(SportsNetwork.com) – The Jacksonville Jaguars were ahead, 17-0, in their Week 1 visit to Philadelphia before allowing 34 unanswered second-half points. Those tumultuous 30 minutes kick-started a stretch in which they’ve now played seven halves of football and been outscored, 152-41, while doing so.
*My best sports handicapping picks is located at the bottom of the article*.
In fact, the Jaguars haven’t won at all since beating Houston, 27-20, on Dec. 5, 2013.
“We’re not light on losing,” coach Gus Bradley said. “We’re not playing our best right now so we can’t think about anything else. We haven’t accomplished playing our best yet. Let’s do that then we’ll see what happens.”
The Blake Bortles Era officially began last week when the rookie got his first start over veteran Chad Henne. He connected on all but three of his 18 first- half passes for 149 yards and a touchdown against San Diego, before ultimately winding up 29-for-37 for 253 yards, the TD and two interceptions.
The Jaguars lost, 33-14, but they recorded a season-high with 21 first downs and converted nine of 14 attempts on third down. And Bortles earned some respect from the opposition, too.
“He’s going to be a real good quarterback in the league,” Chargers cornerback Brandon Flowers said.
The next phase of his climb will be hampered by the likely absence of top receiving target Cecil Shorts III, who injured a muscle in his left leg against San Diego and is considered doubtful for Sunday. Shorts missed the first two games with a strained left hamstring, then caught seven passes for 60 yards and a touchdown in weeks 3 and 4.
Among the other targets, rookie Marqise Lee remains sidelined with his own hamstring issue, while Ace Sanders returns after a four-game NFL-mandated suspension. He caught 51 passes as a rookie in 2013.
“I don’t know what to expect,” Sanders said. “I’m just going in, whatever they ask me to do, I’ll do it. If it turns out, I’ll be ready for it.”
On defense, the Jaguars have been gashed for a league-worst 38 points per game, and are also at the bottom of the 32-team barrel with 320.8 passing yards allowed per week, alongside 451.3 total yards.
Jacksonville responded to the difficulties by waiving starting safety Winston Guy.
“I just think we’re not challenging throws,” Bradley said. “It needs to be tighter.”
Approaching the matchup with eyes wide open is Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who completed 29-of-40 passes for 314 yards and three scores against Tampa Bay last week, only to have defeat snatched from the jaws of victory when the Bucs pulled ahead in the final 10 seconds.
Roethlisberger has passed for 413 yards in two road games to start the season. His top target, Antonio Brown, is among the league’s leaders in catches (29), yards (427) and touchdowns (5).
A loss to the Jaguars would put the Steelers below .500 after five games for the third straight year, a stretch coach Mike Tomlin would like to see end while the team reduces its burgeoning early-season penalty rate. Pittsburgh committed 13 penalties last week and is averaging 11 per game.
“We need to fix it,” Tomlin said. “And if we don’t we’ll continue to lose close football games.”
The Steelers have managed seven sacks and forced three turnovers in four games. Tampa Bay, which entered the game 0-3 and was coming off a 42-point loss, got into scoring position late in the game with a 41-yard pass play. The game-winner came on another pass from the 5-yard line.
Pittsburgh allowed 350 total yards for the game.
The 2013 season began at 2-6 for the Steelers, while 2012 featured a 2-3 start. Both seasons ended at 8-8 and out of the playoffs. Pittsburgh hasn’t reached the postseason since going 12-4 in 2011.
“We fell short in our responsibilities,” cornerback Cortez Allen said. “That’s why we didn’t come out with a win. It’s something we’ve got to fix.”
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Rookie vs. Mastermind
As impressive as Bortles has been through one start and one relief appearance – throwing for 447 yards and three scores against four interceptions – he’ll presumably face a unique challenge against the Pittsburgh defense concocted by veteran sideline guru Dick LeBeau.
Veteran passers have ravaged the Steelers for a 62.2 percent completion rate in 2014, but LeBeau is 18-2 against rookies since 2004.
With Shorts and Lee presumably out of commission and Sanders trying to feel his way back into game action, the top target for Bortles will likely be Allen Hurns, who’s caught 12 passes for 254 yards and scored three times in four games. Limiting his success will be the responsibility of Pittsburgh corners Allen and William Gay, who’ll need to limit his propensity for big plays (21.2 yards per catch).
The general consensus is that, thanks to his track record, Tomlin isn’t likely to feel too much heat with another lackluster Pittsburgh start. But a loss to a particularly poor 0-4 team might change that quickly.
The Steelers should have been 3-1 entering this one, so there’s a particular urgency to make this business trip a productive one against a team they should handle. They should get it done.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Steelers 30, Jaguars 17
(SportsNetwork.com) – 10/05 07:43:31 ET