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Steelers 20, Jaguars 16: Offense earns its ‘comeback’ badge

It’s one thing for the Steelers to shove a 50-Burger down the Panthers’ throats.

It’s one thing for Ben Roethlisberger to earn a perfect passer rating.

It’s one thing to score 177 points during a five-game stretch, a franchise record the Steelers had achieved heading into Sunday’s game in Jacksonville, according to the Elias Sports Bureau via ESPN.

Those dizzying numbers are nice, but the Steelers’ offense added another feather to its already decorated cap in Sunday’s 20-16 win over the Jaguars.

After being shackled for almost three quarters by an elite defense, the Steelers somehow scored enough points to take down their 2017 tormentors.

The Jaguars defeated the Steelers 30-9 at Pittsburgh in Week 5 last season and then stunned them 45-42 in the divisional playoffs at Pittsburgh.

They’ve fallen on hard times this season, dropping to 3-7 with Sunday’s defeat. But with their third-ranked defense, they haunted the Steelers Sunday. They intercepted Roethlisberger three times, limiting him to 10 completions in 23 attempts for 60 yards in the first 43 minutes of the game. They held the Steelers to 2.4 rushing yards per attempt in the game.

When Antonio Brown broke free for a 78-yard touchdown reception from Roethlisberger to finally put the Steelers on the board and reduce their deficit to 16-6 with 1:17 left in the third quarter, it still looked like all they’d do was preserve Mike Tomlin’s shutout-free record. The Steelers haven’t been blanked since the Ravens beat them 27-0 in Week 12 of the 2006 season, according to Pro Football Reference.

Sunday’s game took on the feel of a more recent game, the Steelers’ 20-13 loss at the Jets in Week 10 of the 2014 season. The Steelers had won three in a row and were riding the hubris of two straight six-touchdown games by Roethlisberger. Then they got punched in the mouth by the 1-8 Jets. An 80-yard touchdown pass to Martavis Bryant with 1:16 left gave the Steelers hope in that one, but it wouldn’t be enough.

Like that play, it seemed Brown’s touchdown Sunday would be a bright spot on an otherwise dismal afternoon. But the Steelers have come a long way since 2014. They ended a two-year playoff drought that year but proved too soft to be serious championship contenders. When Le’Veon Bell was injured in Week 17 and lost for the playoffs, the Steelers were toast.

The 2018 Steelers are 7-2-1 without Bell, and if they hadn’t already acquitted themselves of any “soft” chatter, one of the many ways they proved their mettle on Sunday was by overcoming two consecutive James Conner blunders on their game-winning drive.

Conner wasn’t looking when Roethlisberger threw him a pass, then he dropped what could have been a touchdown pass on the next play, setting up third-and-10 from the Jaguars’ 27 with 50 seconds left. But the Steelers, trailing 16-13 at the time, weren’t going to settle for a field goal and rely on a coin flip.

Roethlisberger fired a 25-yard pass to Brown, who finally bested Jalen Ramsey after Ramsey stifled him all day and even stole a touchdown pass from him for one of his two interceptions.

After the Brown completion, Roethlisberger spiked the ball to stop the clock with 23 seconds left. Then two straight Jaguars penalties, the first of which wiped out what would have been a game-clinching interception by D.J. Hayden, set the stage for Roethlisberger’s dramatic and borderline scary 1-yard touchdown dive with five seconds left.

That ball wouldn’t leave Roethlisberger’s hands. Not for the rest of the game. Not during his postgame interview with CBS’ Tracy Wolfson. Meanwhile, Tomlin shed his mirrored shades as he went around slapping hands with any Steeler he could find.

The Steelers reduced the Jaguars’ chances of making the playoffs to less than 2 percent, according to MakeNFLPlayoffs.com, avenging last year’s playoff defeat by virtually eliminating them from playoff contention.

For a while there, it looked like the Jaguars would re-surface on the Steelers’ championship-contender to-do list.

Eventually, the Steelers probably will have to get past the Patriots and/or Chiefs to have a legitimate shot at a seventh Lombardi Trophy. Had they not beaten the Jaguars Sunday, they would have given them life and raised the possibility facing this team once again in the postseason.

The Jaguars’ woes this year are due largely to Leonard Fournette missing six games with a hamstring injury. They were 2-1 with Fournette entering Sunday’s game, and Fournette trampled the Steelers for 73 yards on 14 carries in the first half.

Carlos Hyde added 45 yards on six carries and T.J. Yeldon gained 23 yards on five carries as the Jaguars built a 9-0 halftime lead against a Steelers run defense that was missing Stephon Tuitt.

Fournette increased the Jags’ lead to 16-0 on a 2-yard run with two minutes left in the third quarter.

But the Steelers defense allowed no first downs after that, and Fournette gained just 22 yards on 14 second-half carries.

That defense gave the Steelers the confidence to go for it on fourth down still trailing 16-6 from the Jacksonville 43 with 6:53 left. The attempt failed, but that was OK because Javon Hargrave punctuated the third of the Jaguars’ four straight three-and-outs by batting down a third-down pass to stop the clock with 5:19 left. That play, which essentially gave the Steelers an extra timeout, capped a career-high two-sack day for Hargrave.

JuJu Smith-Schuster has had bigger days than Sunday’s eight-catch, 104-yard performance. But four of those catches and 74 of those yards came in the final five minutes. The second-year man leads Steelers receivers in catches (64), receiving yards (866) and yards per reception (13.5). He moved the Steelers 39 yards with catches on three straight plays to set up Vance McDonald‘s 11-yard touchdown from Roethlisberger with 2:28 left that narrowed the Jaguars’ lead to 16-13.

The Steelers got the ball back with 1:54 left, and completed the franchise’s first comeback from a second-half deficit of 16 or more since they trailed by 17 in the second half of their 2002 wild-card win over the Browns.

The Steelers improved to 12-12 all-time against the Jags since that team came into the league in 1995. They’ve won three straight games at Jacksonville to improve to 6-7 all-time in that venue.

In the first of those three straight wins, the Steelers only needed to come back from a one-point deficit. In 2008, they trailed 21-20 with two minutes left when Roethlisberger escaped a sack on third down and threw an eight-yard touchdown pass to Hines Ward. The Steelers went on to win that game 26-21.

Just like this year, the Steelers avenged the previous season’s regular-season and playoff home losses to the Jaguars. Jacksonville won 29-22 in Week 15 at Pittsburgh in 2007, then three weeks later edged the Steelers 31-29 in a wild-card game at Pittsburgh.

Then in 2008 the Steelers won at Jacksonville, and went on to win the Super Bowl.

Just sayin’.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets

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