The Jaguars have lost their calling card and they must recover it soon or their hopes could fade away fast. For the fourth consecutive game, the Jaguars defense failed to protect the lead at the end of the game, and it cost the Jaguars a heartbreaking, 26-21 defeat at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night.
The outcome was written on the Jaguars' faces as they left the field. This one hurt so much because it was a featured game, a nationally-televised event against an opponent that had become the Jaguars' favorite team to beat.
"We were actually thinking that Ben (Roethlisberger) was getting sore and would hand the ball off," coach Jack Del Rio said of the critical moment in Sunday night's loss. It occurred with 2:57 to play in the game, with the Steelers facing a third-and-eight at the Jaguars 31-yard line.
Kicker Jeff Reed was well within range to attempt a field goal that would put the Steelers ahead by two points. Surely, the Steelers wouldn't risk an interception or sack. What the Jaguars didn't know, however, was that Reed had sustained a calf injury and was unable to kick. It was all or nothing for Roethlisberger and the Steelers.
He fought off defenders draped on his body and completed an 18-yard pass to Hines Ward. Three plays later he hit Ward with the game-winner.
It left David Garrard to one-up Roethlisberger, which Garrard had done in last year's playoffs. On this night, however, Garrard and the offense failed to pass the 50-yard line.
After rallying to score consecutive wins with last-drive scores, Garrard was unable to nullify the defense's failure. Garrard converted a fourth-and-nine play with a nine-yard toss to Matt Jones, who reached the ball out for a first down, but then came a sack, a drop by Jones on third and 14 and Garrard's fourth-down pass was knocked down at the line of scrimmage.
"It's just something that simply has to be better," Del Rio said of his defense's defense of the lead. "If you can't get off the field on third down, you give yourself additional exposure. When you're in third and long you have to be able to get off the field."
The Jaguars allowed the Steelers to convert seven of 15 third-down attempts. The ones that hurt the most were at crunch time, when Roethlisberger completed a pass to Nate Washington for 12 yards on third and three, the toss to Ward on third and eight and then the third-down game-winner.
This wasn't, however, a case of the defense just collapsing at crunch time. Except for the third quarter, when they didn't allow the Steelers a yard of offense, the Jaguars defense struggled. In the other three quarters of action, it allowed 415 yards of offense, including 129 yards of rushing offense by a team that was down to its fourth-string running back. Mewelde Moore finished the game one yard shy of the 100-yard mark and he averaged 5.8 yards per carry.
That's not Jaguars football. That's not this team's calling card.
You could say the same about the Jaguars' inability to run the ball. Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew combined for a mere 26 yards rushing.
Yeah, Roethlisberger was the star of the game, but the Steelers' ability to run the ball and stop the run were the deciding factors. That shouldn't have been the case, given the Steelers' injury situation.
"One of the big differences in the game is that they totally clogged our running game," Del Rio said. "It's not schemes. They whip blocks and make plays. They won the line of scrimmage. I didn't see any missed tackles for their defense."
The night began with Roethlisberger being intercepted by Rashean Mathis, who returned the interception 72 yards for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead. It looked awfully good for the home team at that early juncture of the game.
After the Steelers tied the game, Garrard responded with a long touchdown drive, the big play being a pass-interference penalty against Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor in the end zone, which put the ball at the one-yard line.
The Steelers dominated the rest of the first half but Garrard capped a 76-yard drive with a 24-yard touchdown pass to tight end Marcedes Lewis early in the fourth quarter. It gave the Jaguars a one-point lead.
"I felt great," Garrard said of heading onto the field for the final series of the night. "I felt like once again, here we go. You're not going to drive down and do it every time."
The loss leaves the 2-3 Jaguars three games behind the division-leading Titans, and the Jaguars must play at 4-1 Denver next Sunday.
"You want to be on the field at the end," linebacker Mike Peterson said. "You want to seal the deal for the team."
That's something the Jaguars must start doing soon or they could see their season slip away.