PITTSBURGH, Penn. – It was thirty minutes of the unexpected in the first half between the Jaguars and the Steelers.
Getting the ball first, the Jaguars looked like world-beaters on offense, marching right downfield in eight plays covering 66 yards and scoring on fourth down to take a 7-0 lead. Leonard Fournette dove in from the one for the TD while Blake Bortles avenged a bit of last week’s criticism going 3 for 4 in the drive.
It wasn’t what the Steelers or their fans expected from a team that only scored 10 points last week against Buffalo. Heinz field was quiet and the Pittsburgh sideline bewildered.
It didn’t get any better for the Steelers as Myles Jack tipped a Ben Roethlisberger pass to himself and tiptoed on the sideline for an interception at the 18. Fournette scored off right tackle to take a 14-0 lead. Crickets in the stadium.
On the Jaguars next possession in the second quarter they marched it right down the field again, this time with T.J. Yeldon scoring from 4 yards out to take a 21-0 lead.
Unexpected, but watching the game it was a legitimately dominating performance. The Jaguars offensive line was gouging the Steelers front four while Bortles was composed and getting the ball to the right guys. It wasn’t perfect, but things were happening all in the plus column for the Jaguars.
Up until the 21-0 lead the defense was stopping the run, playing fast and putting enough pressure on Roethlisberger to keep the Pittsburgh passing game at bay. But then they started playing a bit off the ball, giving up chunks of yardage and the Steelers scored making it 21-7. La’Veon Bell was doing most of the work but the TD was a pass from Ben to Antonio Brown where A.J. Bouye never turned around.
Momentum seemed to shift but Yannick Ngakoue stripped the ball from Roethlisberger and Telvin Smith picked it up and ran 50 yards for a TD to take a 28-7 lead. Smith was called for taunting as he went into the end zone, so the 15 yards on the kickoff gave the Steelers the ball at midfield with 2:20 to play in the half. It’s a penalty that really hurt the Jaguars because it put Pittsburgh in great field position and gave them a little momentum.
Still, the defense was getting the job done, forcing a fourth and eight at the 36 with time dwindling and Pittsburgh out of timeouts. That’s when Tashaun Gipson inexplicably let Martavius Bryant get behind him for a TD to put the Steelers right back in it at 28-14. It’s the only thing the Jaguars couldn’t do in that situation to allow Pittsburgh to gain some momentum, but that’s what happened.
As I mentioned, it was a half of “unexpecteds” on both sides. Nobody expected the Jaguars to get things done the way they did in the first half and giving up two long TD throws is about the last thing anybody expected from the Jaguars defense.
It carried over to the second half with Pittsburgh taking the opening possession and driving right down field for a TD. Roethlisberger showed great trust in Bell on a little circle route against Telvin Smith, throwing the ball in the end zone where Bell was going to be. Telvin never saw it coming and Bell made a great catch to make it 28-21. Now it’s a game.
All the momentum remained with the Steelers and their fans came alive as well. A couple of good plays by the Jaguars offense were negated by Brad Nortman’s punt being deflected giving the ball to Pittsburgh at midfield to start the fourth quarter.
That’s when the Jaguars showed some life, the defense stopping Pittsburgh on 4th down to get the ball at midfield. After a couple of runs, Bortles hit Keelan Cole for 45 yards down to the 3 and Leonard Fournette scored his third TD of the game for a 35-21 lead.
But the Steelers came right back, converting their second fourth down touchdown of the game, Roethlisberger to Brown in front of Bouye to bring Pittsburgh within seven. It felt like playoff football. The Jaguars defensive backs said all week that Brown was the best receiver in the league and he proved it on this day. Who thought this would be a 35-28 game at any point?
Again the Jaguars responded, this time with Bortles showing poise, patience and throws that he’s not known for in his time in Jacksonville. A critical third down to TJ Yeldon on his third or fourth read gave the Jaguars the ball in Steeler territory. Then just a beautiful play fake and a small toss to the fullback, Tommy Bohanon gave the Jaguars a 42-28 lead with four minutes to play. It might be the “coming of age” drive for Bortles who looked the part of a playoff quarterback.
Again, the Steelers drove down and scored, a sandlot play accounting for the TD. Roethlisberger was scrambling past the line of scrimmage but threw it backwards to Bell, who went the final eight yards for the TD. Still a game.
But the onside kick didn’t go 10 yards and was hit by a Steelers player, giving the Jaguars good field position. A couple of Fournette runs (he was over 100 for the game) made it fourth and 1 letting Josh Lambo kick a 45-yarder for a 45-35 lead and 1:40 to play.
The Steelers had a desperation drive at the end that burned the clock and scored with no time left for a 45-42 win by the Jaguars. Before the game was over, the Jaguars were already an eight-point underdog to the Patriots next weekend in New England. Of course, they were a touchdown underdog here in Pittsburgh and nobody gave them much of a chance.
That’s what happens.