This is a game that many of us will be talking about 20 years from now and still shaking our heads. To me, it defined the season. The 13-3 regular season was gaudy but hid cracks. Just about everyone I knew had high expectations coming into this season and coming into this playoff game.
These expectations were not baseless. After all, Pittsburgh had the “Killer B’s.” An offensive unit that set the standard at 30 points a game. That’s what we were told the standard was the year before and with the acquisition of tight end Vance McDonald and 2nd round draft pick JuJu Smith-Schuster there seemed no reason to adjust the standard that was set by the players themselves.
Despite missing the mark; the team did average 25.4 points a game and in games when the offense did not meet the standard the defense came through. A new killer B was also initiated as Chris Boswell kicked four game winning field goals (in 3 of those games he also closed out the 1st half with field goals). Boswell also was a significant contributor in victories against the Minnesota Vikings with four field goals and five in the first Cincinnati Bengals game. Alas, he was not given the opportunity to be a hero against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The defense recorded 56 sacks and helped win games when the offense was not scoring. Yet disturbing trends were apparent; inexperienced or back-up quarterbacks throwing long touchdown plays or scrambling for key first downs. Running backs gashing big runs. Big drives by the opponents to open a half. As for the secondary, we were told it was communications. Heck with a bye week going into the playoff that could be refined.
Despite those warts; there was reason for optimism. This was a team with eight pro bowlers. Four were named to the all-pro team including Cam Heyward. There was the devastating injury to Ryan Shazier, but the team was drawing inspiration from him. Going into the game against the Jaguars; Ryan was the only significant player lost due to injury.
The offense going into this game had a pro bowl line with Maurkice Pouncey; Ramon Foster; David DeCastro; Marcus Gilbert and Alejandro Villanueva plus Chris Hubbard who many believe could be a starting offensive tackle if the were on another team. The killer B’s with Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant ready to go with two weeks of prep time for this game. Vance McDonald was rumored to be a key part of the offense going into the playoffs with Jesse James itching to avenge the touchdown that Al Riveron took away from him … and there was JuJu too!
The defense was second fiddle but had set a franchise record of 56 sacks. Changes in scheme consigned James Harrison to be an insurance policy and later when a roster spot was needed expendable. But even this second fiddle has talent. Five starters were first round draft picks not including Ryan Shazier. Five more were drafted in ether the 2nd or 3rd rounds. Vince Williams as a 6th rounder was the lone starter with a lack of pedigree. The defense even had a former 1st rounder as a back-up in Tyson Alualu. I was salivating at the prospect of this defense going against a Blake Bortles led offense that only managed 10 points against the Buffalo Bills. The formula seemed obvious, stop Leonard Fournette and force Bortles to pass. The offense helps by scoring early to take a leaf and make the Jaguars play catch up.
Early on the city of Pittsburgh was having weather problems; snow and frigid temperatures followed by some flooding closed off part of 376 a major artery into the city. The clippers that transports thousands of fans from Station Square was unable to operate due to the river conditions. Despite the cold weather and transport issues; 64,524 fans entered Heinz Field – 94.3% full. Some Jaguars fans flew up from Florida but not many. This was a Black & Gold crowd and besides the cold weather was a bane for the warm weather Jacksonville team.
Sitting by the Steeler’s entrance tunnel the team looked focused. Cam Heyward walked by looking straight ahead ignoring shouts for his attention. He looked focused with nothing but destruction of an anemic Jaguar’s offense on his mind – I did not want to be the object of his attention. Billy Gardell told us before the game – we are going to kick this team’s butt – though his exact language was much more colorful.
The Steelers win the toss and defer. Everyone thought perfect! Force a three and out the Steelers then get the ball and score. The bonus is that the Steelers will get the ball to open the 2nd half. All looked promising.
Only the defense did not deliver. Instead of a three and out; the Jaguars drives 66 yards. Fournette opens with a 5-yard run and caps the drive with a 1-yard touchdown on 4th down. In between; Blake Bortles throws for 53-yards and looking sharp.
“They came out with some nice scripted things we weren’t ready for,” linebacker Vince Williams said. #Steelers
— Steelers Depot (@Steelersdepot) January 15, 2018
It is very plain to me that if the team was not prepared for these changes; then by definition they were outcoached. Was Keith Butler expecting the Jaguars to use the same offensive scheme that failed against the Bills? But the players contributed to the disappointment. Jacksonville had zero pro bowlers on the offensive line. All-Pro Cam Heyward recorded one tackle. No sacks, no tackles for a loss; he was shut down.
But his defensive teammates did no better as the 56-sack unit recorded zero sacks, zero turnovers while allowing 214 yards in the air and 164 yards on the ground. In the past, the defense had lapses but then would comeback to shut down an offense after adjusting. During this game; after 28 first half points; I believed it would happen. The offense could make up two touchdowns; but 17 Jaguar points in the 4th quarter completed the beatdown of the Pittsburgh defense.
Except for Artie Burns defending a couple passes; Heinz Field could have played Renegade on an endless loop and this defense still could not shutdown Jacksonville at the critical times. 5 for 5 in the red zone? 8-14 on 3rd down? 38 points scored by the Jaguars offense? This pedigree defense has a lot of high draft choices but as a unit played poorly; communicated poorly and were coach poorly.
