Perhaps the most disturbing aspect in the two losses to the Jaguars last year was the way Jacksonville manhandled the Steelers, particularly in their first match up. The Steeler's made a better showing for themselves in the second game, but the Jaguars dominated the key physical battles when the outcome of the playoff game hung in the balance.
Sunday night the Steelers wrote a far different story. While it was a see-saw battle from start to finish, the Steelers showed their grit, matching the Jaguars hit for hit, and ultimately came out on top.
With Pittsburgh down to its fourth running back, Ben Roethlisberger was obviously going to carry the bulk of team’s offense on his shoulders. The latent danger was not that he wasn’t up to the task, but that Ben might try to do too much. The first series provided one of those "God, do I wish I were wrong" moments, as Roethlisberger forced the ball twice, once on a wild incompletion and then on a rifle shot downfield right into the arms of Rashean Mathis, who promptly accepted the favor and dashed 72 yards to a touchdown. That was Ben's only poor series all night.
Neither Roethlisberger, nor the Steelers blinked. On a night when the pressure from Jacksonville’s defense came at Ben in fits and spurts, Ben responded to each hit by taking his game up a notch, responding to his interception by driving the team 71 yards, capping it off with a one yard toss to Health Miller.
Gary Dulac of the Post-Gazette reported today that during his one day of practice last week, Ben’s arm was in so much pain that he did not throw a pass beyond five yards. Yet against the Jaguars, Ben rocketed off pass after pass, netting his highest passing total in almost two years.
Last December the Jaguars embarrassed the Pittsburgh at home by beating them at their own game, smash mouth football. The Steelers defense must have taken it personally, as they waltzed into Jacksonville and physically dominated the Jaguars.
Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel, and Nick Eason were out, but the remaining Steeler defenders exacted retribution for each and ever one of the 421 yards the Jaguars had gained in last year’s regular season game. Up front, the Steelers gang-tackled anything that moved, in the secondary the Steelers were hitting so hard that Jacksonville receivers began dropping passes late in the game. James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley harassed David Garrard all night, and rest of the Steeler defense kept Garrard for burning them with his legs.
Credit Jack Del Rio and his staff for making the adjustments that got Jacksonville back into the game. Late in the second quarter Del Rio benched his corner, moved in a safety, and added a linebacker, sticking with the 4-3 for the rest of the game. These moves helped the Jaguars force the Steelers to settle for three shortly before the half, and the Jaguars played better football through the beginning of the fourth quarter, when they took the lead.
Down 21 to 20 with 6:33 remaining, the Steeler were undaunted. Taking some of the most relentless pressure of the game (why in the hell did Essex and not Starks go in for Marvel Smith?), Ben Roethlisberger marched the Steelers 80 yards down the field. Twice during drive Roethlisberger appeared to be sacked, and twice he hit his man down field.
On 3rd and 8 Ben was again knocked down as he threw and was writhing in visible agony as Hines Ward hauled in an 18 yard pass at the Jacksonville 18. John Madden observed that with Ben obviously shaken up, the Steelers would rush and then kick a field goal to finish out the series.
Two plays later, as if on cue, Ben threw an incomplete pass to Nate Washington, and then heaved an eight yard touchdown pass touchdown pass to Hines Ward immedately after that.
That’s the kind of night it was for the Steelers.
Down to your fourth string running back?
- Come out running, and rip off runs of 19, 27, yards an total more 129 total yards rushing
Quarterback does not practice all week?
- Fearlessly fire the ball around the field, and rack up 309 yards through the air
Missing three of your top four defensive lineman?
- Hold the Jacksonville’s Pro Bowl backfield to 2.2 yards per carry.
When it was all over the Steelers improved their record to 4-1, and began to separate themselves from the rest of the AFC North. These Steelers also put the rest of the league on notice that they do not fear adversity and will yield to no one in a slug fest.