Nearly caught catnapping: Big, early lead almost vanishes
Troy Polamalu tackles Jaguars running back Deji Karim for a loss in the second quarter Sunday at Heinz Field.
Share with others:
The Steelers ran out to their fourth victory and again had to do so looking over their shoulders near the finish line. They have been the hare a few times this season, flashing easily to nice leads early and then nearly falling asleep as the tortoise creeps up on them.
It happened again Sunday as fans at Heinz Field and those on the home sideline watched Blaine Gabbert's desperation pass fall incomplete in the end zone and the Steelers prevailed, 17-13, against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
It is a game the Steelers once led, 17-0, against a heavy underdog and nearly blew it, just as they managed to hang on to a victory against another heavy underdog in Indianapolis, 23-20.
"We have to be better if we want to be great," defensive end Brett Keisel said.
He was great, right up to the end when he sacked Gabbert for a 10-yard loss on the first play of a Jaguars drive that began with a minute to go and no timeouts left. Without that sack, the Jaguars would have been in much better position to pull off the biggest comeback victory by an opponent in Heinz Field history. As it was, they reached the Steelers' 48 and had two seconds left for the final play.
"It wasn't the kind of finish we were looking for but obviously we will take it," coach Mike Tomlin said.
It improved their record to 4-2 after two consecutive home victories. Jacksonville, a 13-point underdog, is 1-5.
"We have to do better at closing teams out when we can," Keisel said.
Keisel and linebacker LaMarr Woodley were among the good things that happened Sunday for the Steelers. Each had two sacks and Keisel batted another pass into the air that Ziggy Hood almost intercepted.
The long wait for Rashard Mendenhall's reappearance also ended. After missing the previous game with a hamstring injury, Mendenhall ran 23 times for 146 yards, including an 8-yard touchdown run and a 68-yard run.
"That's the Mendenhall I've always known," said tackle Max Starks, the only Steelers player with a 2-0 record. "I was glad to have him back."
Almost always, the Steelers have no problems winning when a back runs for 146, and certainly not when they score touchdowns on their first two possessions to take a 14-0 lead.
Mendenhall ended their first drive of 87 yards with his touchdowns run, and Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Wallace ended the second when they hooked up for another deep touchdown pass, this one for 28 yards.
And, then, on their third drive when Mendenhall scooted 68 yards on the first play to the 2 (2 yards tacked on for a face-mask penalty), the rout was on.
At least, it should have been on. Even though Mendenhall had just sprinted 68 yards, even though Isaac Redman is their acknowledged short-yardage back everywhere but when it really counts inside the 5, the Steelers gave Mendenhall the ball on the very next play.
The play lost 1 yard and after two consecutive incomplete passes, Shaun Suisham kicked a 21-yard field goal.
"We made eye contact," Tomlin said as to why Mendenhall got the very next carry. "He nodded that he was good."
The Steelers led, 17-0, but they came off feeling they had blown an opportunity for another four points.
As for points, there would be no more for them on this day.
"If you get out to a 17-point lead and get comfortable, you take it off their throat," said Wallace, who caught two passes for 76 yards, both in the first half. "We have to keep the same intensity the whole game. We started out with a lot of intensity and then we fell off a little bit."
Nowhere was the drop-off, at least statistically, more evident than at quarterback. Roethlisberger completed 11 of 18 passes for 181 yards and no sacks in the first half. He was 1 of 5 for 19 yards and all three sacks in the second half in an often swirling, gusty wind. He did hit Wallace with two deep passes but he was off the mark on a handful of others, either overthrowing or underthrowing receivers, especially Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders. He also overthrew Antonio Brown in the end zone from the 3.
"I have to make the necessary adjustments to purely focus on driving the ball and spinning it through the wind," Roethlisberger said. "When it is blowing, you have to put a lot of spin on the ball and I wasn't doing that."
After piling up 315 yards in the first half, the Steelers offense managed just 55 in the second and their special teams did not help the cause either.
Suisham missed a field goal from 46 yards and, with the punt block on, Ryan Mundy dived into Jacksonville's Nick Harris on fourth-and-21 at the Jaguars' 20. The 15-yard penalty kept a drive going that covered 80 yards over 17 plays and included another fourth-down conversion and ended with Gabbert completing an 18-yard pass to Jason Hill in the middle of the end zone over Ike Taylor.
It was Jacksonville's first play of the second half and it brought them within a touchdown and had that oh-oh feeling to it.
"I think that penalty kind of gave them a second chance, a second breath," Mundy said. "But we all stuck together at the end of the game."
They would not breathe easier for a while and, again, some of it hinged on a punt.
Daniel Sepulveda, who was the sixth-best punter in the league coming into the game, shanked one into the wind that carried just 23 yards and gave Jacksonville a first down at its 48 with 7:13 left and trailing by just seven points.
The Jaguars moved to the Steelers' 27 where, on fourth-and-6 with 4:22 left, coach Jack Del Rio changed his mind to go for it after a timeout and instead elected for Josh Scobee to kick a 45-yard field goal.
"It was a bad look with what we had up and we elected to go ahead and take a field goal and allow our defense to get the ball back," Del Rio explained.
They did so after a Steelers first down helped eat up some of the clock. And then Keisel helped eat up some more with his sack. Then they watched Gabbert's final pass fall incomplete in the end zone, Keisel offering up one final wish: "Don't let him catch it, please."
He did not, Jacksonville did not quite catch the Steelers and relief washed over the home team after they escaped with another victory they had in their pocket by halftime.
First Published October 17, 2011 12:00 am