PITTSBURGH – The Jacksonville Jaguars will bring a rookie quarterback and a 1-4 record to Heinz Field Sunday, but they’ll also bring two players who could be Kryptonite for the 3-2 Steelers.
Rashean Mathis, of course, just might be the all-time greatest cornerback to play against the Steelers – or at least the greatest of this century.
The other is Maurice Jones-Drew, the 5-foot-7 fireplug who killed the Steelers in the 2007 playoffs and who’s been selected to Pro Bowls the last two seasons.
Other than that, the Steelers should have little to fear – except that they’ll be missing five starters and two key backups to injuries and their quarterback is still playing with a clown shoe to provide comfort for his sprained foot.
Perhaps it’s all added up to put an edge into Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who hung up on Jacksonville reporters this week when they asked too many questions about the 2007 playoff game.
“We’re talking about something that happened a couple years ago,” said Steelers receiver Hines Ward. “I understand guys want to get stories, but it’s just a story to write.”
But it seems to be a story that re-writes itself.
The Jaguars have won four of the last five meetings against the Steelers, and the last three at Heinz Field. Mathis has been a common denominator throughout.
Drafted in the second round in 2003 out of Bethune-Cookman after intercepting an NCAA record 14 passes as a senior (31 college career), Mathis has 31 career NFL interceptions (including postseason) and six of those are against the Steelers, five off the arm of Ben Roethlisberger.
Every one of Mathis’s three NFL touchdowns have been scored against the Steelers.
In 2005, his 41-yard interception return for a touchdown won the game in overtime. He also partially blocked a punt.
In 2006, his only Pro Bowl season, Mathis intercepted two passes in the fourth quarter of a 9-0 win.
In the 2007 playoffs, Mathis’s 63-yard interception return for a touchdown gave the Jaguars a 14-7 second-quarter lead. Another second-quarter interception set the Jaguars up to take a 21-7 lead.
Mathis also returned an interception 72 yards for a touchdown to start the 2008 game.
Roethlisberger was asked this week about the reason for Mathis’s success.
“I don’t know,” Roethlisberger said. “The guy’s been in the league for a while, so I think he spends a lot of time studying, and maybe reading me. So I have to do a good job this week of making sure that I study and read him.”
Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians believes Mathis will be singled up on Steelers receiver Mike Wallace.
Mainly a zone corner, Mathis had success this season singled up against Carolina’s Steve Smith, but Cincinnati’s A.J. Green burned him for a critical touchdown last week on a third-and-17 play.
Defensively, the Jaguars are eighth in the NFL in yards allowed. Mathis and free-agent acquisition Paul Posluszny are the leaders of the unit. Poslusnzy, of Hopewell High and Penn State, leads the Jaguars with 61 tackles from his middle linebacker spot.
“He’s in the perfect defense for him,” said Arians. “He’s a run-chase linebacker and they’re spilling a lot of things to him and he’s running, being in a lot of plays, and he’s staying healthy.”
Offensively for the Jaguars, it’s all Jones-Drew. With rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert struggling with a 49.5 completion percentage, defenses have been allowed to focus on Jones-Drew. He’s responded with 476 yards rushing to rank fourth in the NFL. He’s averaging 5.0 per carry.
“He’ll have the ball about 50 percent of the time,” Steelers linebacker James Farrior said of a player who’s accounted for 38 percent of the Jaguars’ 32nd-ranked offense this season.
Unlike Mathis, Jones-Drew doesn’t have a long resume against the Steelers, but in the 2007 playoff game he had 198 all-purpose yards. His 96-yard kickoff return set up one touchdown and he scored two others, one on a 43-yard reception.
Then again, that was four years ago.