The Pittsburgh Steelers spent 30 minutes Sunday reminding the seemingly overmatched Jacksonville Jaguars why they’re the defending AFC champions.
Then they spent 30 minutes reminding the rest of the NFL why they’re so vulnerable.
Pittsburgh narrowly avoided a stunning collapse in a 17-13 victory, a second straight win that hardly felt like one.
”We didn’t play the style of football that we like to play in the second half,” coach Mike Tomlin said.
The Steelers (4-2) managed just 70 yards in the second half and let the youthful Jaguars (1-5) hang around until the final play.
Not exactly the confidence builder Pittsburgh was looking for heading into the meat of its schedule following a four-game tour through the AFC South. Making matters worse, the team removed All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu from the game in the fourth quarter after experiencing what Tomlin called ”concussion-like symptoms.”
Another mixed bag from the Steelers, who struggled to put consecutive solid performances together.
”We just have to be consistent,” wide receiver Hines Ward said. ”We are not doing it on a consistent level yet. But we’re getting there.”
So perhaps is Jacksonville, even if the team’s five-game losing streak matches the franchise’s longest in a decade.
Maurice Jones-Drew rushed for 96 yards and a day after celebrating his 22nd birthday, rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert shook off five sacks to complete 12 of 26 passes for 109 yards and a touchdown. He put the Jaguars in a position to win it with a last-second heave that sailed harmlessly to the back of the end zone.
”We had chances to score,” Gabbert said. ”We’ve got to come out with more energy in the first half and play the game, start off the game, like we did in the second half, having that sense of urgency.”
Instead it was the Steelers who had the urgency early, racing to a 17-0 lead behind running back Rashard Mendenhall, who sat out last week’s 38-17 romp over Tennessee with a balky hamstring.
Reserves Jonathan Dwyer and Issac Redman played so well in Mendenhall’s absence, Tomlin said he’d likely split carries this week. Mendenhall, however, reminded Tomlin why he’s topped 1,000 yards each of the last two seasons, rolling up 146 yards and a touchdown while running with a purpose.
Criticized for dancing too much at times, Mendenhall ripped off a career-best 68-yard run in the second quarter, part of an dominant half in which Pittsburgh outgained the Jaguars 315-68.
”We felt like we could have had a very explosive, productive day offensively, running and throwing the ball,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. ”It’s frustrating it didn’t finish up that way.”
Roethlisberger threw for 200 yards and a touchdown, but completed just one pass in the second half while getting sacked three times.
”(We) just played sloppy at first and then we made up our minds, settled down and stopped them,” Jacksonville defensive end Jeremy Mincey said.
The Jaguars had a little help from the Steelers.
A roughing-the-punter penalty on Jacksonville’s first drive of the second half gave the Jaguars a first down they eventually turned into an 18-yard touchdown from Gabbert to Jason Hill to bring them within 17-10.
The holes Mendenhall ran through so easily in the first half disappeared, and the Jaguars kept on coming. They drove to the Pittsburgh 27 with just over 4 minutes to play.
Gabbert remained on the field on fourth-and-6 before coach Jack Del Rio reconsidered and sent on kicker Josh Scobee, who drilled a 45-yarder to cut the deficit to four.
”We went out for the look to take our shot there (and) didn’t like the play,” Del Rio said. ”Blaine did a good job of not forcing it.”
Roethlisberger, playing with a special protective shoe on his sprained left foot for a second straight game, scrambled for a first down,but the Steelers couldn’t run out the clock.
Jacksonville got the ball back at its 23 with 1:01 to play and Gabbert showcased why the Jaguars took him with the 10th pick in this year’s draft. He shook off a first-down sack to move Jacksonville, which came in last in the league in total yards and yards passing and 31st in points, to the Pittsburgh 48 with 2 seconds to go.
His desperation pass fell harmlessly to the turf and the Steelers escaped.
”If you get out to a 17-point lead and get comfortable, you take it off their throat,” Pittsburgh wide receiver Mike Wallace said. ”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.”
The Steelers travel to Arizona next week before a critical two-game homestand against New England and Baltimore.
”The big challenges lie ahead,” Tomlin said. ”We need to prepare for them.”
Notes: Ward caught three passes for 47 yards to move past Michael Irvin and into 19th place on the yards receiving list. Ward now has 11,939 yards. … New Jacksonville punter Nick Harris, signed last week, averaged 42.3 yards on seven punts. … Scobee’s two field goals gave him field goals in 14 straight games, a team record. … Pittsburgh G Doug Legursky left in the second quarter with a dislocated toe.