PITTSBURGH--The Jaguars dared Kordell Stewart to beat them. He did, but it wasn't lost in the glow of Stewart's best statistical effort of the season that Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell was sidelined.
Stewart completed 21 of 33 passes for 266 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and a 98.8 passer rating, as the Steelers strengthened their hold on the AFC Central Division lead with a 20-7 win at Heinz Field Sunday.
The Jaguars had decided to concentrate on stopping running back Jerome Bettis at nearly any cost. That defensive strategy opened the pass lanes for Stewart and Stewart's 316 total yards led the Steelers to a 402-yard effort that was the most yards allowed by the Jaguars defense this season. But, the Steelers found it nearly impossible to score.
Meanwhile, Brunell's replacement, Jonathan Quinn, seemed to warm to the challenge and, late in the fourth quarter, it appeared as though Quinn was going to lead the Jaguars to a game-winning touchdown.
Quinn began a drive at his 13-yard line with 6:35 to play in the game. Passes of 19, 21 and 20 yards moved the Jaguars to the Steelers 27. A nine-yard run by Stacey Mack put the ball on the 18 where, on second-and-one, coach Tom Coughlin chose to be aggressive in his play-calling.
Coughlin called for a pass; the Steelers decided to blitz, and linebacker Joey Porter sacked Quinn and stripped him of the ball, which was recovered by Steelers rookie nose tackle Casey Hampton. On the next play, Bettis ran for 40 yards and the outcome was no longer in question.
It was that simple. After a day-long struggle, the Jaguars' fate was sealed on consecutive plays.
"Jon made some plays and wasn't able to make some plays. Just don't turn it over," Coughlin said.
Quinn was sacked and stripped of the ball three times. Rookie linebacker Kendrell Bell got Quinn first, then Porter, and, finally, linebacker Jason Gildon.
"Mark Brunell didn't play. Everybody else on offense played. I don't know why the fumbles … a big, strong man with a strong hand," Coughlin said of Quinn.
Brunell was declared inactive for the game after his injured right quadriceps tightened on him and wouldn't loosen despite pregame efforts.
"He got up here and got tight, got sore. According to the medical people, it would've been a risk. He wouldn't have been able to defend himself," Coughlin said of the information that went into the decision to deactivate Brunell.
"It didn't improve enough. I tested it today and I did not make the gains I needed to make," Brunell said following the game.
Quinn was making his first start since the final regular season game of 1998, his rookie year, when Quinn led the Jaguars to a win over the Steelers in Jacksonville. His only significant playing time previously this season was back on Sept. 30, when he replaced Brunell in the second quarter when Brunell left the game against visiting Cleveland with a concussion.
"Jon practiced the game plan," Coughlin said of Quinn, who was under center for all of last week's practices. Brunell had played with the leg injury the previous Sunday against Cincinnati, but suffered further damage on a play in which he was sacked.
Quinn described his play as "not good enough," but, statistically, he was better than what might've otherwise been expected against the league's top defense. Quinn completed 17 of 31 passes for 225 yards and a 78.0 passer rating. If that doesn't seem all that impressive, it must also be considered that Quinn led the Jaguars in rushing with 39 yards.
Mack and reserve running back Elvis Joseph gained only six yards each, as the Jaguars' rushing and time of possession stats continue to sag. If there is another glaring weakness, it is third-down conversions. Quinn was only three of 11.
Joseph scored the Jaguars' only touchdown on a 95-yard kickoff return that followed a 56-yard, no-huddle touchdown drive by the Steelers that had moved them out to a 13-0 lead.
"He's back doing what we originally intended him to do," Coughlin said of Joseph, an undrafted rookie.
The first two of Quinn's fumbles were costly. He was stripped by Bell at the Steelers' 20-yard line, which killed a promising 40-yard drive. Porter's "strip" was game-saving for the Steelers. "They took points off the board," Quinn said of the fumbles.
Meanwhile, the Steelers committed no turnovers. Their plus-three in turnover differential, almost 10-minute advantage in time of possession, and Stewart's most efficient performance of the season were the differences in the outcome.
What did it mean that the Jaguars were playing without Brunell, Tony Boselli and Fred Taylor, who missed his seventh consecutive game?
"It means something. Those guys are all Pro Bowl-caliber football players," tight end Kyle Brady said. "Jon was making some good passes and some good reads. It's really hard to say. It's a big what-if," Brady added when asked if he thought the Jaguars would've beaten the Steelers had they had Brunell under center.
Wide receiver Keenan McCardell said Quinn turned in a "gutsy performance. He stepped into a hostile environment; I don't know what the numbers are, but he was good."
"He did the best he could do. He was mature. He was the leader in the huddle. He did all of the things a quarterback can do," wide receiver Jimmy Smith said.
Smith said the Jaguars were not shocked when Coughlin told them in the locker room Brunell would not play. "We kind of figured. He's been playing a couple of weeks with that injury. Better he miss this game than miss the rest of the season," Smith added.