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Slipping away

Posted Oct 16, 2011

Frustrated running back Maurice Jones-Drew: "It just takes your heart away."

PITTSBURGH, Pa. – In another week, in another circumstance, the theme of this editorial would be different.

In another week, we’d talk about optimism. In another circumstance, we’d talk about hope.

In another week, we’d emphasize the fight the Jaguars showed on Sunday in a 17-13 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. In another circumstance, we’d emphasize the defense, the courage, the heart, the right things being said in the post-game locker room.

It would be great to emphasize those things, because those things were real.

The Jaguars on Sunday very nearly did the seemingly impossible. They very nearly rallied from a 17-point deficit in front of 62,934 at Heinz Field – yes, that Heinz Field against those Pittsburgh Steelers – to improbably win a game in which they’d been thoroughly dominated for a half.

The first-half statistics: 315-69 edge for the Steelers in total yards.

It wasn’t that close. When the Steelers led 17-0 midway through the second quarter, it was easy to have thoughts about the widest losses in franchise history, so catastrophic did things look. And you know what? It would have been easy for the players to feel that way, too.

That happens in the NFL. Things get out of hand. Games get demoralizing.

That’s a thing to remember about this Jaguars team. They’re 1-5 after six weeks, and in a league in which you are what your record says you are, there’s no way to sugarcoat 1-5. Only a miracle will save the Jaguars’ season – and yes, that’s true even with the rest of the AFC South struggling.

But at that time in the second quarter? When it looked like things were sliding? Something happened that was easy to miss at first. Rashard Mendenhall ran 68 yards on a play that moved the Steelers to the Jaguars 2. Already trailing 14-0, there was little to indicate it wasn’t about to turn to 21-0 and then into something far worse.

But on the next play, Dwight Lowery and Paul Posluszny stopped Mendenhall for a 1-yard loss, and after two incomplete passes, the lead was 17-0. The Jaguars put together a 47-yard drive on the next possession to make it 17-3, and rather than the rout being on, what happened next was something few would have predicted.

The Jaguars held strong. They put together a defensive second half that was as impressive as any in recent franchise history. Against an offense that had scored seven touchdowns in its last six quarters, the Jaguars allowed 55 second-half yards. The Steelers punted on their final five possessions, and they produced on those drives just three first downs and no points.

“It hurts worse when the scoreboard doesn’t say you won, but you feel like you played well enough to win, and that was the case,” Jaguars defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said.

Watching Knighton and the defense in the second half, you couldn’t help recognize heart, and you couldn’t help realize you were watching impressive stuff. The offense still struggled, managing 10 points against the NFL’s second-ranked defense, but when rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert passed 18 yards to wide receiver Jason Hill to make it 17-10 late in the third quarter, a game that had looked like a blowout suddenly wasn’t.

But like we said, while all that’s nice, it’s not the theme of this editorial, and it darned sure wasn’t the theme in the Jaguars’ locker room Sunday.

One important message post-game came from Jaguars cornerback Rashean Mathis, who spoke to the team afterward. In a statement unprompted by Jaguars Head Coach Jack Del Rio. Mathis told the team to keep working, and emphasized that the team was close – closer than people realized – to being much better than the record indicated.

“It’s never something planned,” Mathis, the most-tenured member of the Jaguars’ defense, said afterward. “Sometimes, it’s taken a little different when it’s coming from someone other than a coach. It was just letting (teammates) know, ‘We’re still here. It’s not over.’ We’re this close.

“We have to keep grinding and keep searching self, and find out what each individual can do to get us a win.”

Said Knighton, “Like Rashean told the team after the game, ‘We’re right on the cusp.’”

Still, while being on the cusp is perhaps true, it still wasn’t the overriding locker-room theme, and therefore not the overall theme of this editorial.

While Mathis and Knighton spoke of staying the course, linebacker Daryl Smith spoke of a defense that – while effective in the second half – started its dominant play a bit too late. Del Rio spoke of again failing to make a few key plays at the end of a game, a few key plays that made the difference in winning and losing. Jones-Drew spoke of an offense that, though effective in spots, too often didn’t finish drives.

“It’s just frustrating,” Jones-Drew said. “We’re all frustrated. We’re close. We played well. We played a great game. To come up short, it just takes your heart away. “

It is indeed frustrating, and whatever good there was wasn’t enough. At 1-5, you can’t talk about optimism or hope. All you can really talk about when discussing Sunday’s game was this frustrating irony – that what was perhaps the best realistic chance to save the season slipped away during a second half that at the same time may have been its finest hour yet.

And that, unfortunately for the Jaguars, is the theme of this editorial.

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