Kevin Gorman: Steelers should learn lessons from Jaguars game
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. –
Mike Tomlin talked about the lessons to be learned for the Pittsburgh Steelers, not just from their comeback victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars but the failures that required the fourth-quarter rally.
Where Tomlin couldn’t overlook the deep hole the Steelers dug for themselves, he also was impressed with the character his team showed in the 20-16 victory over the Jaguars Sunday at TIAA Bank Field.
“That’s football, man. That’s team,” Tomlin said. “We weren’t perfect today but we did the job, rising up to support their brother. There was a lot of that because there was a lot of failure. But that failure has got something to do with the execution of the Jacksonville Jaguars and their plan and their coaching and their play. I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that.”
These weren’t the Jaguars that beat the Steelers twice at Heinz Field last season, ending their season in the AFC divisional playoff round. This was a Jacksonville team that had lost five consecutive games, and Jaguars coach Doug Marrone was trying not to lose his locker room.
The Steelers were riding a five-game winning streak, coming off an impressive 52-21 Thursday night victory over Carolina. Tomlin gave his players a five-day break as a reward for their short-week success. It was as if the Steelers went into a time warp, reverting back to the way they played through the first four games of the season.
What should have served the Steelers well proved instead to be disruptive to their rhythm. The offense had none in the first half, accounting for 66 yards total offense and two turnovers. Ben Roethlisberger had a 10.1 passer rating at halftime, and that was only after completing 5 of 6 passes in a late second-quarter drive.
The Jaguars were surprised to see the Steelers abandon the run game so quickly, as James Conner had five carries for 13 yards in the first half and Roethlisberger came up short on a quarterback sneak.
But the Steelers defense didn’t allow the Jaguars to turn Roethlisberger’s two first-half interceptions into touchdowns, a key after he had a pair of pick-sixes against the Jaguars in the 30-9 regular season loss last year and two turnovers that led to touchdowns in the 45-42 playoff loss. Instead, Jacksonville settled for three field goals and a 9-0 halftime lead.
When the Jaguars did just that in the third quarter, answering Jalen Ramsey’s end-zone interception with a 10-play, 80-yard scoring drive that ended with Leonard Fournette’s 2-yard touchdown dive, the Steelers could have fallen apart. Instead, they showed character.
“I think we always play better when we’re behind,” Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster said. “We stuck together. There was nobody doubting each other. We’re one team, one unity and we kept that faith.”
Smith-Schuster was right about the Steelers. The offense didn’t click until it trailed, 16-0. That faith was rewarded with a 78-yard touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown. That unity was evident in how the defense got stronger, forcing four consecutive three-and-outs, and how Conner caught a 6-yard pass on third-and-1 to set up Roethlisberger’s touchdown pass to Vance McDonald.
That teamwork showed after Conner got behind a defender, only to drop a would-be touchdown pass. That would have been devastating to a lesser team. Instead, on the next play, Brown caught a 25-yard pass to the Jaguars’ 2 to set up Roethlisberger’s game-winning run.
McDonald marveled at the Steelers’ desire amid desperation, how they rode the adrenaline to another improbable comeback victory the way only a player who has endured his sharing of losing can appreciate.
“I’ve been here for a year-and-a-half, and it’s crazy how we just pull out games,” McDonald said. “A little division early in the game but when it comes down to the wire, nobody’s pointing the finger and no one’s freaking out.”
That’s because these Steelers have been in so many close games, winning a handful of games in the final minute last season. They also have flirted with disaster against lesser opponents, losing in overtime at Chicago last season and tying at Cleveland in the opener this season.
The Steelers can’t always count on a comeback. If the playoff loss to the Jaguars, where they scored a touchdown on the final play only to lose by three points, didn’t teach the Steelers then this last-second win should.
“You just grow, when you’re faced with adversity like this, in a hostile environment and you’re not playing great and you find ways to get it done,” Tomlin said. “From that standpoint, I’m really excited.”
Tomlin next words were about lessons to be learned, and the Steelers had their share of good and bad. Like this victory over the Jaguars, they should start by focusing on their failures but finish with keeping the faith that they are a team that plays until the final horn sounds.
That’s not playing better from behind. It’s playing until you’re ahead.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.