There is nothing quite like the satisfaction that comes along with lambasting your favorite team in the wake of a crappy loss. Stewing in the vitriol is pure, cathartic bliss. I know this feeling, because I was fully prepared to write a scathing rebuke of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the wake of their contemptible effort against the Jacksonsville Jaguars on Sunday.
The first two and a half quarters of that game represented the nadir of Steelers football in 2018, and maybe of the Ben Roethlisberger/Mike Tomlin era. Roethlisberger’s performance for the first 40 or so minutes was an affront to professional quarterbacking; he was truly atrocious, throwing three horrific interceptions (he threw four, but he was bailed out by yet another controversial roughing the pass call) and was sitting on a gruesome 10.1 QB rating at the half. Moreover, Pittsburgh’s defense—which is statistically among the stingiest run defenses in the NFL—was gutted by Jacksonville’s rushing attack. When bearded refrigerator Leonard Fournette blasted through a wall of Steelers defenders to give the Jaguars a 16-0 lead with 2:09 remaining in the third quarter, I considered getting a head start on this column. Road Ben is back, and he is trash, I would opine furiously.
That...obviously did not happen. Now I’m stuck reformatting this blog thanks to the Steelers’ furious fourth quarter comeback. Shame on my defeatism and negativity. My stock is down. Let’s check on everyone else.
Stock up: Adjustments
I’d like to begin this week’s proceedings with a semi-rhetorical question that I suppose probably doubles as a medium-well take: Was Pittsburgh’s 20-16 come-from-behind victory the result of grit and tenacity and relentless moxie, or were the Steelers merely beneficiaries of Jacksonville’s grisly end-of-game management? Probably it’s both things, but I think it’s slightly more the latter thing.
Here are the results of Jacksonville’s four offensive series following the above-mentioned Fournette touchdown: three plays, six yards, 2:03 seconds taken off the clock; three plays, -14 yards, 2:22 taken off the clock; three plays, -1 yard, 1:41 taken off the clock; three plays, six yards, 46 seconds taken off the clock. Every play resulted in Fournette or Carlos Hyde diving right into the center’s buttcheeks for no gain, Bortles being sacked, or Bortles dumping the ball off to T.J. Yeldon or a tight end. It was textbook Playing Not To Lose.
There is also the matter of the Blake Bortles Paradox, which asks: Can a player be held responsible for a loss in which they did not make any tangible contributions to the losing effort? Bortles did not play particularly well or singlehandedly put the Jaguars in a position to win Sunday’s game, but there were no singular moments that one could reasonably pinpoint as the backbreaker. That said, it is...surprising...that, despite gashing the Steelers for nearly 180 rushing yards and despite the Steelers completely overloading the tackle box to prevent further gashings, Jacksonville didn’t even attempt a play-action pass—a play that, if you’ll recall, allowed the Jaguars to hang 45 points on the Steelers in the playoffs last season—to essentially seal that game. Them utilizing the game plan they did is an absolutely damning indictment not only of Blake Bortles’s quarterbacking acumen, but also the team’s faith in Blake Bortles’s leadership. As I sit here and write this, I can’t even say with certainty that Doug Marrone and his staff made the wrong decision by taking the ball out of Bortles’s hands. This is an unnecessarily circuitous way of saying that, had the Jaguars been playing with a quarterback that allowed for the seamless implementation of an aggressive game plan (or anyone except for Blake Bortles), they probably would’ve Sunday’s game.
Still, that’s all highly speculative and thus I won’t waste another second sullying a classic victory with conjecture; let’s discuss the particulars of the comeback.
The most obvious adjustments were the defensive ones made by the Steelers near the end of the third quarter, which immediately followed a 10-play (eight of which were running plays), 80-yard scoring drive by the Jaguars. On that drive and for much of the game to that point, the Jaguars seemed to gain five, six, or seven yards on every run, which enabled them to dictate time of possession (which, by extension, probably negatively impacted Roethlisberger’s flow and the offense’s continuity). I do not claim to be a strong knower of X’s and O’s, but it didn’t require an astute observer to realize that, hey, the Jaguars sure are interested in running the ball, especially with that very large football boy (Fournette played 34 snaps Sunday but logged 28 rushing attempts—like, it was pretty evident what was gonna happen when he lined up behind or next to Bortles). It took a while, but the Steelers defense eventually took steps to reduce the large football boy’s impact on the game, which put the offense in a position to win the game. Speaking of...