The offense scored a lot of points on an excellent defense but failed to deliver at key moments and contributed to the disaster. Down by a touchdown, the first Steelers drive was a three and out. The second Steelers drive started with All-Pro Le’Veon Bell running behind his pro bowl offensive line up the middle for minus 1 yard. Ben Roethlisberger’s pass intended bounced off Vance McDonald into Myles Jack’s hands. One played later Leonard Fournette runs behind his pro bowl less offensive line for a 17-yard touchdown.
The third drive was a little better.
The Steelers drove all the way to the Jacksonville 21 just outside the red zone. On a 4th and 1, the Steelers inexplicably ran a pitch play after a Jaguars timeout. Maybe the extra time gave the Steelers coaches too much time to think. Ben indicated that he is willing to run quarterback sneaks. He has been very successful when he has done it but have not seen it attempted in several seasons. Ben has always been noted as an improviser – why not goose Pouncey and plunge forward? Or at the very least; handoff to Le’Veon Bell who is not a small back to take a plunge? Todd Haley and Mike Tomlin who listens in on all the calls failed. A pitch to the short side of the field where Jalen Ramsey the Jaguars best defender is ready to pounce? Avoiding the middle because they had linemen there? Someone was living in their fears. Ben Roethlisberger also failed. He can audible anytime and had time in the huddle to tell Pouncey we are goosing. This amounted to a turnover that Jacksonville took and drove down the field for a 21-0 lead.
The offense scored but Ben had to wait for players to get open. This worked most of the time; he was only sacked twice but one was catastrophic. The defense had forced a punt. The Steelers had just scored and were driving with it 21-7. Ben is sacked, and the fumble taken in for a 50-yard touchdown. Throwing on 4th and 11 is desperation. 32 seconds left in the half and the Steelers were desperate. Pittsburgh fans including me were booing the Steelers by the end of the first quarter. I hear calls for Haley to be fired; then a guy is telling they should get rid of Martavis Bryant – literally seconds before Ben releases a beautiful pass and Martavis makes a clutch catch to at least put the Steelers in range. Same guy is cheering his head off. We are a fickle bunch.
The Steelers played from behind the entire game. Every time the Steelers looked like they would tie it up; the Jaguars had an answer. The Steelers had another 4th and 1 in Jacksonville territory with the score 21-28 early in the 4th quarter. Instead of a quarterback sneak (WWTBD?) or a plunge by Bell; Pittsburgh still living in their fears or outsmarting themselves chose to pass. The incomplete amounted to another turnover which Jacksonville converted into a touchdown. Instead of driving to tie the game; the offensive failure lead to 14-point deficit. Antonio Brown made a brilliant touchdown pass on 4th and 5 – again desperation.
The Steelers played poorly on both offense and defense though some great individual efforts on desperation plays racked up some points. Ben running with the ball lateraled to Bell to make it a one touchdown game with 2:18 left. The fans at Heinz Field were still there; we believed there was still a chance.
Right or wrong that onside kick meant that the defense had to force a three and out. Unfortunately, Fournette’s 5-yard gain on 3rd down meant the Jaguars had a 45-yard attempt instead of 51 yards. Once it was converted; the fan started to file out though many remained still looking for the miracle to happen. Martavis Bryant showed great effort in catching and making it out of bounds but that was really it. Ben was called for intentionally grounding to prevent a sack. He did connect with JuJu for a touchdown (the third 4th down TD pass of the game for Ben) but there was no more time. The score might have been 42-45 but Jacksonville dominated.
I had wanted to write about all the great events leading up to the game. Spending time with Steeler Matt a way above average fan from Charlotte, North Carolina. The Steelers pep rally at Stage AE; tailgating with Steelers fans from Baltimore, Virginia and other places. The Steelers fans we met from British Columbia and Toronto. The Steelers fan who was born in Berlin, Germany but now lives outside Pittsburgh with her two sons that are Black & Gold all the way now.
The local Burghers including Kevin from the Hill; who told Steelers Matt that his gloves were too thin the day before the game; Kevin left Lefty’s in the Strip District and came back a few minutes later with thicker gloves so that Matt would not be too cold. But, there is too much disappointment that I am still processing to focus on whatever silver lining, if any, there is on this dark cloud of a game. Steeler Matt equated the feelings to that of a high schooler who has just been jilted by their first love. Here is Steeler Matt and me in happier times about 14 hours before kickoff:
Disappointment in a team that promised a lot. Talked smack a lot. Acknowledged the “elephant in the room.” All I can advise is that, “when you have to shoot; shoot. Don’t talk.” Disappointment in a team that was outcoached & outplayed when all the pieces were place to succeed. This team had more talent than last year’s edition going into the playoffs but took a step backward. There needs to be accountability. I am waiting to see how the ownership; the head coach and the team leaders handle it.
Next year is going to be a challenge. Steelers Depot contributor Tim Rice pointed out to me that the 2018 schedule is daunting: In addition to the home & away matches with the AFC North the Steelers will host the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, Kansas City Chiefs, California Chargers, & the NFL Patriots again. The road games include Denver Broncos, Jacksonville Jaguars, New Orleans Saints, Oakland Raiders & Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Yoi!
Mike Tomlin is fond as describing each season as a Journey. My journey with this team has been for more than 45 years; I still Shalieve. Don’t stop believing. This loss is very hard to take; but I know that it hurts you players more than any fan could know. Just like Ryan; this team needs to adapt to this misfortune and drive on. Shazier has shown rare strength. Likewise, Steelers Nation is strong.
We will get through this and move on to 2018.