PITTSBURGH – The confusion is gone. The alarming number of missed tackles that plagued the Pittsburgh Steelers during the first few weeks of the season are dwindling. The pressure created by the front seven is mounting.
And while the Steelers are far from saying their swagger is back — sorry, but even they know their 17-9 victory over winless Jacksonville on Sunday is hardly cause for celebration — they believe it's a lot closer than it was a month ago.
On a day the offense sputtered whenever it managed to get into scoring range, the defense made the kind of plays it failed to produce with any sort of regularity during the season's first four weeks.
Brice McCain returned an interception for a touchdown. Cortez picked off a pass for the second straight game. And when Jacksonville tried to push the tempo in the final minutes in hopes of tying the game, Pittsburgh slammed the door shut emphatically.
"Even though (the Jaguars) don't have a good record, just to go on the road and do that in their stadium was huge," linebacker Lawrence Timmons said.
Even if half of the stadium was clad in black swirling yellow Terrible Towels. A week after a last second meltdown led to an inexplicable home loss to Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh (3-2) wasn't taking anything for granted, not with another meeting with rapidly improving Cleveland (2-2) looming.
And while McCain's 22-yard sprint to the end zone with 11:32 remaining provided the winning margin, it's what the Steelers were able to do after that that provided proof the group that features five new starters is starting to mature.
Jacksonville got the ball twice with a chance to tie the game. The Jaguars didn't even come close, managing all of 26 yards while never making it past their own 40.
"Everybody is being accountable," linebacker Arthur Moats said. "Everybody is just doing their job."
Something that wasn't happening with regularity during an uneven stretch in which Pittsburgh rarely looked like the same team from quarter to quarter let alone game to game. The combination of a soft schedule, better tackling and a streamlining of communication from the sideline to the field has helped.
There were times — particularly in the second half against the Browns in Week 1 — when the defense scrambled to get into position at the snap of the ball.
"We weren't getting the communication that we needed to," Moats said. "We had some guys playing one call, other guys playing a different call. You're playing two different calls on the field, you're going to have some holes and Cleveland exploited that."
Certainly looked like it as the Browns and Ravens gashed the Steelers for 348 yards rushing during the first two weeks. Pittsburgh has allowed just 161 yards on the ground in its last three games as players have developed a better feel for each other and taken it upon themselves to figure out the defensive play call rather than wait for it to be relayed by Timmons.
"It's a lot more fluid," McCain said. "We're ready for the ball to be hiked and we make plays."
McCain was in the right place on the game's pivotal play early in the fourth quarter after a Ben Roethlisberger fumble gave Jacksonville life trailing by just a point. Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles tried to hit Allen Hurns on the sideline. The pass sailed into the arms of McCain. Three seconds later, the Steelers were up by a touchdown and back in control.
"They kept throwing the ball my way, I love it," McCain said. "Every play I think the ball is coming to my side and every opportunity to make a play is great for me."
The Steelers, too. While the Jaguars are struggling, Pittsburgh understands it's not in position to be choosy. Sure, bigger challenges await in the coming months. The Steelers believe they're in better position to handle them now than they were a week ago.
"After the Ravens game, we had that bad taste in our mouth," Moats said. "We knew we had to be a more dominant front, to set the tone and be more physical. It's a work in progress for us. By no means are we perfect. I feel we've got a lot of room to improve but we're headed in the right direction."
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