Jaguars turn sloppy weather into clean victory

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Is it Maurice Jones-Drew, or Maurice Jones-Draw?

Because in my copious notes from yesterday's wind-whipped walk in a Steelers winter blunderland, I've got Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew down for two Maurice Jones-Drew draws that savaged Pittsburgh's stunningly vulnerable defense.

Two electrifying, classical, playbook draw plays that were a critical component of a 29-22 Jaguars victory plainly established Jacksonville as a more viable playoff entity than the Steelers, at least for the moment, even if the Jaguars still haven't clinched a wild card berth in the hyper-competitive AFC South.

"We controlled the line of scrimmage," center Brad Meester said from what was a highly unusual vantage point for such an observation, namely the visiting locker room at Heinz Field. "I think we sent a huge message. They've got a great team, but it's huge to be playing your best football in December. It's the right time to be peaking."

The twin peaks of yesterday's fourth Jaguars conquest of Pittsburgh in the past five collisions between these two clubs were scaled by the 5-7, 208-pound Jones-Drew, once on third-and-10 from the Pittsburgh 28 early in the second half, and again at an even more urgent station, 3rd-and-11 from the Steelers' 32 with three minutes left and the scoreboard illuminating four deuces, 22-22.

Jones-Drew sliced into the squishy Steelers run defense for 17 yards on the first one, resuscitating the scoring drive that put Jacksonville up by nine points, and when the home club rallied for the 22-22 draw nearly a quarter later, Jones-Drew fuel-injected the winning drive. He took the same handoff on the same play from quarterback David Garrard and thundered 20 lethal yards right down Main Street.

The brilliant Fred Taylor scored on a 12-yard run two plays later to boost the Jaguars into the lead for good.

"You guys should be talking to the offensive linemen, because they did this," Jones-Drew advised a knot of reporters at his locker. "All we had to do was find the holes. We were able to throw the ball a little bit, but with the wind, it was tough. We had to run and we knew this was going to be a man's game today. We kept communicating, me and Fred, and when he'd come out he'd tell me what he was seeing, and when I came out, I'd tell him what I was seeing."

Mostly they were seeing scads of snow-blown daylight, because those 224 rushing yards against the Steelers were no mirage. Taylor got 147 on 25 carries, Jones-Drew another 69 on just 12, 37 of them on the two back-breaking draw plays.

"We're not some soft Southern team," offensive tackle Tony Pashos said 20 minutes after Jacksonville won precisely the kind of environmental hardship at which the Steelers are expected to excel. "We played very tough today, played with a chip on our shoulder. We never care what the score says, we go where we have to and do what we have to do."

The Jaguars have 10 wins and dates with Oakland and Houston remaining on a developing schedule that should deliver them the sixth playoff season in franchise history in plenty of time for Christmas. When they get there, no one will be challenging their credentials.

This team has won 10 of its past 13, including six in a row against the now highly suspect AFC North, in which the Cleveland Browns are co-leaders, and is 5-2 on the road this year. The Jacksonville offense had been averaging more than 28 points over the past seven games, then put up 29 yesterday against a team that had been limiting opponents to 9.1 points per game at home this season.

"I think this team has a real good feel about what we can accomplish this year," head coach Jack Del Rio said. "I think the guys are hungry for more. We've played some good football teams this year."

For some long stretches yesterday, you had to wonder whether Pittsburgh would be counted among those.

To start the third quarter, Jacksonville embarked on a 20-play odyssey that lasted about as long as a Russian novel playing out against the whitened backdrop. To sustain it, the Jaguars converted two third-and-8s, one third-and-9, one third-and-10, and two fourth-and-1s. Del Rio rolled the dice on fourth down 29 times coming into yesterday's game, 10 more than any other club. He went 3 for 3 yesterday.

The 20-play drive took 9:40 off the clock, which was primarily the reason the Steelers lost the time-of-possession battle for the first time this season. The game-winner was a 63-yard, eight-play affair with Taylor rumbling the final 12.

"The offensive line deserves a majority of the credit," Taylor said. "They opened up some great lanes for me. But it doesn't matter where, our field, their field, it doesn't matter because we just go out and play football."

"It feels great to be a Jaguar right now," Garrard said. "These guys played their butts off today in sloppy conditions, a sloppy track, windy day; but we did enough to come out of here with a win. That's how it's going to be pretty much from here on out, especially when we get into the playoffs."

You might want to write that one down.


Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.


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