The Pittsburgh Steelers entered Heinz Field today as heavy favorites over the seemingly hapless Jacksonville Jaguars. While the Jags may have seemed like timid felines, their claws came out in a furious second-half comeback that showcased one truism.
In nature, there is no animal as dangerous as a wounded animal. Apparently, this wisdom holds true in the NFL.
In a game that can be described as a tale of two halves, the Steelers' efficiency and domination to start the game gave way to offensive anemia, ill-timed penalties and a lack of killer instinct in the second half.
After taking a quick 17-0 lead, Jaguars rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert showed aplomb, rallying his squad to within a last gasp Hail Mary attempt of upsetting the defending AFC Champions.
While the play on the field seemed more black than gold, the Steelers exit play in Week 6 with a valuable victory. As the Jaguars lick their wounds and continue toward inevitable grand-scale changes, the Steelers will continue their title defense with a 4-2 record, whether it was pretty.
Cynics will focus on the negatives and idealists will be naively optimistic, but the truth lies somewhere in the middle. The Steelers secured a necessary win, and they will look to build on a positive home stand on the road in Arizona—where familiar faces await them!
Before heading west for a Super Bowl rematch (per se), let's look back at 10 observations from today's surprisingly stressful victory over Jacksonville.
On his only touchdown of the day, Blaine Gabbert showed toughness. In fact, the play was a microcosm of a fine performance sullied only by the fact that statistics often hide heart.
Was his a perfect performance? No. But, from the stands, Papa Gabbert could be proud of how his son bounced back in the face of adversity!
The odds were against him. After failing to connect on many of his throws, both due to his lack of offensive weapons and Steelers' pressure, Gabbert had finally led his offense on a systematic drive in the second half.
With pressure in his face, the quarterback made a great read over the middle, stepped into his throw, took the shot from the defender and put a fine pass into the hands of Jason Hill.
Despite another pedestrian day on the scoreboard and a continued low completion percentage, the young quarterback didn't make the mistakes that were invited to him during a day of harassment. Gabbert avoided turning the ball over for the third time in his five games, despite five sacks.
Using his mobility to avoid rushers, his outing could have been worse; the youngster made some key third down throws, including an opening drive that saw the Jags score no points despite the rookie's fine start, completing 4-of-5 attempts.
While today's final score was not in the young passer's favor, Gabbert showed the Jaguars and the NFL some promise with a gutsy showing at Heinz Field. The youngster showed flashes of the aplomb needed to win at this level!
On a day where fans' eyes were glued to a rookie quarterback who nearly got eaten alive, it was the youngster who ultimately had Steelers' loyalists looking at the game like a deer in headlights. Where the Steelers offense failed all second half, Gabbert made the best with what he had, showcasing mobility, his strong arm and a non-willingness to give up when the odds are stacked against him.
At Heinz Field, the image of locks of hair flowing in the breeze as the defense makes a huge play on the football is typically associated with one man only: Troy Polamalu.
Yet, when the contest is against the Steelers' former AFC Central rivals, another long-haired menace tends to steal the show.
With six interceptions and three touchdowns in his five games against the Steelers, Rashean Mathis was the catalyst behind at least three Jaguars wins that could have ended with the opposite result.
From his interception of Tommy Maddox in overtime (2005) to two gut-wrenching touchdowns in 2008 (in the playoffs and during a Sunday Night Football affair in Jacksonville), Mathis has been the epitome of a Steelers killer.
Today, the crowd did gasp on a couple of occasions when Rashean had an apparent play on the football, but like Pavlov's dog—some reactions are automatic. When Mathis is around, Steelers fans are now trained to expect the worst.
For one football game against the 'Burgh, Mathis wasn't a burglar! And thank goodness for that....
Breaking through the Jaguars' offensive line on a perfectly timed blitz, Polamalu got into the face of Blaine Gabbert quickly. Raise your hand if you're surprised.....
That type of play has been typical of No. 43's campaign, arguably his finest ever despite statistics.
By a narrow margin, the quarterback got rid of the football! How many times can a man come within an inch of the game's backbreaking play? If you were to ask Troy, perhaps he'd answer you literally based on his 2011 experience: "about a dozen."
After a shot to his head late in the game, cameras showed Troy on the sideline in his gear, though he did not return to the field.
