For the Jaguars, Heinz Field will be a very lonely place Sunday.
When writing this column this week, when sorting through the 10 things the Jaguars must do to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, that's the thing I kept coming back to – that, and the idea that this wasn't a game where the 10 things idea really fit that much.
Yes, there are plenty of things the Jaguars must do to win. We'll get to those later.
And while it's easy to anticipate snide remarks about writing about what a struggling 1-4 team must do to win at Heinz Field, it honestly wasn't hard to come up with 10 reasons the Jaguars indeed can win. Public perception aside, this game isn't a mismatch.
A Jaguars victory wouldn't be as stunning as some might believe.
But I couldn't escape the idea that one thing mattered more than any other, and that was the idea that as the Jaguars enter Heinz Field Sunday in a very real sense they will be a team very much alone.
Think of it:
They will be there in a sea of black and gold, with few fans on their side. That's the norm in Pittsburgh, but it doesn't make it any less real.
They won't be favored. Not even close.
They won't be on the national radar, not that they have been this season. Again, not even close.
And it's not just that few expect the Jaguars to win. It's that the Jaguars largely are a forgotten team. Few around the nation think of them as anything but a struggling team with a young quarterback. For those who have bothered to look ahead at the Jaguars' schedule, they see the Ravens next week and the Texans the week after that.
For most NFL analysts, that's a 1-7 record at the bye week. End of analysis.
I suspect there are hard-core, loyal fans who expect the same, who have given up short-term hope. There are as many questions in the O-Zone about the future as the present, and many questions begin, "I understand we're playing for the future, but . . ."
That gives the Jaguars a choice:
1) Continue to squander late-game opportunities, continue to make basic errors and lose games – i.e., let the nation be correct.
2) Continue to play, continue to believe and perhaps turn the season – i.e., prove the nation wrong.
Sometimes in the NFL, the latter happens. Sometimes, as has been the case with the Jaguars before, a team that on the surface appears to be in the midst of a lost season, decides it's not. Sometimes, teams turn being alone – and given up on – into a good thing. Sometimes, they play with professionalism and resilience and decide that –alone or not – what the critics say is unimportant, that they control their own success or failure.
And sometimes, in those circumstances, season turn unexpectedly and gloriously turned around.
The Jaguars have such an opportunity Sunday. They're alone in Heinz Field, but alone or not, they're in a game they can win.
If they're going to take advantage of that opportunity, here are 10 things they must do:
- *Shut out the noise. *Yes, this was one of the 10 things last week. And yes, it was a theme of Jack Del Rio's all week. It remains true. There is lot of periphery buzz around the Jaguars, and at 1-4, the periphery buzz is going to be negative. Put it away. On game day, it doesn't matter.
- Forget the mystique.This is not an elite Steelers team, at least it hasn't played like it yet. Don't go into Sunday's game thinking you have to do anything special to win. Play fundamentally sound, play smart and play hard. This isn't a play-over-your-heads type of game.
- Don't assume anything. There have been more than a few fans write in saying, "Well, we always play the Steelers tough." Just as the Steelers' mystique doesn't matter Sunday, neither does this whole idea that the Jaguars play well against the Steelers. When you're 1-4 and breaking in a rookie quarterback, whatever you may or may not have established in past seasons means nothing
- Stick with the run.You established a willingness to throw against the Saints. You established balance against Cincinnati. The Steelers aren't a great running defense this year. Exploit it.
- Keep letting Gabbert throw.Remember that 3rd-and-7 to Mike Thomas on the first drive last week? That's a weapon. That's real stuff. That's what he can do. You've got to keep putting Blaine Gabbert in a position to make plays – for the future and for now.
- Hit Roethlisberger . . .but more importantly, when you hit him, get him down. Remember when the Jaguars had Cam Newton in the grasp and couldn't keep him from making some big play? Roethlisberger is a more experienced version.
- Stop the run.The Steelers aren't a great running team this year. The Jaguars haven't established themselves as elite in very much this season, but they are a very good run defense. It's one thing they should be able to hold on to and take with them on the road. When you're struggling, you don't want to give up the things you can depend on.
- Maintain in the second half.The Jaguars have struggled offensively in the second half. You've got to adapt and adjust at halftime and keep the offense moving – and scoring – in the final two quarters. And speaking of the second half, get the basics right. There have been too many fundamental, avoidable mistakes in key situations. That has to stop.
- Keep believing.This isn't college, and I'm not saying, "Rah, rah . . . keep believing." But this team historically has been resilient and hasn't quit in tough times. Times are tough right now. Darned tough. Teams have quit in tougher situations. Don't let the tough times translate into disaster.
- Turn opportunities into touchdowns.The Jaguars have turned some significant touchdown opportunities into field goals in recent weeks. At home, those hurt and they led to narrow losses. If you have any chance at all in a hostile environment such as Heinz field, turnover and chances deep in Steelers territory need to translate into seven points.