It was the story of this game, and because this game came in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, it will be the one that defines their season. And so it will be that the 2017 Steelers will be remembered as a team that failed to deliver.
They failed to deliver on both their promise and their promises, and because of that it all came to an end yesterday at Heinz Field. The season of DMR and Shalieve, the season that was finally supposed to mark the occasion of the slaying of the New England dragon, all of it came to a crashing halt by virtue of a 45-42 defeat by the Jacksonville Jaguars the never really seemed as close as that final score might indicate.
Right up until the moment the ball went on the tee for the 1:05 p.m. opening kickoff, it seemed inconceivable that the Steelers would score six touchdowns against the Jaguars and still lose, but then over the course of the next three hours and 22 minutes, inconceivable would become the theme of the afternoon.
It seemed inconceivable that the Steelers would have 28 first downs, convert 50 percent on possession downs, put up 545 total net yards, be penalized only four times, be perfect in the red zone, be perfect in goal-to-go situations, own the edge in time of possession … and yet need a garbage time touchdown with one second remaining to get themselves close enough to lose only by three points.
But that’s exactly what happened.
“They won the moments … They made the significant plays in the moments and that is what you have to do in order to advance,” said Mike Tomlin.
Indeed the Jaguars did. It can be characterized as the Jaguars winning the moments, those critical plays in crucial situations that ultimately separate winning and losing games in the NFL. But in most of those same instances, it also can be characterized as the Steelers losing those moments.
Right from the start – after the Steelers won the toss and elected to defer to force the Jaguars to begin the game with their offense on the field – the Steelers failed to handle the moment. After Jacksonville’s first offensive play was the expected run by Leonard Fournette that gained 5 yards, the Jaguars put the ball in quarterback Blake Bortles’ hands, and he completed three successive short passes resulting in a combined gain of 53 yards that moved the ball from their own 39-yard line to the Steelers 8-yard line, from where Fournette took over to give the Jaguars a 7-0 lead.
The Jaguars were carrying the baggage of a 1-9 record in their last 10 postseason games played in frigid temperatures with them on their charter flight to Pittsburgh, and the Steelers failed in an early moment to use the 18-degree temperatures and an energetic home crowd to put the opponent on its heels. And that failure was just the beginning of what would become a disturbing and costly trend.
Despite all of the gaudy numbers the offense produced, it failed on a couple of fourth-and-short situations where the choice of plays was curious. With one of the best offensive lines in football and with the option of fullback Rosie Nix in front of Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers eschewed power running plays in favor of a toss sweep on the first fourth-and-1 and a pass down the field on the second fourth-and-1.
Not to be left out, the defense failed to capitalize on several of the moments it was presented, mostly in situations where it needed stops or takeaways. The Jaguars ran 61 offensive plays, and the Steelers defense finished with no sacks, no takeaways, only one tackle for loss when defending Jacksonville’s 35 running plays, and only four hits on Bortles. To pick a play that summed up how easy the Steelers defense made it for the Jaguars throughout much of the game, I offer a third-and-5 from the Jacksonville 30-yard line with 7:49 remaining in a game the Steelers trailed by 35-28.
Get a stop there, maybe force a turnover, and there would be plenty of time left for the offense to come back to tie the game. Instead, Bortles threw a simple swing pass into the left flat for running back T.J. Yeldon, who caught the ball and ran straight down the sideline for 40 yards to the Steelers 30-yard line. That might have been the easiest 40 yards of the season for Jacksonville.
Mike Tomlin failed in a moment that came up with 2:01 remaining. The Steelers had just scored their fifth touchdown to cut the Jaguars lead to 42-35, and there was 2:01 on the clock and they had two timeouts remaining. A kickoff out of the end zone would’ve given the Steelers three chances to stop the clock – the two-minute warning and their two timeouts – but instead Tomlin ordered an onside kick attempt. Even as porous as the defense had been, a successful onside kick is a longer shot than forcing the Jaguars to punt after a three-and-out. When the onside kick attempt failed even to travel the required 10 yards to have a chance to be recovered, the resulting field position was good enough it was good enough to set up an easy field goal that put the game out of reach.
During that well-publicized “elephant in the room” interview with Tony Dungy that aired on NBC back in November, Tomlin said this Steelers team was good enough to win a championship this year, and that it should win a championship this year.
This loss to the Jaguars made sure that won’t happen, and that’s disappointing. But that this loss to the Jaguars resulted from a complete failure to come up big in any of the key moments that determine the outcome in a game of this magnitude is as disappointing as the outcome itself.
Maybe more disappointing.