JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser and senior correspondent Brian Sexton both offer three quick thoughts on the Jaguars' 27-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers at TIAA Bank Field Sunday
1. The fight remained – and it wasn't enough. *The Jaguars have lost nine consecutive games and played at times Sunday like what they are: a 1-9 team. They were overmanned at times by an unbeaten team. But with that as the backdrop, the Jaguars on Sunday again played with admirable fight. The Steelers have a Most Valuable Player candidate at quarterback – Ben Roethlisberger – and a ferocious defense that leads the NFL in sacks and turnovers. The Jaguars had a very real chance to tie late in the second quarter, having driven to the Steelers 11 trailing 10-3. Rookie quarterback Jake Luton's pass was tipped by former Jaguars defensive tackle Tyson Alualu and intercepted by Steelers All-Pro Minkah Fitzpatrick. Struggling teams can't manage red-zone turnovers against unbeaten teams and Luton unraveled after that into the worst performance of his three professional starts. The Jaguars for a second consecutive week played with no quit against a superior opponent, that's little solace at 1-9, but perhaps it's something.
2. Luton's a rookie – and he played like it Sunday. Considering the opponent and his experience level, Luton's day Sunday was perhaps predictable, with a rocky start cascading into four interceptions as the rookie sixth-round selection never looked comfortable. "I thought it was a tough day for him," Head Coach Doug Marrone said of Luton, who completed 16 of 37 passes for 151 yards and no touchdowns with the four turnovers. That's no surprise because Luton – making his third consecutive start for injured Gardner Minshew II – was playing a Steelers defense that entered the game leading the NFL in sacks and takeaways. Luton, who struggled at times in the Green Bay winds a week ago, struggled with accuracy early Sunday – and he appeared overwhelmed against the Steelers' complex defense and aggressive pass rush. Marrone afterward said he considered a quarterback change during the game, and that will be a major storyline this week. The thought here since Minshew's thumb injury was the Jaguars would stick with Luton when Minshew returned so long as the rookie played close to the level of his first two starts. Sunday was the sort of game that could prompt a return to Minshew. The big picture: Through 10 games it remains clear that quarterback will be the talk of the franchise as the 2021 NFL Draft approaches next April.
3. The Jaguars' defense really has improved. Here's what's too bad about Sunday's game from a Jaguars perspective: a decent defensive game in terms of effort and level of play will be forgotten. Roethlisberger is a legitimate Most Valuable Player candidate and played like it Sunday, giving the Steelers a halftime lead with big-time second-quarter throws and keeping control of the game throughout a second half in which it felt like the Steelers' objective was to do nothing silly to allow the Jaguars back in the game. But a Jaguars secondary that entered the game riddled with injuries – and that sustained three more injuries throughout the game – finished with six passes defensed and an interception. That group had good coverage on Steelers receivers on multiple big plays; Roethlisberger simply did what he does well – which is put passes where his receivers can make plays. "I thought Ben made some really great throws and they made some really good catches," Marrone said. "I thought we were contesting some balls. We got our hands on a couple. We couldn't come up with the turnover. But I was happy. I thought those guys were giving everything they had and playing well. They're a Top 10 offense and I thought – at for three quarters – we were battling."
1. Roethlisberger vs. Jaguars cornerbacks Claybrooks and Tre Herndon was a huge mismatch -- as we knew it would be. *The 17th-season quarterback and future Hall of Famer put some incredible touch on passes to wide receivers Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool, and the Jaguars' backups were powerless to do anything about it. It got tougher when Claybrooks and nickel corner DJ Hayden left with injuries and rookie Josiah Scott and Luq Barcoo represented the end of the Jaguars' bench in the lineup. The lack of a consistent pass rush against Roethlisberger made their already incredibly difficult job nearly impossible – and we were reminded once again just how good Roethlisberger is. I would have loved to have seen if Jaguars starters CJ Henderson and Sidney Jones IV could have built on their strong finishes in Green Bay against Aaron Rogers at home against Roethlisberger. I'm sure defensive coordinator Todd Wash would have liked that, too.
2. The Steelers pass rush didn't get to Luton very often, but it most certainly got to him. The NFL's top pass-rushing team only managed a single sack while the game was still in doubt, and it got only a few clean hits on the rookie quarterback until late when he was throwing on nearly every snap. Most of the damage appeared to be done during the week and in the film room, because Luton was jumpy and threw more high and errant passes in the first half Sunday than he did in his first two starts. His second interception in the second quarter is a great example: he had tight end Tyler Eifert wide open down the field for a huge gain, but you could tell the alarm clock in his head was clanging and he quickly unleashed a pass Eifert couldn't have caught if he was 12 feet tall. There was another needlessly quick throw on the first play of the fourth quarter that should have been intercepted. I thought he stood in there and tried to figure out what Pittsburgh was doing as best he could, but there were a few times – late in the third quarter, particularly – when he clearly held the ball too long and let the rush affect his throws. That zone blitz is a … well it's a … bear.
3. Nine consecutive losses ties a franchise record set in 2016. *I can't recall if that one felt as long as this one does or not. Owner Shad Khan fired Gus Bradley after that ninth loss in Houston, but I wouldn't expect he will do the same to Marrone. This team keeps coming out ready to play; every time they do, you realize that they're simply too inexperienced or simply not good enough at key spots and can't keep up with the Deshaun Watsons, Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisbergers of the world. They don't have the quarterback, though that seems destined to change in April, so they can't keep up on the scoreboard – and they're missing help up front and in the secondary defensively to be able to stand in there when the game reaches a critical moment.