Thirteen weeks ago, the 3-1 Steelers met the 2-2 Jaguars at Heinz Field. Jacksonville was coming off an overtime loss to the lowly Jets and many expected the Steelers to roll over them. The game did not follow script, which led to a plethora of fire-and-brimstone articles about the Steelers continuing to play down against bad opponents after they lost 2 of 3 to the Bears and Jaguars. Much like we have seen the last two years, the tale of a team at the end of the season does not always match up with their pre-season (or even early-season) narrative. Last year the Steelers were chided after losing tot the 1-4 Dolphins, only to see Miami go on to win 8 of their last 10 games and finish 10-6. In 2015 the Steelers fell victim to the same narrative after losing to the 1-5 Chiefs. Kansas City’s win over Pittsburgh springboarded a 10-game winning streak and they finished the year 11-5. Similarly, this season the Jaguars went from a 2-2 team that faced Pittsburgh to a 10-6 division champion.
Now, thirteen weeks after the fact, most remember that October 8th game as being one where Ben Roethlisberger had his worst game of the year – throwing 5 interceptions and the Jaguars ran all over the Steelers defese to the tune of a 30-9 victory. What many don’t remember is that game was filled with missed opportunities by the Steelers that could have completely changed the trajectory of the contest. Rather than remembering the game as one where the Jaguars manhandled the Steelers, it should be thought of as one where the Steelers consistently missed opportunities to take hold of the game, allowing Jacksonville to stay in the game and do what they do best – run the ball and defend the pass.
On the Steelers first drive of the game, Ben went long to Antonio Brown who made a big catch over Jalen Ramsey. The Steelers would drive inside the 10 yard line and have a 2nd and 6 from the Jacksonville 9 but would only get 3 points out of the drive.
The Steelers would start their second drive on their own two yard line but would drive out across midfield on the back of Le’Veon Bell (both in the running game and short passing game). After Bell’s success, James Conner came in for a few snaps and missed a block on a blitzing Paul Posluszny. The pressure forced Ben to underthrow Vance McDonald and Jalen Ramsey made a good play to undercut the route and intercept the ball. One could make the case that after their success driving out to midfield, the Steelers did not even need to get greedy and force a throw down the field in this instance. Nevertheless, Jacksonville capitalized on the short field and scored a touchdown to take a 7-3 lead.
After the teams traded punts, the Steelers defense got a turnover with 41 seconds left in the half. Ben hit two big passes to JuJu and AB to get us into the red zone. The Steelers had 1st and 10 from the 17 with 18 seconds to go. This should have afforded enough time for two throws to the end zone. Ben checked down to Bell on first down for a minimal gain then overthrew AB in the end zone on second down. Boswell kicked a field goal as the half expired to cut the lead to 7-6.
All in all, the first half hadn’t been awful for the Steelers. They had two drives of over 40 yards and had reached the red zone twice. Unfortunately, neither red zone trip found the end zone and one of their other drives ended in a turnover which led to the Jaguars touchdown. The Steelers defense had forced 3 punts and an interception but gave up a touchdown on a short field after a turnover.
The Steelers got the ball first to start the second half and drove the length of the field to get to 1st and goal at the 5. The play-calling got too cute and they settled for yet another field goal to take a 9-7 lead. Yet another missed opportunity in the red zone. Even with the Jaguars touchdown on the short field, if the Steelers had taken care of their own business and scored red zone touchdowns, the game could have been 17-7 or 21-7 at this point rather than 9-7. A two-score lead in the second half would have forced Jacksonville to come out of their offensive shell and put the ball in the hands of Blake Bortles, rather than continuing to pound the ball on the ground.
The defense responded to the team taking the lead by getting a 3-and-out and giving the ball back to the offense. At this point, despite the three red zone failures, the game was still in control. Le’Veon Bell was running well against the Jaguars defense. Bell had 12 carries for 49 yards at this point in the game. The Steelers took over at their own 23 yard line with 7 1/2 minutes remaining in the third quarter.
At this point, the wheels fell off the wagon. Ben threw two pick-sixes (both on tipped passes). In the span of one minute of game time, it went from a 9-7 Steelers lead to a 20-9 Jaguars lead. At this point, the Steelers earlier failures in the red zone had come home to roost. If they had produced touchdowns, the game would have been tied at the end of the third quarter rather than a 12-point deficit. Le’Veon Bell, who had averaged over 4 yards per carry through 2 1/2 quarters, had just 3 carries for -2 yards over the last 22 1/2 minutes of game time as the Steelers were forced to take to the air.
The Jaguars produced their longest drive of the game at the start of the fourth quarter. They put together a 13-play 67-yard drive where they did not attempt a pass and drove from their own 4 yard line into field goal range. Jason Myers’ field goal made it 22-9 Jaguars and it was still technically a two-score game. However, Ben threw two more interceptions trying to force balls down the field.
The coup-de-gras came with two minutes to play. The Steelers had forced the Jaguars into a 3rd and 2 at their own 10 yard line. The defense was trying to come up with a big play and called an all-out blitz. Leonard Fournette got through a seam in the left side and went 90 yards untouched for the touchdown. That play was a fitting end to the Jaguars 30-9 trouncing of the Steelers which was rittled with missed opportunities.
However, there were a lot of good things that the Steelers did that day as well. Other than Fournette’s monster run at the end of the game, only one of the Jaguars other 9 drives went for more than 50 yards. The Jaguars only got into the red zone once (on the short field after Ben’s first interception). Their field goal drive did not enter the red zone and their other touchdowns were defensive plays and Fournette’s long run. On the other side, the Steelers got into the red zone three times and drove to at least midfield in 5 of their 11 drives. Prior to his 90-yard burst, the defense had held Fournette to 91 yards on 27 carries (an average of just 3.4 yards per carry). Obviously, throwing 5 interceptions and giving up a 90-yard touchdown run are not conducive to winning football games. That being said, despite the final score the Steelers had numerous opportunities to take control of this game. The previous meeting with the Jaguars was not a total domination as the score indicated and if the Steelers had executed better in the red zone and stuck with the running game in the second half, the result may have been very different.