The Pittsburgh Steelers and Jacksonville Jaguars once stood as bitter rivals, a rivalry which continued after Jacksonville left to form the AFC South as the AFC Central transformed itself into the AFC North.
Even into the Tomlin era, the Steelers and Jaguars played several intense games, including a bitter playoff loss at Heinz Field and a dramatic October show down that set the tone for the Steelers 2008 Super Bowl season.
The question facing the Steelers today is whether Pittsburgh’s sputtering 17-13 victory over the Jaguars set a tone for the rest of 2011 or merely reflected much of what Steelers Nation has seen six weeks into the season.
Following a Familiar Tune….
Mike Tomlin’s allegedly hung up on Jacksonville press over their insistence on questioning him about the Jaguar’s January ’08 playoff victory. The fact that the hang up was the big “news” leading up to the game shows just how far this Jaguars franchise has fallen.
And to that end, the game’s first 20 minutes or so went exactly as it was scripted:
- The aging, yet still relevant Super Bowl contender dominating a franchise who'd lost its way and was led by a rookie quarterback.
During much of the first half the Steelers performed like clock work on both sides of the ball.
- Rashard Mendenhall ripped off enough runs to top 100 yards before the end of the first half
- Ben Roethlisberger to Mike Wallace torched Jacksonville catches of 25 and 48 yards
- The Steelers defense sacked hapless Bruce Gabbert four times in the first half
The Pittsburgh Steelers played flawless football for the game’s first 20 minutes.
Just as they had done vs. the Colts, the Steelers gave every indication that they were going to rout an inferior opponent. And just as their AFC South brethren had done, the Jaguars turned the tables and gave the Steelers a run for their money.
Seven Step Sputter
The Steelers non-existent pass blocking, particularly on the ends, is what allowed the Colts back into the game.
Fortunately, against the Jaguars Pittsburgh’s offensive line provides no such scapegoat. Yes, Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 3 times on third down during the 4th quarter, which is troubling.
But the Steelers offensive line kept Roethlisberger clean enough that those 4th quarter sacks should only be statistical anomalies. You can trace the fact that they weren’t anomalies directly back to the fact that after the game’s first 20 minutes, the Steelers offense got away from what had made it so successful in the first place.
The Steelers opened the game following the same template that had led it to success against the Titans: running the ball and calling short, three step drop passing plays.
Either because he was nursing a lead or because Jacksonville wasn’t mounting much of a pass rush, Bruce Arians got away from and started calling plays using Ben's normal seven step drop, and as a consequence Ben Roethlisberger and his receivers never seemed to recover their rhythm.
The Steelers continued to run the ball well, as Mike Tomlin acknowledged, the Steelers “were in some manageable third downs” but they couldn’t convert.
Given how thoroughly the Steelers had dominated the Jaguars in the early going, it is easy to understand why Arians loosened the reins on Roethlisberger. Big Ben fired deep four times but failed to connect with Saunders, Brown or Wallace.
- Complete any one of those passes, the Steelers go up by another touchdown and we write a different story
But as misfires mounted, the offensive staff should have gone back to what worked so well in the early going. They never did and Jacksonville consequently hung around till the final gun.
As Rush Defense Goes, So Goes the Steelers Defense
The good news is that the Steelers extended their no streak of not allowing a 100 yard rusher by one game.
- The bad news is that Maurice Jones-Drew ran for 99 yards.
The Jacksonville Jaguars certainly did not “impose their will” on the Steelers, but they ran consistently enough to take pressure off of their quarterback.
It might be a tad bit unfair to heap too much on one of eleven, but Chris Hoke went out with a stinger during the second quarter, and Steve McLendon took his place for the rest of the game and that’s when Jacksonville’s running game found its rhythm.
Nonetheless, down to its third nose tackle, the defense was forced to carry the offense during the second half and did they did enough to win, with Troy Polamalu making a key stop on third down and Brett Kiesel making a key sack on the Jaguars final drive.
“I think the jury is still out on us. I don’t run away from that. As a matter of fact, I encourage it.” – Mike Tomlin, following the Jacksonville game
Bill Cowher used to preach a team “finds its identity” during the season’s first six weeks.
Mike Tomlin has echoed similar sentiments before, but he clearly isn’t ready to buy into that line of thinking at this juncture. That’s justified given the Steelers performance against Jacksonville.
- The Steelers do have issues they must address, but after the Jacksonville game, those needs appear much more as loose ends as opposed to glaring needs.
Playing the schedule game is of course a no-no, but it would behoove the Steelers to tie those loose ends next week against Arizona before New England comes to town…
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