PITTSBURGH – No Jaguar knows more about leaving Heinz Field feeling despondent than safety Tashaun Gipson, whose Cleveland Browns teams lost all four games from 2012-15 by a 13-point average margin.

 

So when he looked up midway through the fourth quarter Sunday and saw Pittsburgh Steelers fans exiting the stadium in droves, Gipson made sure to savor the magnificence of that moment.

“To see this stadium begin to empty with nine minutes left in the fourth quarter, I’ve never seen that,” Gipson said. “That’s unheard of at Heinz Field. It just doesn’t happen too often. To look around and see that, man, it was crazy after playing four years in Cleveland.

“It was just a surreal feeling. It lets me know I’m part of an organization that’s ready to turn the tide.”

Jaguars fans should let the last part of that statement marinate in their minds because, for the first time since the 2010 season, it finally does feel like owner Shad Khan’s team is on to something.

What that is, I’m not quite sure yet. But this much seems indisputable after the Jaguars’ stunning 30-9 conquest of the six-time Super Bowl champion Steelers: the 2017 season just got real interesting for one of the NFL’s most beleaguered franchises.

Because now, at 3-2 and atop the AFC South division either by themselves or with the Houston Texans (pending Sunday night’s outcome against the Kansas City Chiefs), the Jaguars can no longer be dismissed as an afterthought.

The evidence from a 29-7 road pummeling of Houston in Week 1, an ambush that included 10 sacks and four turnovers, and the 44-7 London decimation of the Baltimore Ravens in Week 3 served notice the Jaguars’ defense might be good enough to be a division contender.

But what transpired at Heinz Field removes any lingering doubt. When a future Hall of Fame quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger gets intercepted a career-high five times (twice for pick-6 TDs), and the Jaguars pretty much stonewall All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell, then it’s imperative that Jacksonville at least regain some long-lost respect.

Certainly not as an offensive juggernaut, but as a team that’s probably going to be in playoff contention this year beyond Thanksgiving. And maybe even raise an AFC South banner, considering the Jaguars have a slightly easier remaining schedule than their division rivals.

“I think it’s foolish not to take this team seriously,” said Gipson, who had two of the Jaguars’ five interceptions. “Year in and year out, teams change. I can’t speak to what happened [in Jacksonville] the last five years. But if people don’t take the Jaguars serious, especially in this AFC South, it’s very foolish. We got the guys to do what it takes.

“If we play like we played in these three wins, I think it’s very hard for any team in the National Football League to beat us. We prepare every Sunday like we want the bull’s-eye on our back, so when we say we’re the best secondary in the NFL, we know we have to back it up.”

Head coach Doug Marrone and many of the Jaguars were careful not to get too giddy about dominating Pittsburgh because they have earned a reputation so far as a Jekyll-and-Hyde team, especially after frittering away last week’s game to the New York Jets in overtime.

However, there’s more than enough game-tape evidence now to suggest the Jaguars will be nobody’s pushover this season. This defense, especially when given a lead to play with, has become like sharks sensing blood in the water.

The turnovers, the game-changing plays and quarterback sacks tend to come in waves. Never in Roethlisberger’s 188 career starts had he been picked off so often, and only one other time has any defense returned two interceptions against him for touchdowns.

When the Jaguars can beat a storied franchise like Pittsburgh by 21 points without quarterback Blake Bortles doing much of anything, what kind of message does that send to the rest of the NFL?

Cornerback Jalen Ramsey, the defense’s most gifted and athletic player, minced no words: “When we play the way we’re capable of, we’re going to be a force to be reckoned with.”

That’s precisely how the last 22 minutes of this game felt, like the Steelers had been run over by a freight train. The Jaguars ran all of three plays in the third quarter, yet drained all the energy out of Heinz Field when linebacker Telvin Smith and safety Barry Church, a Pittsburgh native, returned Roethlisberger passes to the end zone in a span of 2:39.

While there was still time for the Steelers to overcome a 20-9 deficit, they simply weren’t the same after those gut punches. The Jaguars made them one-dimensional, and Roethlisberger looked rattled trying to figure out how to attack their swarming, ball-hawking secondary.

“Once Telvin [Smith] got the pick-6, you could see he was a little flustered,” Church said of Roethlisberger. “You could see when he was dropping back and we were in zone, he was looking everywhere trying to figure out who to throw it to and make one of those miraculous plays. We were able to clamp down our zone and man [coverage] and force him to make mistakes.”

And when that happens, it plays right into the Jaguars’ winning formula of lessening the burden on Bortles. He threw a career-low 14 passes (one in second half), eclipsing his previous low of 21 set just four weeks ago, and was perfectly content being a part-time passer.

“How about that?” Bortles said of his minimal passing stats. “I’ve said the whole time I could care less about my numbers. If we’re going to run the ball the way we ran it today, I’ll hand it off every time.

“That’s what the [quarterback] role turned into. Let’s make sure we’re getting into the right run plays because we were doing a good job of controlling the line of scrimmage.”

Workhorse back Leonard Fournette made sure of that, pounding at the underbelly of the Steelers’ defense 27 times for 91 yards until he finally had his breakthrough run on his last carry. With Pittsburgh’s heart already cut out, Fournette rambled 90 yards untouched for his sixth TD of the season with 1:47 remaining.

As if the AFC South didn’t already know it, the Jaguars are a bona fide problem now. Consider that Baltimore and Pittsburgh, the two AFC North stalwarts the last 15 seasons, absorbed a combined beating of 58 points from the Jaguars. The only other team to beat them that soundly in the same season was the 2013 New England Patriots (96-38).

So any of Jacksonville’s remaining 10 opponents (Indianapolis twice) that wants to dismiss a team that is finally becoming relevant, they might be doing it at their own peril.

“We’re nothing to play with,” said cornerback Aaron Colvin. “Recognize what we’re doing over here. We want that respect. We got something special going here.”

Judging by the way those Steelers fans exited Heinz Field, it certainly appears so.

Gene.frenette@jacksonville.com: (904) 359-4540