Labriola On

Labriola on the win over the Jaguars

The only thing notable about it was the outcome, and the only reason the outcome was notable was because it was their 10th in a row. Everything else about Steelers 27, Jaguars 3 at TIAA Bank Field was workman-like, a collection of guys doing what they're supposed to do, contributing in ways typical of their job descriptions to the desired outcome. Nothing more, and most importantly, nothing less.

The Steelers 2020 regular season schedule could have been compartmentalized and viewed in segments, with each segment holding a different but serious challenge to their talent, focus, and professionalism. This most recent segment followed the three-game set of Cleveland at home, at Tennessee, at Baltimore, and it preceded a segment starting with the Thanksgiving night rematch with the Ravens, then Washington at home, and at Buffalo.

This just-completed in-between segment contained teams that were bad, injured, or both, teams in the midst of below-.500 seasons, teams that have to be defeated in order to rise to the status of contender. These were exactly the kinds of games that had given them trouble, and derailed winning streaks, and stopped momentum, and in some cases ultimately kept them from qualifying for the postseason. But not this year. Not this team.

These Steelers went to Dallas and survived the Cowboys, and then they dispatched Cincinnati and Jacksonville to the degree that backup quarterback Mason Rudolph got to play in the fourth quarters of both games. And they did it while living up to Coach Mike Tomlin's description of them: "The only thing perfect about this team is our record."

So now they're 10-0 and staring down the barrel of the stretch of their schedule that begins with a rematch vs. the Ravens and also will include a trip to Buffalo for a game against a Bills team currently atop the AFC East. Within their own division, their 10-0 is good for a three-and-a-half-game lead over the Browns, and a four-and-a-half-game lead over the Ravens. But mathematics aside, what 10-0 has done for the Steelers is allow them to learn about themselves, show them that they can depend on each other, help them believe they truly have what it takes.

Because talking heads and power polls and arbitrary Top 10 lists aside, these Steelers possess the trait that teams must have to get into a position where they earn the opportunity to play for a championship.

"Players who are capable of rising up in those moments, and we all know what those moments are," is the way Tomlin describes it. "We don't have to describe them, we know when we're there. Significant players deliver significant plays in weighty moments, and that generally comprises the general makeup of really good football teams."

While the 2020 Steelers have been able to depend upon some of their players delivering for them on a consistent basis, what gives this team the potential to be special is that others have begun to share the burden of delivering in weighty moments as well. Against the Jaguars, a nine-minute span of the second quarter set the tone for the rest of the afternoon and put the Steelers on the path to a comfortable victory.

A 44-yard field goal by Chris Boswell tied the game, 3-3, and then Jacksonville's offense responded with a largely self-inflicted three-and-out. After the punt, the Steelers got an easy 15 yards because of a lowering-the-helmet penalty on Myles Jack, but otherwise their offense wasn't humming on all cylinders. As they broke the huddle to face a third-and-5 from the Jacksonville 46-yard line, the Steelers were 1-for-4 on third downs. Even though the game's outcome was not hanging on this third-and-5, it still qualified as a weighty moment because the course of the game was going to be altered by how that play turned out.

Ben Roethlisberger made a pretty throw to the left sideline where James Washington secured the catch and dragged his feet inbounds to complete it for a 12-yard gain that moved the chains. The first time in the game Washington was given an opportunity to touch the ball, be came through, which then allowed Roethlisberger to throw a 31-yard touchdown pass to Chase Claypool on the next play to put the Steelers in the lead, 10-3.

Jacksonville still had some fight left, and it revealed itself when its offense took the field following Boswell's kickoff that went for a touchback.

An 18-yard run by James Robinson became a 33-yard gain when Steven Nelson was penalized 15 yards for unnecessary roughness, and three plays later the Jaguars had moved an additional 34 yards to a first down at the Pittsburgh 12-yard line. Another weighty moment was at hand, because a tying touchdown would negate the Steelers momentum and send the game back to a place where the Jaguars could still believe they had a chance to win it.

On second down, Tyson Alualu was pushing the pocket and when he saw he wasn't going to get close enough to get his hands on Jacksonville quarterback Jake Luton, he threw up an arm as the ball was released. Alualu got a piece of the pass as it crossed the line of scrimmage, enough of a piece to alter its course enough for Minkah Fitzpatrick to range over and make the interception on a dead run, which launched him on a 37-yard return to the Steelers 39-yard line. Seven plays later, Benny Snell punched the ball across the goal line, and instead of forging a tie the Jaguars found themselves in a 17-3 hole, with the flow of the game having been turned permanently in the Steelers' favor.

"You've got to speed up to get the ball (when it's tipped) because there are probably three or four other people in the area who are trying to go get it," said Fitzpatrick. "You know if you get a good break, you just got to go get it. It definitely doesn't slow down. You definitely have to speed up in your sense of urgency getting to the ball."

A team that opens a season with 10 wins in a row must have a properly channeled sense of urgency, and the Steelers' version so far has been without peaks and valleys, without inflated egos and jealousy getting in the way.

"As long as we win football games, we don't need to compare ourselves to anybody else, offensively, defensively, any other team or anything like that," said Roethlisberger. "We feel like we're our own unique team and that we're special in who we are, so we just want to win and do everything we can to win a Super Bowl."

And what they've shown so far in 2020 is that they not only want to win, but they're willing to put in the work to make it happen.

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