Kevin Gorman’s Take 5: Five thoughts on Jaguars 45, Steelers 42

January 15, 2018 GMT

1. We can debate about the merits of the coaching decision to win the coin toss and defer, but the one made by Mike Tomlin to start the AFC divisional playoff against the Jacksonville Jaguars backfired on the Steelers in a big way.

A short kick led to Corey Grant’s 23-yard return to the Jacksonville 34. The Steelers appeared totally unprepared for Blake Bortles to come out passing, and he completed a 21-yarder to Ben Koyack, a 13-yarder to Marqise Lee and a 19-yarder to James O’Shaughnessy to the Steelers 27, setting up a strong start for running back Leonard Fournette.

Fournette scored on a fourth-and-goal at the 1, giving Jacksonville a 7-0 lead only 4 minutes, 20 seconds into the first quarter.

Meantime, that left a Steelers offense that had five starters who hadn’t played the past two weeks — sitting out against Cleveland followed by a bye week — standing on the sidelines in the 18-degree temperatures. The Steelers didn’t look rested or rusty.

Instead, they came out cold and went three-and-out.

2. A year ago, Ben Roethlisberger talked about red-zone conversions and turnovers as the key elements for a quarterback and an offense in the playoffs.

Roethlisberger was looking for redemption after throwing five interceptions, including two that were returned for touchdowns, in the 30-9 loss to Jaguars in Week 5.

Throwing an interception on the Steelers’ second series didn’t help his cause. Jaguars linebacker Myles Jack stepped in front of a pass intended for Vance McDonald, giving the Jaguars the ball at the Steelers 18. Fournette scored on the next play for a 14-0 lead.

Suddenly, the Steelers were in trouble.

The Steelers’ second questionable call came late in the first quarter, on a fourth-and-1 at the Jacksonville 21. Of all the plays, they chose to run a toss right to Le’Veon Bell, resulting in a 4-yard loss and turnover on downs.

When Jacksonville responded with an 11-play, 75-yard scoring drive highlighted by Fournette runs of 16, 11 yards and 8 and capped by T.J. Yeldon’s 4-yard touchdown run for a 21-0 lead, Steelers fans responded with a resounding round of boos.

Yes, at Heinz Field. In the playoffs.

3. But the Steelers bounced back, as Bell ripped off his second run of 20-plus yards (he had three all season), and Antonio Brown beat cornerback A.J. Bouye for a 23-yard touchdown to cut it to 21-7.

Then Jacksonville got a favorable bounce.

When Yannick Ngakoue beat Alejandro Villanueva off the edge for a strip sack of Roethlisberger, the ball bounced into the hands of linebacker Telvin Smith, who returned it 50 yards for a 28-7 lead with 2:20 left in the second quarter.

Smith, however, set the stage for a Steelers comeback.

As he crossed the goal line, Smith pointed at Bell. That drew a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the ensuing kick, which Cam Sutton returned 22 yards to the Steelers 49.

Through a series of short passes, Roethlisberger moved the Steelers to the Jacksonville 36. On fourth-and-11, confusion caused a timeout. The Steelers came out of it with McDonald, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant split left, with Brown wide right and Roethlisberger threw a pass into the end zone.

The ball looked like it was intended for Brown but off target. Then Bryant continued his route, crossing behind Brown and catching the ball for a touchdown that cut it to 28-14 at the half.

That the Steelers opened the second half with a 10-play, 77-yard scoring drive capped by Bell’s 19-yard catch on a corner fade didn’t reinforce Tomlin’s decision.

The Steelers simply bailed him out.

4. The momentum swung in the Steelers’ favor after safety Robert Golden partially blocked a punt, which rolled to the Jacksonville 48 and set the stage for a game-tying drive.

Instead, they got another fourth-and-1.

This time, after Bell ran for gains of 6 and 3 yards and then no gain, the Steelers elected to pass.

When Roethlisberger’s throw to JuJu Smith-Schuster fell incomplete, Heinz Field was stunned.

When Jacksonville answered with a 45-yard pass to Keelan Cole, who beat Artie Burns inside on a post pattern, to set up Fournette’s 3-yard touchdown run for a 35-21 lead, Heinz Field fell silent.

This would require a monumental comeback.

5. Instead, the Steelers were a monumental disappointment.

The Steelers allowed Bortles to complete a pass down the left sideline to a wide-open Yeldon for a 40-yard gain. Jacksonville went from its 40 to the Steelers 40. Bortles converted another third down — Jacksonville went 8 for 14 on third down — and that led to a touchdown pass to fullback Tommy Bohanon for a 42-28 lead with 4:19 left that put the game away.

Or so we thought.

Somehow, the Steelers managed a 12-play, 75-yard scoring drive that ended with a most improbable play. On a third-and-5 at the 18, Roethlisberger ran across the line of scrimmage, then turned and lateraled to his left to Bell, who ran 8 yards for a touchdown to cut it to 42-35.

Instead of kicking it deep and trying stop Jacksonville, the Steelers elected for an onside kick. But Tyler Matakevich touched the ball before it went 10 yards and the Jaguars took over at the Steelers’ 36. That call backfired, too. Four plays later, Josh Lambo kicked a 45-yard field goal for a 10-point lead with 1:45 remaining.

When it comes down to it, the Steelers were beaten by Bortles.

Where Ben Roethlsiberger passed for 469 yards and five touchdowns but had two turnovers that led to touchdowns, the Steelers have now lost all five playoff games in which he’s passed for 300 yards or more: against Jacksonville (337), Baltimore (334), Denver (339), New England (314) and, now, Jacksonville again.

Bortles was 14 of 26 for 214 yards, two touchdowns and no turnovers and also ran for 35 yards. And the Steelers have now lost playoff games to the likes of David Garrard, Joe Flacco, Tim Tebow and Bortles.

And a season that started with Super Bowl hopes ended with stunning disappointment.

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.