While plenty of excuses can be cited for the performance we witnessed by the Steelers on Sunday at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, the harsh truth is that this undoubtedly was their worst overall effort of the season, despite escaping with a 20-16 victory. Todd Haley might be gone, but the Steelers’ offense wasn’t any more creative — and even less effective — against the Jaguars’ offense on Sunday than they had been during their two costly defeats by Jacksonville last season. In fact, if not for the absolutely abysmal Jaguars’ offense led by Blake Bortles (10/18, 104 yards, 28.3 QBR), Jacksonville would have won this game handily.
As he sometimes appeared last season, Ben Roethlisberger looked totally rattled by the Jaguars’ defense. He misfired on a number of easy throws to his receivers and nearly matched his five-interception debacle during the 2017 regular season at Heinz Field — throwing three interceptions, while having two more nullified by Jacksonville penalties. Ben also missed some wide-open receivers, throwing instead into heavy coverage. After notching a perfect quarterback rating last week versus the Carolina Panthers, Ben finished the game in Jacksonville with a pathetic 37.7 QBR, along with taking two sacks and averaging only 6.7 yards per completion.
While Ben’s play during the closing minutes of the fourth quarter — plus his game-winning lunge over the goal line with only three seconds remaining — was somewhat redeeming, it hardly washed away the smell of what we had witnessed through nearly three quarters of the game. How bad was the Steelers’ offense? They converted only three of 11 third-down situations and were 0-2 on fourth-down attempts. James Conner finished the day with only 9 carries for 25 yards (2.8-yard average). Conner also dropped a couple of passes that Ben tossed right into his hands, including one that looked like a sure touchdown and a second one that stalled a drive and forced a punt. While both Antonio Brown (117 yards) and JuJu Smith-Schuster (104 yards) broke the century mark in receiving yardage, they generally had lots of difficulty getting open during the game — with the exception of some deep passes which padded their totals.
The Steelers’ defense looked a bit suspect during the first half, but they kept the game close and still had enough left in the tank to stuff the Jaguars on crucial possessions late in the final quarter. They sacked Bortles six times and pressured him continually throughout the game. Vince Williams had another solid game, leading the defense with 10 tackles including six solo stops, one sack and one tackle for loss. T.J. Watt and Javon Hargrave chipped in two sacks apiece.
After the Steelers’ huge win over Carolina at Heinz Field, it seemed that the team had finally hit its stride. And considering the two embarrassing defeats Pittsburgh had suffered at home to the Jaguars last season, the expectation was that the Black-and-gold would come out strong in Florida and take the game to Jacksonville. But through nearly three quarters of football, the Steelers were totally listless and never got untracked. Only the Jaguars’ utter incompetence in taking advantage of scoring opportunities spared the Steelers an embarrassing defeat.
It’s tempting — and probably wrong — to simply claim that Pittsburgh doesn’t match up well against Jacksonville. We might also use the excuse that we were playing a desperate team on the verge of losing any chance it had to reach the playoffs. But in reality, the Steelers were pretty darned awful in some key phases of their game — shortcomings which very well might haunt them later this season.
Perhaps most obvious is the offense’s lack of creativity in situations where the opposing defense takes away their preferred plays. For a large portion of the game in Jacksonville, Ben looked quite jumpy in the pocket because the Jaguars were covering the very same pass routes that had worked like a charm against Carolina’s depleted secondary in the previous week.
Even in victory, this game demonstrates quite plainly that the Steelers continue to suffer from a couple of negative tendencies that could really hurt them in the playoffs. First is their tendency to start games sluggishly and not find their offensive rhythm until late in the first half, or even the second half. This tendency is what cost them the playoff game in Pittsburgh last January and it also could be fatal when playing teams with high-powered offenses. Secondly, the aforementioned inability of the Steelers to adjust their offensive game plan when their primary weapons are taken away could be equally dangerous in January football. It was especially troubling to see Big Ben looking feverishly downfield throughout a large portion of Sunday’s game before he chucked the ball into heavy coverage. When Ben is having his better games, you generally don’t see that.
Of course, given the win, they say you’re never supposed to look a gift horse in the mouth. But at least Steelers Nation ought to realize it was largely the work of the football gods — not so much anything the Black-and-gold did on the gridiron — which enabled the Steelers to return from Florida riding a 6-game winning streak. And lest we forget, we were matched up against a 3-6 (now 3-7), last-place Jaguars team which these days is only a shadow of their 2017 selves. So while I’m as pleased as anyone with the fortuitous outcome on Sunday, this game represents a definite step backward for the Black-and-gold. The kind of collective lapse we witnessed throughout nearly three quarters in Jacksonville simply cannot be repeated when January rolls around, if this team is to have any hope for securing a Super Bowl berth. If there’s anything positive to be gleaned from this game (besides, of course, the win), maybe it will provide a much-needed dose of humility, plus a reminder that everyone in the organization needs to work harder to reach their ultimate goal.