectable score is not outside the realm of realistic possibilities.
JAGUARS RUN OFFENSE
The Steelers have been a middling unit against the run this year — ranking just better than average in yards allowed per carry — but because of what the Steelers’ offense is perpetually able to do, volume has been a concern against this squad, with Pittsburgh lowering the league-average rush attempts per game by almost 16%, and with only two teams allowing fewer rushing yards to running backs.
In better news for Fournette: he played 39 out of 76 snaps last week (51.3%) in his first game back, and he touched the ball a whopping 29 times on those 39 snaps — speaking to the Jags’ desire to keep him heavily involved.
While it may be challenging for the Jags to truly control this game, we should realize that Jacksonville was the run-heaviest team in football last season with Fournette healthy, and they threw the ball on only 53.4% of their plays last week in a loss (53.4% would rank 30th in the league). Fournette should rise up to around a 60% or 70% snap rate this week, and it won’t be surprising if he touches the ball 22+ times again, creating sneaky opportunity for him to post a solid box score.
Nothing on the Steelers jumps out to me for Main Builds — especially with several high-priced wide receivers and mid-to-high-priced running backs in better spots than AB or Conner; but given the aggressive nature of this Steelers offense, it is likely that they score at least three touchdowns, and it is likely that at least one of AB // JuJu // Vance // Conner posts a really strong game. All four of these guys are worth considering in large-field tourneys. As always: the time to pay up for a guy in a difficult matchup is when that guy still carries slate-winning upside. It’s not “likely,” but it would also not be shocking if AB or Conner posts the highest score at their position, and each should carry low ownership. JuJu and Vance are less likely to become “the top piece at their position,” but each guy still carries viable tourney-winning upside in this spot. This is an offense to consider taking some shots on if multi-entering this week.
I’ll have interest in Bortles in large-field tourneys — especially on any multi-entry rosters where I take a shot on AB, as a big game from the Steelers’ offense could lead to a big game from Bortles in return. I doubt I’ll try to guess on his wide receivers, as things have just been too unpredictable in that area, but depending on how the tight end position shapes up this week (and how value shapes up), I will have some interest in O’Shaughnessy as a salary-saver.
I do like Fournette this week at running back, though his price shot up surprisingly quickly on all three sites — likely making him more “under-owned tourney play with upside” than “core piece to consider.”