JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Doug Marrone gathered his Jacksonville Jaguars in the locker room Sunday, minutes after they’d blown a 16-point second-half lead and lost their sixth consecutive game.
He didn’t rain fire and brimstone after the Jaguars gave up the winning touchdown with three seconds to play in a 20-16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. He didn’t call anyone out. His message to his players mirrored his approach toward the opponent.
He let them off the hook.
“He was just proud of us, proud of the way we fought out there, proud of the effort we gave,” safety Barry Church said. “He knows that we were fighting for him, but sometimes the ball just doesn’t roll your way. That’s pretty much the gist of it. We’ve just got to get back in the lab and get better.”
That won’t happen Monday. Marrone, a former Buffalo Bills coach, gave his players the day off after the loss, which dropped their record to 3-7.
Last season, this team went 10-6 in the regular season, beat the Bills in the wild-card round, reached the AFC Championship Game and nearly advanced to the Super Bowl. Now, with six games remaining, a stretch that begins with a visit to face the Bills next Sunday at New Era Field, Marrone might be coaching to keep his job.
“As a coach and as a player, you’re always graded on whether you win or you lose,” said former Jaguars defensive end Jeff Lageman, a commentator on the team’s radio network. “You lose six consecutive, then people are going to question your ability to be a coach. And that’s the way it is.”
The Jaguars were poised to pull their season out of its death spiral.
Everything was going right through three quarters at TIAA Bank Field against the Steelers, now winners of six consecutive games and one of the hottest teams in the NFL.
Jacksonville took a 16-0 lead when Leonard Fournette plowed into the end zone with about two minutes remaining in the third, capping a 10-play, 80-yard drive. The bruising running back was originally ruled down at the 1, but Marrone quickly tossed the red flag and won his second challenge of the day.
The success was fleeting.
The Jaguars’ shortcomings on offense, undisciplined play and Marrone’s conservative play calling came back to haunt them. Jacksonville failed to pick up a first down on eight of its final nine possessions, including two that began in Steelers territory.
The Jaguars offense generated minus-nine yards in the fourth quarter, when Blake Bortles dropped back to pass just four times. He was sacked three times and the lone pass fell incomplete.
Bortles completed just 10 of 18 pass attempts for 104 yards in the game. He was sacked six times and lost a fumble on the final play.
“I’ve said this before: We’re professionals. We have to understand that,” Marrone said. “Emotionally we did put a lot into it, and I think that’s why, I told the players, ‘Hey, tomorrow take a step back.’ You know what I’m saying? Just take a step back. Come back on Tuesday. We’ll be ready to go and try to gear this thing up and put it all together and go out there and play well and take pride in what we do.”
On the Jaguars’ penultimate possession, inside the two-minute warning, they still owned the lead and were feeding Fournette.
But when they faced third-and-5 from their own 30-yard line, Marrone decided to once again give the ball to his tailback, rather than being aggressive and attempting a pass for the first down.
Marrone admitted after the game that he originally thought about throwing in that situation, but he and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, who served in the same capacity on Marrone’s staff in Buffalo in 2013 and ’14, were concerned about pass protection with three backups playing on the offensive line and decided to put the ball in the hands of their best player.
Fournette was stopped after a one-yard gain, Pittsburgh used its second timeout, and after a punt, the Steelers went to work, driving 68 yards in seven plays for the winning score.
“I think we had three or four three-and-outs at the end of the game,” Marrone said. “You know, that’s what’s tough. You’re physical and running the football. Protection-wise, we could’ve done a better job. We were getting beat a little bit, not schematically, but just up front, but still we have to be able to get first downs and close the game out. If you just had one first down on any of those drives you had a chance to win that football game, and we weren’t able to do that. That’s disappointing.”
Fournette finished with 95 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries.
The running back was despondent after the game, in disbelief that the Jaguars had lost again. He was unsure about how to approach the remainder of the season.
“I couldn’t tell you,” Fournette said, as teammates talked about potentially winning out.
But he was steadfast in support of Marrone and the coaching staff.
“They’re my coaches,” Fournette said. “I’m here with them each and every day. We’re battling. I don’t have nothing bad to say about them. So we can move on from that question.”
Tony Romo, who called the game for CBS, was critical of the Jaguars’ overreliance on the run.
But Fournette wasn’t the only one defending Marrone after the game.
“He’s a natural leader and he’s continuing to fight and push us and help us be the best we can be, and I’ve got a lot of respect for him,” defensive end Calais Campbell said. “This is tough, but this team, it has a lot of heart and it starts with him.”
“My belief is always going to be with Doug,” Church said. “He’s been through all our ups and downs just like we’ve been through the ups and downs, so we can’t just abandon him and point the finger at him when we’re all in this together. I know that we’ll turn it around for him. He’s a heck of a head coach and I love playing for him. So we’ve just got to get these Ws for him, and starting out this week, hopefully we can get it.”
“The coaches have been doing a great job of putting us in position, giving us game plans that we have confidence in, to put us in position to win the game,” center Tyler Shatley said. “And they’ve been really doing a good job of not letting us lose focus. Because we could easily lose focus at this point. But we’re still fighting.”
The defeat spoiled a stellar effort by the defense, at least through three quarters.
The Jaguars managed three interceptions, two by Jalen Ramsey, one by Church.
They held Steelers running back James Conner, who entered the game with the third-most rushing yards in the league, to 25 yards on nine carries.
They limited Pittsburgh to 3 of 11 on third down.
But the Jaguars' offensive struggles were compounded by penalties. Jacksonville was flagged 11 times for 111 yards, none more costly than D.J. Hayden's facemask against Ryan Switzer, which wiped away his game-sealing interception in the end zone and gave the Steelers the ball at the 1 with 22 seconds to play.
After another penalty for defensive holding moved the ball to the half-yard line, Ben Roethlisberger bowled over linebacker Myles Jack for the game-winning touchdown.
“It’s always tough when you’re losing,” said former Jaguars tackle Tony Boselli, a commentator on the team’s radio network. “That’s when you find out really about your leadership and kind of what you’ve got. And I don’t think anyone doubts that Doug’s a really good football coach, a good Xs and Os guy, knows his stuff. But this will be the big test, kind of weathering the storm. But he’s been in tough situations before, so I think all of us are confident that he’ll do it and get this team to the other side of this tough losing stretch that they’re on right now.”