Along with Ike Taylor, Troy's presence on defense has been monumental this season. His sensitivity to the circumstances and timing of the game have been uncanny, and some poor opponent is inevitably going to see an attempted quarterback-running back exchange batted 20 yards into their backfield.
Pittsburgh fans know too well from another passionate following the seriousness of head injuries. In the NHL, Sidney Crosby still awaits his return to game action since the first week of the year.
A simple search shows the tremendous impact had on the Steelers' defense based solely on Troy's presence.
Naturally, it is unlikely that Troy will take such extended time for his ailment. Nevertheless, the notion elicits a natural apprehension in the Steel City. With so many great plays in store in 2011, Polamalu needs to make a speedy recovery!
Another weekend, another Suisham miss. Winds were not blowing during the errant attempt, so the weather excuse is null. How can the team keep ignoring obvious kicking woes?
Assuming there is succes to be had by the Steelers in January and February, the kicking game must improve....or else. No matter the level of talent, one kick gone awry could be the difference between six and seven Lombardi's.
Need an obvious example?
Trailing 20-19, Scott Norwood missed a game-winning field goal attempt against the New York Giants, becoming the source of a great deal of unnecessary ridicule and shame. After the Bills mismanaged the clock, the kicker's try from 47 yards was no certainty, especially on grass and during the given era.
The years of the thunder-thighs kickers hadn't quite hit the NFL, with today's specialists snapping 50-plus yard attempt through the middle of uprights with room to spare.
With his miss, Norwood was blamed for losing the Super Bowl for his team. While the attempt was difficult in both physics and circumstances, many would argue that a kicker's job is simply to win the game when a kick is needed... plain and simple.
Really, who can argue that?
So, answer this: How comfortable would you be with Sean Suisham in that situation? And, consider: Scott Norwood........actually WAS reliable from reasonable distances!
A liability at kicker can have a devastating effect on a hard-working football team at any time. In today's NFL, a stong-legged specialist is practically a mandate.
Fellow columnist Nick Dewitt echoed a shared frustration in his response to the game. His description of the Steelers' second-half offense?
Run. Run. Pass. Punt.
And, only because they managed to avoid a turnover.
After dominating the Jaguars with rhythmic execution and favorable matchups, the Steelers' offense went into a shell in the second half.
I've never been keen on Bruce Aryans as a consistently good offensive coordinator, and halves like today's latter segment against the Jags are those that have me scratching my head.
What are your thoughts, Steelers fans? At times, I feel as though I'm too harsh on the O.C., but constantly find myself irritated with his apparent willingness to force things that aren't working and ignore things that are effective.
Were you screaming at the television (or down onto the field for those lucky enough to have the live view) as the team ran on first and second down for the third consecutive drive in the most predictable fashion?
If not predictable (with such an obvious pattern, what else can it be called?), the unit surely demonstrated a lack of killer instinct in the second half. Whether fans agree with Nick and myself regarding the pattern of offensive playcalling, nobody can debate the utter stagnation of the offense in the latter stages of the contest as anything but unacceptable.
Falling apart, the team's running game devolved back into mediocrity, and Ben Roethlisberger completed one pass against three second-half sacks.
Against better competition, the Steelers MUST demonstrate more offensive consistency. Nay, allow me to elaborate!
The offense must play well consistently to have any shot at beating the Patriots in two weeks. After all, the unit technically demonstrated utter consistency in the second half: consistently predictable. Again, see the pattern above for reference.
To win today, I predicted the Jaguars needed both of two things to work in their favor:
1) Maurice Jones-Drew had to run effectively, which he did (next slide).
2) Turnovers had to work in Jacksonville's favor.
It could be argued both of these items went well for Jacksonville, who nearly pulled off the upset.
With Jones-Drew running well, Gabbert had occasional throwing lanes and sporadic pockets, though there was no denying he responded well to defensive pressure that found its way to him anyway.
Playing what many would describe as the "perfect road game" for a "David," the Jags nearly upset "Goliath" by protecting the football and running it with purpose. On an afternoon where one turnover could have completely blown their team out of the venue, the Jaguars hung in there and didn't dig themselves into a deeper hole.
Altogether, it equated to a last-ditch Hail Mary in an effort to upset the heavily-favored Steelers. On an afternoon that was practically script-written for turnovers by the Steelers defense, the unit continued to struggle in making game-breaking plays against what should have been an overmatched opponent.
