Monday, October 06, 2014

Escape From Jacksonville

Brice McCain's decisive interception return.
Photo credit: Jacksonville Times-Union.
Until Brice McCain's fourth-quarter interception return for a touchdown, Sunday's game in Jacksonville was beginning to take on the eerily familiar look of prior games where the Steelers allowed an inferior team to hang around, and hang around, like Tampa Bay last week and Cleveland in Week One, and too many other such teams in recent years, including Miami, Oakland and Minnesota last year.

Brice McCain
McCain's Pick-Six turned a shaky one-point lead into the eight-point margin of the final score (the Vegas spread was eight-and-a-half; amazing how they do that). Coming as it did with 11:40 left in the fourth quarter and immediately following a sack/strip fumble recovery by Jacksonville, McCain's interception gave the Steelers some much-needed breathing room. It was beginning to look like the Steelers were setting themselves up to be knocked down.

That familiar sickly feeling was brought on mainly because the Steelers' offense managed only 10 points against a Jacksonville defense on pace to surrender an NFL-record number of points in a season. What's up with that? Why the offense couldn't put more points on the board against a Jacksonville defense that had surrendered an average of 38 points a game in its previous four games is a question for Mike Tomlin, Todd Haley and Ben Roethliserger -- and we probably won't get any kind of satisfactory answer.

That familiar feeling of letting a team hang around was also due in part because the Steelers committed seven penalties for 50 yards. Four of those penalties were on special teams, including three by ST captain Robert Golden. What will Mike Tomlin do about that?

And what will Tomlin do about wide receiver Lance Moore? In a fit of pique following his only catch of the day, Moore spiked the ball (an NFL officiating no-no) and appeared to angrily gesticulate at Steelers' coaches on the sideline -- presumably for lack of playing time over the first quarter of the season, almost as if to say, "I'm here; this is what I can do and why I signed with this team!" But Moore's move was exactly the sort of stupidity that Tomlin last week stated emphatically cannot happen and will not be tolerated, coming as it did in the wake of the loss to Tampa, in which the Steelers racked up 11 penalties, including a rash of post-snap fouls.

Cortez Allen's interception
An Inferior Opponent
For all that, we saw many of the reasons why Jacksonville is 0-5 and has lost eight straight games. The Jaguars missed tackles, dropped passes, made too many miscues and couldn't finish drives.

At times, they looked respectable, and the Jaguars do have some talented individual players. Quarterback Blake Bortles is one of those, although he made some rookie mistakes. On his fatal fourth-quarter interception, it appeared he was expecting fellow rookie Allen Hurns, his intended target, to stop his route just as Bortles released the ball. Instead, Hurns kept running upfield, McCain stepped in front of  the pass, and that was the turning point in the game.

Otherwise, Bortles played fairly impressively, especially considering that his offense featured seven rookies. Rookies make mistakes and are not always on the same page, and that was evident yesterday. Hurns dropped three passes and committed a penalty. Fellow rookie receiver Allen Robinson left plays on the field and didn't play to his athleticism.

Bortles is going to be a good one, though, and the Jaguars were lucky Bortles lasted until the fifth pick of the second round. He's got a bright future in the NFL, and why Cleveland chose Johnny Manziel over Bortles is a head-scratcher. Bortles has the look of a franchise quarterback.

Questions Remain
As for the Steelers, lots of questions remain. Why is the offense so disjointed? Why couldn't the offense finish drives and do better than one score in four red zone appearances? Why did the offense score only 10 points despite accumulating 35 minutes and 17 seconds time of possession? Why did the Steelers allow four sacks? To his credit, as usual, Roethlisberger absolved his line of any blame; still, the O-line was not dominant.

Le'Veon Bell, stepping out
Some Good Things
On the plus side, Heath Miller was his steady, reliable outstanding self. Both LeGarrette Blount and Le'Veon Bell did some good things. Antonio Brown was his exciting, playmaking self.

Ben Roethlisberger spread the ball around to 11 receivers, which we understand is an NFL record. Repeat: Eleven receivers caught passes. That's impressive. And Roethlisberger completed 15 of his last 17 passes.

Also on the plus side, on the defensive side of the ball, Cortez Allen stepped up his game, finally, with an interception, three passes defensed and seven tackles. Lawrence Timmons led the defense with seven tackles. Jason Worilds had a sack and three tackles-for-loss even if he seemed to be largely invisible for much of the game. As a unit, though, the front seven was so-so, and Steelers' fans wouldn't be blamed for thinking Jags' linebacker Paul Posluszny (Aliquippa/Hopewell; Penn State) would look good in a Steeler uniform.

At the end of the proverbial day, a win is a win, and Steeler Nation is glad the Black 'n Gold escaped from stinkin' Jacksonville with one in the win column when all was said and done. The Steelers were able to close the deal, finally.

Next game: At Cleveland, 1 p.m., next Sunday, Oct. 12th. The Browns, by the way, scored the biggest comeback by road team in NFL history, coming from an NFL-record 25 points behind to beat the Titans in Nashville. They're going to be psyched to take on the Steelers. If the Steelers show up like they should, it will be a Dog Fight in the Dawg Pound.

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