PITTSBURGH--Their purpose was singular; their dedication was complete. It was the Jaguars defense's finest "hour," though, unfortunately, it was just a few minutes shy of an hour.
They stopped Jerome Bettis; stopped him cold for 55 minutes and 59 seconds. Then, on one play, "The Bus" broke loose for a 40-yard game that clinched victory for the Steelers, and broke Seth Payne's heart.
"We were still in position to win that game," Payne said with a combination of despair and frustration in his voice.
Payne and defensive tackle mate Gary Walker were the stars of the Jaguars' effort up front. They beat the Steelers offensive linemen off the ball. Payne and Walker jumped into the gaps, got penetration, destroyed the Steelers' blocking scheme.
It left Bettis in a state of embarrassment. He offered no trademark "war" dances; no head-shaking bravado. "The Bus" was stalled in the garage.
"It was nothing new, but we knew our number one objective was to stop Bettis," Payne said when asked to describe the defensive scheme the Jaguars used against Bettis.
Whatever it was, it was the right way. Defensive coordinator Gary Moeller became a genius. He made the right calls at the right time. On one occasion, safety Donovin Darius so perfectly timed his run-blitz that he passed center Jeff Hartings in a full sprint at the exact moment Hartings began to move the ball. And Bettis went down for a three-yard loss.
How successful was Moeller's defensive scheme? Well, Bettis' first 18 rushing attempts produced a net eight yards; his last three carries accounted for 44 of his 52 yards rushing.
Moeller's scheme was so successful that it's a good bet each of the Steelers' remaining opponents will study tape of Sunday's game. How did the Jaguars do it? How did the league's 16th-ranked run-defense "stone" the game's premier power back?
You might say Moeller and the Jaguars showed the rest of the league how to stop Bettis. The Steelers know it, too.
"We filled up the inside gaps. We did a good job of scouting out the plays," Payne said. "We sealed up the inside. If you make Bettis run to the outside, you should beat them."
It was that kind of game; it is always that kind of game when you play the Steelers. You don't worry about winning the finesse battles; you concern yourself solely with football's physical challenges. Am I big enough, strong enough and tough enough to play the Steelers even? The Jaguars answered, "Yes."
"I love playing against them. (The Jaguars) said when they drafted me they wanted someone to come in and defend against the big back. I love playing against Bettis," Darius said.
This was the kind of football Darius was born to play. He is a linebacker in a safety's body and, at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field, Darius joined Payne and Walker as the game's most physical forces.
"When you know you did all you can, and you know you didn't hold back, that's something you can build on. I'm proud of the guys I lined up with," Darius said.
On this atypically-warm, late-November day in Pittsburgh, the Jaguars defense rose to the occasion of the team's adversity. It was without Tony Boselli and Fred Taylor and, as of an hour-and-a-half before kickoff, quarterback Mark Brunell.
All of this on a day when the Jaguars' opponent was a Steelers team that was first in the league in rushing, total defense, pass-defense, sacks and time of possession. On this day, the Jaguars' last chance to climb back into the playoffs race, they were armed only with the determination of their defense. And it almost worked.
"They broke out with one run," coach Tom Coughlin said. "I'm not going to chastise our defense for one run."