Without turnovers and the subsequent change in field position, the team continues to suffer without these key changes in possession.
In essence, the roughing the punter call that ultimately led to the Jags' only touchdown was the equivalent of winning the turnover battle for the away team.
Still, it doesn't really work that way.
Not all was glum in Pittsburgh.
Despite only playing one half of a solid game, the offense also avoided costly mistakes, thus allowing their early lead to hold up as the game-winning deficit. By not making mistakes against a surprisingly game opponent, the Steelers avoided a huge upset.
Some credit has to be given for that!
While Ben Roethlisberger occasionally overthrows receivers, today's display was a full exhibition of points being left on the field.
Overthrowing Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Mike Wallace on deep routes at various points of the game, Big Ben managed to overshoot speedsters that many claim can't be overthrown.
Critics will state that Ben and his receivers need to work on their chemistry, while others will site the outing as an inaccurate day for No. 7.
Western Pennsylvania has seen a blustery weekend, with whipping winds sending objects flying and tree branches snapping. How much impact could this have had on Ben's ability to throw downfield.
Upon first glance, instinct causes many to compare the speed and playmaking skill of Mike Wallace to a historically underrated Steelers icon, Louis Lipps. The star receiver played for the Black and Gold in the 1980's, a decade largely overlooked for its successes and often ignored for the decline of dynasty.
As a former team MVP, Lipps was a major catalyst in the Steelers offensive attack, who averaged nearly 20 yards per catch in various seasons.
Unlike Wallace, who plays in an era of passing frenzy, Lipps production peaked at 1,134 yards, a mark that Wallace could potentially surpass before the end of November.
While Lynn Swann, John Stallworth and Hines Ward share accolades as the franchise's greatest athletes at the position, for reasons ranging from gravity defiance to sheer physicality, few would argue that the contest for the team's most explosive pass catcher is a two-man discussion.
For those fans blessed to recall Lipps' contributions, which receiver do you feel was the most explosive downfield presence?
No matter the answer to such a debate, few would deny that Wallace is the team's midseason MVP. Literally establishing his value is as easy as looking at each game.
By that point (barring injury), he will have nearly 800 (or better) receiving yards. Imagine the offensive production minus his breakout scores! Can you say putrid?
Scoring touchdowns in four of the six games played, two of those tallies were ultimately the game-winning points. His presence on the field has also opened opportunities for other receivers, an impact that cannot be directly measures on any stat sheet.
While many will again start the trials in the court of public opinion against the Steelers' run defense, the unit didn't fail today out of a lack of discipline or the result of wear and tear.
Sometimes, the opponent plays well, too! In Pittsburgh, Maurice Jones-Drew played like a man carrying a team on his back. And, with his strength on display, it seems he is just the man for such a thankless job.
To describe him as Mighty Mouse probably wouldn't do the trick.
For those who doubt, Jones-Drew's 96 yards were bruising and relentlessly earned. Using his strength and leverage, the runner gained yardage after first contact with regularity in today's contest, narrowly missing on becoming the third running back to eclipse the 100-yard rushing mark against the Steelers defense.
While the Steelers defensive front demonstrated reasonable gap control and tackling, the rushing total was the result of supreme ability and toughness by a runner aptly nicknamed Pocket Hercules.
In a season where his success will be nearly mandatory for the Jaguars to win, the franchise is blessed to have such a "man-imal" in the backfield!
The situation rarely matters. The gap in talent and execution is irrelevant.
Anytime the Pittsburgh Steelers play the Jacksonville Jaguars, the game is going to be intense.
Plaxico Burress's "spike" closing the gap in a rare blowout....
Tommy Maddox literally dropping the football in overtime...
Fred Taylor rushing for over 240 yards.....
David Garrard running deep into Steelers' territory to nullify a magnificent comeback....
And, lastly, a mismatched 1-4 Jaguars team entering Heinz Field with a rookie quarterback and 17-0 early deficit.....
There's something about a Jaguars-Steelers game that simply refuses to be anything less than intense and anxiety-ridden for both sides.
The gridiron gods have clearly decreed this as the case. After predicting a blowout all week, I'm finally just going to accept it.
Against the Steelers, the Jaguars are simply always going to be pesky. Period.