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View from the O-Zone: Brutal, painful, tough

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JACKSONVILLE – The end was gut-wrenching and somehow inevitable.

Did we mention “painful?” Yeah, this was painful, too.

Steelers 20, Jaguars 16.

“It’s tough,” Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles said afterPittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s one-yard touchdown with :03 remaining at the Bank Sunday gave the Steelers a sixth consecutive victory – and the Jaguars a sixth consecutive loss.

Tough? 

No doubt. The Steelers’ last-second, dramatic comeback on an otherwise perfect November Sunday dealt the Jaguars a loss as gut-wrenching, brutal, painful, “tough” and heartbreaking as can be imagined. And if you were walking from TIAA Bank Field late Sunday afternoon wondering, “How did the Jaguars’ lose that game? …” you weren’t alone.

The Jaguars were thinking that, too.

“I think we all did,” Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette said after rushing for a season-high 95 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries.

Yes, this one hurt deep.

The feeling was in one sense familiar. The Jaguars after allhaven’t won since September 30. But this one hurt mostly because of how it happened – and because Sunday’s story should have been so different.

It hurt because for three and a half quarters – longer, really – this felt like one the Jaguars not only could win but should win. And yeah, for three and a half quarters, it felt like 2017 again.

The defense played perhaps its best game of the season. They shut out the Steelers for 43 minutes, sacking Roethlisberger twice and intercepting him thrice. So, stifling was the Jaguars’ defense that near the end of the first half Roethlisberger – who a week before had his fourth NFL career game with a perfect passer rating – had a rating of 0.0.

And while Roethlisberger was having one of his worst halves in memory, Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey was having a game that should have been remembered as one of the best performances in franchise history.

Ramsey on Sunday not only intercepted Roethlisberger twice, those interceptions were the sort of highlights that will be included when people chronicle his career a decade from now. They were that athletic. They were that good. 

It also came on a day that began with a report that the Jaguars might consider trading Ramsey in the offseason. The team immediately refuted the report, and Ramsey afterward said he was too focused before the game on preparing for the game to use the report as motivation.

“It is what it is,” Ramsey said afterward. “I don’t control that.”

What Ramsey and the defense also couldn’t control on Sunday was the Jaguars’ offense – and it was indeed a struggling, injured offense that defined this day.

It didn’t bode well when the Jaguars led 9-0 at halftime after holding the Steelers to four first downs and 66 total yards. The Steelers entered the game averaging 35 points in their last five games. A shutout appeared unlikely. 

The Jaguars’ offense in the third quarter then turned in one of its most impressive drives of the season – an 80-yarder that ended with a touchdown run by Fournette. That drive began with Ramsey leaping over Steelers All-Pro wide Antonio Brown for an interception in the end zone and ended with the Jaguars leading 16-0 with 2:09 remaining in the third quarter.

The Jaguars’ offense had the ball four more times. The unit went three and out on every drive and lost a total of three yards after that. 

The Steelers made it 16-6 with a 78-yard pass from Roethlisberger to Brown late in the third quarter, and the ended starting feeling a little inevitable after tight end Vance McDonald’s 11-yard reception from Roethlisberger with 2:28 remaining.

The Jaguars’ next three-and-out featured a run by Fournette on 3rd-and-5 from the Jaguars 30 with 1:35 remaining and the Steelers calling time-outs to save clock. Bortles and Head Coach Doug Marrone both were asked afterward about running on what seemed to be a passing down. Bortles called it “situational football,” and said he had no problem with the call.

Marrone said issues with an offensive line that allowed six sacks and had Bortles under pressure throughout the game influenced the decision.

“I said, ‘Hey, what are we going to throw?’’’ Marrone said when asked about the thinking on the call. “We were worried about the protection, and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to run it,’ and we gave it to Leonard [Fournette].”

The Steelers stuffed Fournette for a yard. A punt and nine plays later, Roethlisberger was shrugging off a three-interception performance with his third touchdown in less than 17 minutes – and the Jaguars were again looking for answers to difficult questions.

The quotes in the post-game locker room were as you would expect. Defensive end Calais Campbell and other players talked of playoff hopes not being gone until the Jaguars are officially eliminated. Mostly, it was the same frustration that has defined the last six Jaguars post-game locker rooms.

“I’m going to just say, ‘Damn … damn,’’’ linebacker Telvin Smith said.

Did we mention painful? Yeah, this one was about as brutal, painful, “tough” and heartbreaking as can be imagined. 

Even if the end was gut-wrenching and somehow inevitable.

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