The Steelers rebounded to rattle off eight consecutive wins and clinch a first-round bye in the playoffs. Now their postseason begins with a rematch against the Jaguars at Heinz Field.
If Pittsburgh is to return to the AFC Championship Game, the team needs to learn a few lessons from its first date with Jacksonville.
Le'Veon Bell only carried the ball 15 times for 47 yards in that first meeting. When a team goes away from the run in a blowout loss, the typical excuse is that it resorted to the pass in an attempt to catch up. However, that wasn't the case for the Steelers in Week 5.
Pittsburgh trailed 7-6 at halftime and took a 9-7 lead midway through the third quarter. In such a low-scoring affair, the Steelers would have been wise to turn to their patient running back. Jacksonville's pass defense is the best in the league, while its run defense ranks 21st.
Pittsburgh supplemented Bell's carries by throwing to him 10 times for 46 yards, but 25 touches still isn't enough for a player who finished second in the league in all-purpose yards.
After Pittsburgh grabbed its 9-7 lead, Bell touched the ball five times. Multiple Steelers share the blame for that oversight - as does Bell, who earned 0 yards on those five touches - and the Jaguars deserve some credit for forcing the ball out of his hands.
Nonetheless, going away from the run is a recipe for defeat, and it's a mistake the Steelers can't make again in their second matchup.
Last week, the Jags won a playoff game with Blake Bortles throwing for 87 yards. Hilarious, right?
Well, Bortles completed just eight passes for 95 yards and an interception in Jacksonville's dismantling of Pittsburgh. The offense came in the form of the defense, special teams, and rookie running back Leonard Fournette going off for 181 yards and two touchdowns.
Pittsburgh's mandate is clear: Stack the box and force Bortles to throw. That game plan worked for Buffalo in the wild-card round. The Bills held the Jaguars to 10 points and, if not for their own atrocious offensive output, would be playing in the divisional round.
In obvious running situations during their first meeting, the Steelers mostly stuck to their base defense. Now, they should load up against the run and force the Jaguars to take to the air in the January cold.
Bortles has thrown five interceptions in his last three games. Until he regains his confidence, the offense will run through the ground game, and the Steelers must be prepared.
The Steelers have a tendency to play down to inferior opponents (they lost to the Bears and squeaked out wins against the Browns, Colts, and Aaron Rodgers-less Packers), and in early October, they may have classified the Jaguars as such. After all, Jacksonville was entering the game off a loss to the New York Jets.
Pittsburgh learned the hard way that Jacksonville is not to be discounted.
Ben Roethlisberger threw the ball an astonishing 55 times against a secondary that features the Pro Bowl duo of A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey. Big Ben's punishment was five interceptions, two of which were returned for game-breaking touchdowns. The Jaguars' fearsome front seven also broke through for two sacks.
The whole experience left Roethlisberger questioning whether he still had it. Last week, he said he'd like another shot at the Jags and an opportunity to redeem himself.
He got his wish. On Sunday, we'll see if the Steelers have learned their lesson.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)