PITTSBURGH — Leonard Fournette and Mike Mitchell spent the better part of three hours on a perpetual collision course.
Fournette, the Jacksonville Jaguars’ hulking running back, kept pounding into Mitchell with legs churning. Mitchell, the Pittsburgh Steelers safety, kept trying to wrap Fournette up with gums flapping.
“He was saying I’m a rookie and stuff, and I’m not ready,” Fournette said.
Fournette chugged for 181 yards and two decidedly different scores , including a 90-yard dash away from the NFL’s second-ranked defense in the final minutes to seal a 30-9 victory. Fournette broke through the line of scrimmage and then kept on going.
“I mean nobody was there,” said Fournette, the youngest player to score on a run of at least 90 yards. “I just took it and ran. My biggest thing is, just don’t get caught, that’s all.”
Not on this day as the 240-pound budding star put an exclamation point on what the Jaguars (3-2) hope will be a springboard to contention after spending the better part of a decade waffling between bad and really bad.
Now comes the hard part for coach Doug Marrone and his surprising club: stringing together performances like the one that left the Steelers (3-2) shaking their heads and Heinz Field desolate by the final gun. The Jaguars started the season by destroying Houston on the road, then were drummed at home by Tennessee. They crushed Baltimore in London, then crashed back to earth by falling to the New York Jets in overtime.
“We have weeks where we are kind of sluggish,” Fournette said. “We have to pick up our attitude despite of a win be more consistent. We win one game. Let’s win two in a row. Let’s win three in a row.”
Right now Jacksonville will have to settle for one that they believe makes a statement that their best start since 2010 is hardly a fluke. The Jaguars picked off Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger five times , returning for scores on consecutive possessions in the third quarter to transform a two-point deficit into an 11-point lead.
Jacksonville forced an NFL-low 13 turnovers while going 3-13 in 2016. The Jaguars already have 15 takeaways through five weeks in 2017.
“At any given time we feel like we have somebody who can change the game, whether it’s a sack, a sack-fumble, pick-6, and I think we showed it,” said Jacksonville safety Tashaun Gipson, who finished with two interceptions. “I think this is a complete different ballclub compared to last year.”
So does Pittsburgh, at least offensively. The Steelers (3-2) were held without a touchdown at home for the first time since 2007 while taking their worst home loss in coach Mike Tomlin’s 11 seasons.
“I’m concerned when we lose,” Tomlin said. “I’m concerned when we don’t take care of the ball. We did not do that today.”
Other takeaways from Jacksonville’s first victory over the Steelers in a decade:
HE CAN FLY: The Jaguars took Fournette in the first round of the draft because of his rare combination of power and speed. Maybe it’s time to add another adjective: high-flyer. Fournette put Jacksonville in front in the first half with a gravity escaping leap. He took the handoff from Blake Bortles and launched himself in the air at the 4. He didn’t come down until he’d cleared the line of scrimmage and the goal line.
“I noticed the line knocked everybody down,” he said. “I jumped 5 yards. I was nowhere near the goal line. I jumped 5 yards back and I made it. I surprised myself.”
ROUGH ROETHLISBERGER: Roethlisberger has thrown four interceptions three times in his career. When his desperation heave to the end zone was snagged by Gipson with 3:16 left, it gave him five on the day, the most by a Steelers quarterback since Mark Malone did it against Cleveland 30 years ago. While stressing he wasn’t going to panic, Roethlisberger knows he needs to play better going forward if the Steelers want to be legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
“It’s hard to say what’s going on,” Roethlisberger said.
HAPPY HOMECOMING: Barry Church’s 51-yard pick six gave the Jaguars a 20-9 lead and sent the array of family and friends who turned out to see the Pittsburgh native into a frenzy.
“I played at Heinz Field freshman year at Toledo,” Church said. “We came to Pitt and got destroyed. This is a better feeling.”
RUN STOPPERS? Pittsburgh’s run defense has been spotty at best. Two weeks after getting gashed for over 200 yards by Chicago in an overtime loss at Soldier Field, the Jaguars ran for 231 yards and needed quarterback Blake Bortles to throw the ball just once in the second half to win.
“Definitely demoralizing,” Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier said. “You definitely know you’re going to try to stop something … if they’re just able to continually run the ball, it starts to wear on you.”