PITTSBURGH (AP) — Mike Tomlin likens each Pittsburgh Steelers opponent to “nameless gray faces,” the coach’s way of telling his players to treat every game the same regardless of who happens to be across the line of scrimmage.
Not all gray faces, however, are created equal. And they’re not all nameless either.
When Pittsburgh (3-1) welcomes Jacksonville (2-2) to Heinz Field on Sunday, the league’s second-ranked defense doesn’t need to be told about the big kid in the Jaguars’ backfield. The Steelers are well aware of the 240 pounds of controlled fury rookie running back Leonard Fournette brings each time the ball is in his hands. Last they checked, they’re not exactly small themselves.
“We’re 6-6, 300 pounds, you think we’re not big dudes?” defensive end Stephon Tuitt said. “We’re big, athletic fast dudes. We know he is going to be at the same time. This is the type of matchup that we like, and they’re going to know that this Sunday.”
Funny, it didn’t look like Pittsburgh enjoyed itself the last time it faced a power run team. The Bears plowed through the Steelers for 222 yards in an overtime upset two weeks ago. Though Pittsburgh held Baltimore in check in a one-sided victory in Week 4, the Ravens ran the ball only 15 times. Jacksonville might top that number in the first quarter if the quartet led by Fournette gets going.
“We try to think of it almost like a Chicago redo because they have a myriad of backs and because they rely on the run,” Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward said. “We have a chance to test ourselves again.”
And the Jaguars have a chance to prove the promise they’ve shown during their competent start isn’t a mirage. Jacksonville squandered a shot at generating real early-season momentum when it fell in overtime to the New York Jets last week, though it’s hard to blame Fournette, who racked up 145 combined yards and scored for the fourth straight game.
The only thing Fournette hasn’t done is showcase the breakaway speed that comes along with all that brawn. His longest run is 17 yards. The Steelers have given up at least one run of 25 yards or more in each of their last three games.
“You’re kind of waiting for it because every time, it seems like it’s right there,” Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles said. “It’s almost an explosive. He’s a tackle or a shoelace away from busting a big one. A block here or there away. I think it’ll come.”
Some other things to look for as Pittsburgh attempts to avoid a setback ahead of a trip to Kansas City for a playoff rematch. The Jaguars keep searching for legitimacy.
LONG ROAD HOME: Jacksonville is playing its third consecutive game away from EverBank Field, though technically the first leg was a “home” game in London against Baltimore. The Jaguars have already traveled more mileage in 2017 than the Steelers will all season.
“You want to play at home,” Bortles said. “It’s more convenient to play at home. You want to play in front of your fans in your stadium, but it’s part of it. Nobody has control over our schedule or where we play. It’s just something we have to be able to deal with.”
DING DONG: Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell appeared to finally shake off the rust against the Ravens, piling up 186 yards from scrimmage as Pittsburgh posted its most lopsided victory in Baltimore since the Ravens bolted from Cleveland more than two decades ago. He’ll face a Jacksonville defense that is first against the pass, though maybe that’s because opponents are averaging 4.8 yards per carry. Bell also had a season-high 39 touches in Baltimore, though Tomlin isn’t overly concerned about overworking Bell.
“His workload is something that I continually monitor,” Tomlin said. “And when we choose to utilize him in the ways that we did last week, it’s a conscious decision. So, I’m not worried about naysayers and things of that nature.”
ALL BETTER?: The Steelers spent the early portion of the week dealing with another dash of drama provided by All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown, who lit up a cooler on the sideline early in the victory over the Ravens when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger failed to see Brown running wide open downfield. Though Roethlisberger and Tomlin chastised Brown for his antics, leading Brown to apologize, for most of Brown’s teammates it was business as usual.
“There’s nothing more to say,” Heyward said. “He got mad one play. So what?”
BALL HOGS: Jacksonville’s best chance to keep Pittsburgh’s offense in check is holding onto the ball, something that’s been an issue for the Jaguars. Jacksonville is 29th in the league in third-down conversions (31 percent). The Steelers aren’t much better (25th at 36 percent), but Pittsburgh has shown the big-play ability to snap out of offensive lulls quickly. The Jaguars, meanwhile, remain a work in progress.
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