Thursday, December 13, 2007
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Nick Eason and Travis Kirschke know the score. New guys get tested first. Forget that there's nothing really new about the two veteran defensive ends in the NFL. The well-heeled Jacksonville running game will target them Sunday.
"Oh, no question," said Eason, who this time last season played for the Cleveland Browns. "We would do the same thing if they had a guy who was a rookie.
"We watch tape; anytime you have a guy who really ... does not have a lot of playing experience, he's a target. Whether he's a defensive back, offensive lineman, quarterback, etc., you're going to run at him or throw at him extra to see what he's got."
With left defensive end Aaron Smith done for the season with a biceps injury that is scheduled for surgery tomorrow, the No. 2 run defense in the NFL suddenly takes on a different look. Kirschke and Eason will take turns trying to replace Smith in the regular 3-4 defense and backup nose tackle Chris Hoke may get more playing time inside in the nickel and dime defenses.
Kirschke likely will start and he, too, expects to be targeted Sunday afternoon in Heinz Field.
"I'm sure they will. I'm planning on it," said Kirschke, 33 and in his fourth season as a backup end with the Steelers. "They're a great running team. They're going to run the ball whether I'm there or not; that's their game plan, that's what they do and they do it well."
The Steelers' record against the run is legendary. They have allowed but two 100-yard rushers in the past 63 games -- Thomas Jones of the New York Jets ended their 34-game streak without one last month.
Yet Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew present a formidable task, especially without the run-stuffing Aaron Smith.
Taylor ran for more yards in one game against the Steelers than anyone in their 75-season history when he galloped for 234 on 30 carries in Three Rivers Stadium Nov. 19, 2000. It is the only time in his 45 100-yard games he has done it against the Steelers, but with 10,457 career yards, he is second among active backs in the NFL, and he has a good 4.6-yard average per carry to go with it.
"They're the best, as far as running backs," Steelers linebacker Larry Foote said. "They have the best running back, I think -- Fred Taylor."
Taylor, 31, still runs strong in his 10th NFL season. He is tied for fifth in the NFL with 944 yards, and his 4.9-yard average per carry is the best among the top 13 runners in the conference.
The Jaguars split the carries between Taylor (191) and Jones-Drew (145), who has 655 yards, a 4.5-yard average and leads Jacksonville with eight touchdown runs.
"I'd say they're pretty similar, except Drew is a little more downhill slicer and he'll hit you, where the other back will jump side to side, make you miss and take off," Kirschke said.
At 5 feet 7, 208 pounds, the compact Jones-Drew also can be difficult to pick out in a crowd.
"You kind of lose him in the pack, and he keeps driving and working and then pops out," Kirschke said. "We'll have to rally to the ball."
The Jaguars and Steelers have been mirror images of each other for years, since Jacksonville entered the NFL in 1995 with the idea of building a team in the image of the Steelers.
So Sunday, the Jaguars come in with the No. 2 running offense, the Steelers No. 3. The Steelers come in with the No. 2 defense against the run and the Jaguars are No. 5 defending it.
"They're tough," Foote said. "What makes them the best, they're not going to quit at it. Teams, a lot of times, they quit. They're not going to quit."
The Steelers will, apparently, have one advantage they have not had the past two weeks with the return of strong safety Troy Polamalu, who missed the past three games with a knee injury. But even Polamalu figures Smith's absence is more hurtful than most.
"I don't think anybody's irreplaceable," Polamalu began, "but he's probably the hardest guy for us to replace. I know this is definitely going to make a lot of offensive linemen very happy."