Jags dismantle Steelers, return to cusp of greatness

Updated: September 20, 2006, 2:01 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- For a week leading into Monday night's game, the Jacksonville Jaguars incessantly repeated one mantra: Bully the bullies.

Ben Roethlisberger
AP Photo/Phil CoaleThe Jaguars bullied a rusty Ben Roethlisberger all night to limit the Steelers to 153 total yards.

And so it was only fitting, following his team's 9-0 dismantling of the Pittsburgh Steelers -- yeah, a nine-point win, in this case, qualified as total domination -- that Jacksonville middle linebacker Mike Peterson proclaimed the Jags' defensive players as the new tough guys on the NFL block.

Well, kind of.

"Hey, there's some new bullies in town," crowed Peterson as he ran through the stadium tunnel following Jacksonville's victory over the defending Super Bowl champions, the team's second straight win over a playoff-caliber opponent. "Write it down, man, we are the new bullies."

A few minutes later, in a home locker room surprisingly subdued considering the significance of what the Jags wrought in limiting Pittsburgh to just 153 yards and rendering the Steelers scoreless for the first time since December 2003, Peterson stepped back a little.

And maybe with good reason.

This is a franchise whose history indicates it doesn't always handle prosperity well. Only two years ago, for instance, the Jaguars all but secured a playoff berth with an upset victory at Green Bay, then returned home the next week and were shut out by the lowly Houston Texans. There have been a lot of occasions in which Jacksonville appeared close enough to the top of the hump to see over to the other side, and then slipped back with an inexplicable loss.

But there is some evidence to suggest that these Jaguars, who travel on Sunday to Indianapolis (where they typically play the Colts tough), are perhaps beyond such past regressions. The Jags opened the season by overcoming a 10-point deficit to defeat the Dallas Cowboys, then stood toe-to-toe with the Steelers and simply outhit them in every facet of the game.

"Next up is Indianapolis and, traditionally, that's been our biggest hurdle," said defensive tackle Marcus Stroud, who helped limit the Steelers to a paltry 26 yards rushing, the lowest total of the Bill Cowher Era. "But I think we've built such good momentum, winning two games against such good teams right out of the chute, that we'll go there with a ton of confidence. It's a little bit different mind-set in this room. For the young guys on this team, this is big, believe me. But we've got to be smart. As big as these wins have been, they're still only two wins. It's a long season."

"Standing on the sideline, watching our defense go at them, it was like watching a heavyweight fight. I mean, how could you not get excited, really? Our guys just whipped them. Whipped them bad. Those guys on defense, they were playing for real, man."
-- Jaguars tailback Fred Taylor

Jacksonville, which won 12 games in 2005 but was demolished at New England in a wild-card game, could make it a very long season, indeed, if it plays with the kind of overpowering dimension it displayed Monday night. In the lowest-scoring game in the history of "Monday Night Football," the Jaguars managed just three Josh Scobee field goals (31, 32 and 42 yards). Yet despite not sealing the deal until Scobee knocked home the last of his 3-pointers, with just 4:26 left to play, the Jaguars were in control throughout.

In training camp, Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio told ESPN.com that he felt his team had earned the right to be mentioned among the NFL's elite franchises. Jacksonville did nothing on Monday to dispel such thinking.

The Jaguars' 362 total yards weren't particularly aesthetic, but, led by tailback Fred Taylor's 92 yards on 22 carries, Jacksonville piled up a respectable 110 yards on the ground against one of the league's premier defenses. And quarterback Byron Leftwich managed the game well, completing 26 of 39 passes for 260 yards, with only a couple of questionable reads. The Jaguars didn't have any three-and-out series and had three possessions with double-digit snaps.

The Steelers, conversely, registered just nine first downs, 22:35 in time of possession, and had just three snaps on the Jacksonville side of the 50-yard line. Pittsburgh never moved inside the Jaguars' 46-yard line and the Steelers gained 3 yards or fewer on 20 of 48 snaps. Clearly, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who played just 43 snaps in preseason and missed last week's opener, was rusty, making his first start of the season only 15 days after his Sept. 3 appendectomy.

Jaguars defense
Marc Serota/Getty Images
Roethlisberger just missed on several throws, notably a long pass for Hines Ward in the first quarter on which the Steelers' wide receiver had sprinted past free safety Deon Grant. But even when Roethlisberger was on target, his receivers didn't bail him out; they dropped at least three catchable passes early in the game, all of which would have kept drives alive.

But to attribute the Steelers' abysmal offensive performance to Roethlisberger's idleness would be unfair to a Jacksonville defense that simply lined up with the Steelers and refused to blink. It marked the first time in 25 years that a defending Super Bowl champion had been shut out.

"Standing on the sideline, watching our defense go at them, it was like watching a heavyweight fight," Taylor said. "I mean, how could you not get excited, really? Our guys just whipped them. Whipped them bad. Those guys on defense, they were playing for real, man."

But are the Jaguars for real? There weren't any dissenters in Pittsburgh's locker room, that's for sure, and their tempered enthusiasm aside, Jacksonville players exited here late Monday night feeling as if they had made a lasting statement in their latest statement game. Next week, at the RCA Dome, where the Jaguars are just 1-4, but have been outscored by an average of only seven points in the last four meetings, offers a chance for another giant step forward.

To be an elite team, you've got to beat elite teams, and the Colts will present a different set of problems for the Jaguars. They are problems, though, the Jaguars figure they can handle.

Said Leftwich, one of the league's truly good guys, and a player whose infectious personality could take his club a long way: "We have about three or four hours to celebrate, then it's on to [preparing] for the Colts. Every time we go up there, it's tough. We know how good they are."

The difference might be that, for once, the Jaguars understand how good they are, too.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.

ALSO SEE