JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) Pittsburgh’s defense was under attack the first month of the season.
Not only was the unit criticized for faltering at home last week in the final minute against Tampa Bay, there were concerns about having one interception and a lack of game-changing plays through four games.
At least for a week, the discussion has changed.
Brice McCain returned an interception 22 yards for a touchdown and the Steelers delivered their best defensive performance of the season in a 17-9 win at Jacksonville on Sunday.
Of course, it surely helped that Pittsburgh played rookie Blake Bortles and the winless Jaguars (0-5).
McCain stepped in front of receiver Allen Hurns early in the fourth quarter, picked off Bortles’ wobbly sideline pass and went untouched the other way. It was just what the Steelers (3-2) needed to gain a little breathing room in a game much tighter than they probably expected.
”I like the way we finished, especially when you consider that we didn’t do a good job of it last week and it cost us the game,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. ”The defense had the necessary stop there in the latter part of the game, created a turnover and put points on the board for us.”
Trailing by eight, the Jaguars forced a punt and got the ball back. But Bortles failed to get a first down.
Ben Roethlisberger closed it out from there, directing a four-minute drive that ran out the clock. Roethlisberger completed 26 of 36 passes for 273 yards and a touchdown. He connected on 15 of his final 17 passes.
But much of the postgame talk was about McCain’s huge play.
”Any time you get a turnover, it’s huge,” Steelers cornerback Cortez Allen said. ”But any time you get a turnover and score off it, it’s bigger. That turnover swung the momentum back in our favor.”
Pittsburgh’s defense was fairly suspect in the first four games, giving up 350 yards and 25 points a game.
The unit seemed to return to form against Jacksonville, which gained 243 yards and was 3 of 12 on third-down conversions.
McCain’s pick was the highlight.
”Anytime you can get an interception, it gets you off the field and that’s what you aim to do,” he said. ”When you can score, it makes it that much better.”
Aside from Pittsburgh’s defensive showing, here are some things to know about the game:
JAGUARS WOES: Bortles threw two interceptions, giving him five in 10 quarters, and bobbled two snaps. But Jacksonville’s bigger problems were three dropped passes in the first four possessions by rookie Hurns, an offense that mustered little on the ground and bogged down in and/or near the red zone, and a couple costly and questionable penalties on inexperienced offensive linemen Luke Joeckel and Luke Bowanko.
POSITIVE NOTE: On the positive side for Jacksonville, the defense sacked Roethlisberger four times, contained running back Le’Veon Bell (15 carries, 82 yards) and receiver Antonio Brown (five receptions, 84 yards), and allowed just 10 points. ”This one hurts,” coach Gus Bradley said. ”We had chances. We just didn’t play good enough in certain situations.”
LEBEAU KNOWS ROOKIES: The Steelers improved to 18-2 against rookie quarterbacks since defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau returned in 2004. Bortles completed 22 of 36 passes for 191 yards. He scrambled four times for 14 yards and was sacked once. Bortles moved the offense, but settled for three field goals. ”They did a good job mixing looks up and walking guys around, mixing coverages,” Bortles said. ”We just have to get touchdowns instead of field goals.”
ROOKIES ABOUND: The Jaguars started seven rookies, including six on offense. Bortles, Bowanko, Hurns, right guard Brandon Linder, receiver Allen Robinson and tight end Nic Jacobs all started. ”I think it’s cool to go through it as a group, as a unit, with a bunch of rookies,” Bortles said. ”We’re learning and getting better each week. I think that’s a cool process.” Jacksonville could add another one to mix if running back Storm Johnson continues to make strides. Johnson carried four times for a team-high 27 yards, looking more elusive than starter Toby Gerhart and backup Denard Robinson.
INJURIES: Steelers backup safety Shamarko Thomas left the game with a hamstring injury and did not return. The Jaguars lost running backs Gerhart, Johnson and Jordan Todman to ankle injuries at different points in the game. Jaguars linebacker Dekoda Watson injured his right elbow and missed most of the second half.
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