PITTSBURGH — Three thoughts off Jacksonville’s 45-42 win on Sunday afternoon . . .
1. Jacksonville is capable of winning the Super Bowl. There, I said it. Mock away, @ away, fill those mentions with memes directed at my mental acuity or brain fitness. But consider that: (1) The Jaguars have a great defense that appears to be without obvious weakness and is particularly strong in the secondary and with pass rushers (Sunday’s effort—see below—notwithstanding); (2) Jacksonville can run the ball with Leonard Fournette, who scored three times on Sunday and gained 109 yards; (3) Tom Coughlin is in charge now and (4) perhaps you remember that Coughlin beat the Patriots a couple times in Super Bowls; (5) It’s not like the Jaguars lack receivers; (6) Their underrated offensive line kept Blake Bortles protected all day against the Steelers and opened those holes for Fournette; and (7) defensive end Calais Campbell was perhaps the single most important offseason acquisition in the NFL last offseason, and . . . we could go on.
The obvious counter: Bortles. Fair enough. But let’s also be fair to Bortles here. He had several above-average games (in five contests, he posted a passer rating above 115.0) this season and did not turn the ball over on Sunday against the Steelers. He threw for 214 yards, a touchdown and managed to get back two fumbles before anyone from Pittsburgh could scoop them up. So do I think that Jacksonville will win the Super Bowl? No, I don’t. But if they did it wouldn’t be like the greatest upset in Super Bowl history or anything.
2. The Jaguars defense gave up a ton of yards to Pittsburgh, but that doesn’t mean the unit isn’t legit. It is. That notion has seemed obvious for a while now, “a while” being most of this season, and yet this idea of Jacksonville-as-a-defensive-force hasn’t taken hold on a national scale the way it might have if the Jaguars played in a bigger market or had a more recent playoff history. The Jags finished second in total and scoring defense and sacks and interceptions and first in yards per play and first downs allowed to opposing offenses. They even earned a nickname: Sacksonville. (Which could use some work.)
On Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh, the awkwardly nicknamed Jacksonville D either converted a few more non-believers to their rapidly filling bandwagon or gave critics more reason to doubt. Still, after recording five interceptions in their October victory over Pittsburgh, they picked off Ben Roethlisberger again in the first quarter and forced a Roethlisberger fumble that linebacker Telvin Smith picked up and returned 50 yards for a score late in the first half. It was Jacksonville’s third defensive score against Pittsburgh alone this season.
The Jags’ defense wasn’t perfect on Sunday; the Steelers did come back, after all. Pittsburgh gained 545—545!—yards; Roethlisberger threw five—five!—touchdowns. That’s somewhat misleading. The Jaguars jumped to such a big early lead that they played to hold that lead in the second half, leaving underneath routes open, making the Steelers run the clock down. But Sacksonville also gave Jacksonville a chance to win a playoff game, on the road, against one of the best offenses in the league and two players (Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown) who are perpetual MVP candidates. This wasn’t the Jaguars’ best performance this season. But it was enough.
3. The Steelers’ offensive decision-makers will (quite fairly) face a torrent of criticism for two fourth down calls on Sunday. Specifically, Pittsburgh twice decided to go for it on fourth-and-1; once in the first quarter, once in the fourth. Now, according to ESPN Stats & Info, Roethlisberger, for his career in both the regular season and the playoffs, is 18 of 19 in converting fourth-and-1 plays through rushing attempts—which sounds great, unless you’re a Steelers fan and you consider that Big Ben, all 6-feet-5-inches and 240 pounds of him, has not attempted a rush on fourth-and-1 since 2014. Obviously he’s older now, doesn’t move as well—countered by, well, 6-5, 240.
That strange streak continued Sunday, first when the Steelers called a pitch right to Le’Veon Bell in the first quarter on a fourth-and-1 at the Jacksonville 21-yard-line. Bell lost four yards on the play, as several defenders swarmed that side of the field. Then, in the fourth quarter, on another fourth-and-1, this one at Jacksonville’s 39, Roethlisberger tried to force a pass to rookie wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster on a crossing route, but Smith-Schuster could not hang onto the ball as he dove for a tough catch with cornerback A.J. Bouye diving with him. Consider that good defense (and a bit of a hold) by Bouye, and a bad call by the Steelers offense.
Pittsburgh’s offensive coordinator, Todd Haley, will receive most of the blame for those calls gone bad. Perhaps that’s fair, but it’s tough to say for sure. On the second call, it appeared Roethlisberger might have called an audible. It’s also possible that Coach Mike Tomlin weighed in. Regardless, next time the Steelers face a fourth-and-1, especially in the playoffs, here’s a little friendly unsolicited advice: QB sneak.
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