PITTSBURGH (AP) — It took less than a season for Doug Pederson to turn chaos into cohesion in Jacksonville.
Nearing the midway point of his second year with the Jaguars, the moribund franchise Pederson took over is showing the hallmarks of being a legitimate contender. Jacksonville (5-2) takes a four-game winning streak into Sunday's visit to enigmatic Pittsburgh (4-2) and has a somewhat comfortable perch atop the AFC South.
Asked if he anticipated his team quickly proving their abrupt rise in 2022 wasn't a fluke, Pederson shrugged.
“Yeah, quite honestly,” Pederson said. “You expect to be in this situation. We can still play better. I think there’s a lot left out on the field each weekend that we can learn from and improve.”
Maybe, but it helps to learn and win at the same time. The Jaguars have steadied themselves following a 1-2 start and are favored in Pittsburgh for the first time since 1999, a nod of respect by oddsmakers to a team that averaged 12 1/2 losses a season in the four years before Pederson arrived.
“I think this is a very mature team that we have and I think we understand what’s at stake this week and every week moving forward,” quarterback Trevor Lawrence said. “Every game is critical, it’s crucial.”
The erratic Steelers — who have found ways to win despite serious issues on offense — offer a unique test before the Jaguars head into their bye.
“Pittsburgh, their whole organization has like an aura around it and that’s really cool there,” Lawrence said.
But not intimidating — at least not historically — for the Jaguars. Jacksonville has won five of its last six on the road against the Steelers, including an upset victory in the divisional round of the 2017 playoffs that seemed to signal the start of a potentially long run of success.
The window of opportunity slammed shut almost as quickly as it opened. Three years of dysfunction followed before Pederson's arrival. Jacksonville now has a core of young talent on offense and a defense that has an NFL-best 16 takeaways.
In that way, the Jaguars and Steelers are near mirror images of each other. Pittsburgh has found a way to hang around in the tight AFC North by winning tight game after tight game. All of the Steelers' four victories have been by seven points or less, while their two losses have been blowouts in which they've been outscored 60-13.
The visit by the Jaguars is the start of a rare three-game homestand for Pittsburgh and a chance for the Steelers to look like a playoff team somewhere other than the standings.
“We’re nowhere near where we need to be,” quarterback Kenny Pickett said. “That’s good news, when you’re winning and you’re steadily improving but the most important thing is to get the win. So, haven’t had that full four-quarter game where we can say we played our best football.”
Pittsburgh will need to muster it at some point. Until then, they're fine finding a way to hang around while waiting for the opponent to blink first.
“We will our way,” running back Najee Harris said. “We always prepare for a 15-round fight.”
Jaguars receiver Calvin Ridley, the team’s biggest offseason addition, is coming off one of his worst games as a pro. He caught one pass for 5 yards in a 31-24 victory at New Orleans last week. It was the latest lull in an up-and-down start for the former Atlanta standout.
He has 27 catches for 368 yards and two touchdowns, finishing with 40 yards receiving or fewer in five of his last six games. Ridley insists winning is all that matters, but don’t be surprised if the Jaguars try to get him more involved early against the Steelers.
“The success that we have is going to be because of Calvin’s success on the field,” Pederson said.
KEEPING THEIR COOL
Pittsburgh wide receivers Diontae Johnson and George Pickens both drew personal fouls during last week's comeback win over Los Angeles that cost the Steelers field position, a less-than-ideal development for a team that ranks last in the league in first downs.
Harris also came close to earning an unsportsmanlike conduct call for jawing with a member of the Rams defense.
“We're competitors, you know,” Harris said. “Like the game is tight. You want to make plays and you might have a little bit of chit chat. We've just got to find a balance where to knowing when there’s too much and when to stop.”
Jacksonville leads the NFL with 16 takeaways, including 11 during the team’s four-game winning streak. The Jaguars have two interceptions returned for touchdowns in the stretch, and Pederson says he “hopes it’s sustainable.”
“Takeaways come in bunches and waves, and you ride the wave a little bit,” he said.
Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt was just a rookie when the underdog Jaguars pulled off that 45-42 playoff stunner six years ago. Now he's a perennial All-Pro and one of the game's elite players. Watt's eight sacks are second in the NFL and he seems to be finding a way to disrupt game plans every week no matter what opponents try to do to stop him.
Now Watt will find himself lined up against Jaguars rookie tackle Anton Harrison, who had issues earlier this year trying to block Kansas City's Chris Jones.
“He’s just an all-around great player,” Lawrence said. “You’ve got to always know where he’s at, you've got to have a plan for him.”
AP Pro Football Writer Mark Long in Jacksonville contributed to this report.
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