The Jacksonville Jaguars came to Acrisure Stadium and, as they did on their last 2 trips to Pittsburgh, they beat the Steelers, this time to the tune of 20-10. As former division rivals, the Steelers and Jaguars have a rich history. The signature games in their series always reveal something important about the Steelers.
- Jacksonville upset Pittsburgh in their first matchup, showing a team in disarray
- Two weeks later the Steelers throttled the Jaguars, signaling the resurgence of the ’95 Steelers
- In 2017, the Jaguars playoff upset slammed shut the Roethlisberger Era Super Bowl window
This week’s lesson is more mundane but equally important: For the 2023 Steelers “Sludge Ball” simply won’t cut it.
Attrition Takes Its Toll
The 2023 Steelers way of winning games has been simple, ugly and taxing to the heart. Notice, the use of “way of winning games” as opposed to “formula,” because surely this is not how Mike Tomlin, Matt Canada and Teryl Austin have planned things. But the Steelers four wins have common elements:
- Take advantage of opponents’ errors
- Compensate for giving up big gains with splash plays on defense
- Make a big play or two on offense early in the game
- Come on strong in the 4th quarter on both sides of the ball
- Above all, avoid catastrophic mistakes
This isn’t sustainable. One reason why its not sustainable is that you get into trouble when you star players get hurt. Early in the week Jim Wexell mused to Jeremy Hertz that Minkah Fitzpatrick was due to make a game changing play.
- Fitzpatrick left in the 1st quarter with a hamstring injury.
This further depleted a secondary that saw Darius Rush and Luqman Barcoo get first team reps on Friday ahead of the game. Losing Fizpatrick was big, but losing Kenny Pickett before the half was bigger, as the 4th quarter would make painfully clear.
No, Don’t Blame the Officials
Following the game, daggers were drawn in Steelers Nation and pointed at the officials. Alan Saunders of SteelersNow perhaps said it best:
Just to recap:
Hideously blown spot.
Incorrect 10-second runoff.
No call as KP driven into the ground and injured.
Phantom offside on field goal.
And that was in the last 30 seconds of the half.
— Alan Saunders (@ASaunders_PGH) October 29, 2023
The non-call in Pickett’s injury was all the more galling considering that Keanu Neal has been penalized for a far more benign hit on Trevor Lawrence. And the penalty that negated a Chris Boswell field goal, was in Mike Tomlin’s words, the first of its kind that he’s seen in 17 years.
- But you know what?
None of that mattered. The Steelers still had chances to win the game. They simply squandered them.
Big Plays Can’t Overcome “Sludge Ball”
The Jacksonville Jaguars offense put up some nice statistics against the Steelers defense. But, as it has throughout the season, the Steelers defense struck back with big plays:
- The Steelers forced the Jaguars to settle for field goals with key 3rd down stops on their 1st two possessions.
- The first time Jacksonville reached the Red Zone Kwon Alexander stripped the ball and Cole Holcomb recovered it
- The next time it was Damontae Kazee’s turn, as he intercepted a pass in the end zone.
- Nick Herbig ended the Jags’ first drive of the second half with a strip of Tank Bigsby
- Elandon Roberts wrecked their next drive with a sack on first down
- T.J. Watt and Armon Watts led a “gang sack” on third down to force another punt
That’s three turnovers for the Steelers and two sacks to scuttle drives. How many points did the Steelers score off of those “Splash” plays? Three.
Two weeks ago on his podcast, Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell called out the Steelers offense for sticking to “sludge ball.” Wexell defines “Sludge ball” as insisting on handing the ball to Najee Harris on first and second down, setting up 3rd and 7 or 3rd and 8. Steelers then fail to convert those third downs, forcing punts.
- Against the Rams last week, the Steelers inched away from “Sludge Ball.”
But sludge ball was back with a vengeance against the Jaguars. The Steelers first four drives amounted to 12 plays and 4 punts. Perhaps the team was working its way out of it before Pickett got hurt because they did score on their fifth possession and had another score taken away by penalty on their 6th.
But the offense under Mitch Trubisky opened the 2nd half with 8 plays and 2 punts. (I guess we can count that as improvement, right? NOT!) Diontae Johnson, Geroge Pickens and you could argue Connor Heyward and Jaylen Warren made some nice plays.
But the Steelers can’t expect to win many games when punter Pressley Harvin is a candidate for offensive MVP.
Mitch Lacks the Clutch Gene
Alas, Pressley Harvin was a candidate for offensive MVP, yet the Steelers still had a chance to win. But expecting Mitch Tribuisky to do what Kenny Pickett has done late in games simply isn’t realistic. Tribusky lacks the “clutch” gene.
- Yes, Tribuskiy looked smart in leading the lone touchdown drive.
But he threw a horrible interception that basically sealed the game for Jacksonville, and he forced two more passes in to triple coverage that should have been picked off. Even after his interception, the Steelers had a shot at winning, on paper at least.
But Tribuskiy stuck with safe, 6 or 7 yard check down passes. One of the times he got away from that, he threw one of his “Should have been interceptions.”
- IT was almost as if, even with the game lost, Tribusky was playing not to lose.
Given the circumstances, it was almost another form of “Sludge Ball.” And ironically, that was fitting.