Stock....up? Even? Maybe slightly down since he was literally perfect a week ago?: Ben Roethlisberger
Ben Roethlisberger had as many interceptions Sunday as he did incompletions in last week’s destruction of the Carolina Panthers—which, honest to God, is pretty much right in line with recent trends; in three games against Jacksonville dating back to last season, he’s somehow thrown nine (nine!) interceptions. The Jaguars do have a marvelous secondary, one comprised of the league’s topmost cornerback twosome in Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, but it is baffling to me that, despite having played the Jaguars twice in the past 13 months and presumably having hours of gamefilm to analyze, Roethlisberger was so stunningly inept for most of Sunday’s proceedings. Now, it is absolutely true that Ramsey made remarkable, borderline inhuman plays on the ball to secure two of the aforementioned picks, but it also true that the league’s best cornerbacks generally do not intercept many passes, which is largely the result of quarterbacks rightly avoiding their half of the field. That Roethlisberger managed to throw two interceptions to Ramsey indicates that he was either careless or trying entirely too hard to get the ball to Antonio Brown.
He figured things out eventually, of course. On the series following Fournette’s touchdown run, Roethlisberger uncorked a massive, tremendously wet bomb in the direction of Brown, who had managed to slip behind the secondary. The 78-yard scoring strike—the longest scoring reception of Brown’s career—trimmed Jacksonville’s lead to 16-6, but a failed two-point conversion still left the Steelers two possessions behind. The Steelers turned the ball over on downs on their next offensive possession, but scored touchdowns on each of their next two drives, the latter of which featured Roethlisberger dragging his meaty corpse into the end-zone to score the go-ahead touchdown with five seconds on the clock on what was a broken play or quite possibly a poorly-designed run-pass option. Behold, in all its glory:
Screw the end of that game, by the way. On the play right before this, Roethlisberger threw what appeared to be a game-ending interception (fortunately, D.J. Hayden’s attempt to remove Ryan Switzer’s tiny head from his tiny body was spotted by the line judge and the requisite flag was issued). On the play before that, Brown caught an extremely clutch 25-yard pass on 3rd and 10; on the play before that, James Conner dropped what should have been the game-winning touchdown. I’m 27 years old and I legitimately thought I was having a heart attack. I hereby dub the Roethlisberger touchdown the Immaculate Hypertension.
Stock up: The pass rush
T.J. Watt picked up a pair of sacks (and forced a pair of fumbles), thereby extending his team lead to 10 and becoming the first Steelers linebacker since James Harrison to register 10 or more sacks in a single season. It’s kinda fortuitous that the Steelers have moved on from Le’Veon Bell, because they’re gonna need that money to pay Watt.
For most of Sunday’s game, the only effective defender on the field was Javon Hargrave, who, much like Watt, sacked Bortles twice and spent most of his afternoon toiling about Jacksonville’s backfield.
Stock up: Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster
With his 78-yard catch and run Sunday, Brown leads the league with 11 touchdowns and can break the record for most consecutive games with one or more receiving touchdowns this weekend against Denver. As per usual, he was great.
JuJu Smith-Schuster was also great, but his greatness was a little more pronounced than Brown’s. Look at this play!
Big time players make big time plays in big time games! Part 1 pic.twitter.com/afBqupCLE2— JuJu Smith-Schuster (@TeamJuJu) November 18, 2018
To assign due credit, Roethlisberger could not have thrown a more perfect ball; but look at how Smith-Schuster uses his butt to shield Ramsey and spins clockwise toward the sideline to ensure that no one but him has a chance to catch this football. Ramsey had him blanketed, too, which makes this play all the more impressive. On Pittsburgh’s final drive of the game, Smith-Schuster went ahead and did almost the exact same thing, only this time victimizing Bouye.