JACKSONVILLE, Fla. >> Pittsburgh’s defense turned in its best performance of the season.
Playing rookie Blake Bortles and the Jacksonville Jaguars surely helped.
Brice McCain returned an interception 22 yards for a touchdown, helping the Steelers overcome a mediocre offensive performance and beat the winless Jaguars 17-9 Sunday.
McCain stepped in front of receiver Allen Hurns early in the fourth quarter, Bortles’ wobbly sideline pass and went untouched the other way.
It was just what the Steelers (3-2) needed to gain a little breathing room in a game much tighter than they probably expected.
The Jaguars (0-5) didn’t want a moral victory, but surely they will try to build on a close loss after dropping their past five games by double digits.
Jacksonville was in this one from start to finish.
Bortles, making his first start at home, completed 22 of 36 passes for 191 yards. He was hampered by several dropped passes — including three by Hurns — and a handful of untimely penalties.
But the worst mistake was his fourth-quarter interception, which was his second of the game, fifth of the season and second returned for a touchdown.
Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger had a costly fumble two plays before McCain’s pick. It came on one of Jacksonville’s four sacks, but worked out in Pittsburgh’s favor.
Roethlisberger completed 26 of 36 passes for 273 yards, with a touchdown. His 1-yard scoring pass to tight end Michael Palmer put the Steelers up 10-3 late in the second quarter.
Pittsburgh’s defense was solid all afternoon, holding Jacksonville to 243 yards. That was somewhat expected considering defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s track record against rookie quarterbacks. The Steelers improved to 18-2 against rookie QBs since LeBeau returned in 2004.
The unit’s performance was quite a turnaround from last week’s debacle, when the Steelers allowed Tampa Bay to drive 46 yards for a game-winning touchdown in the final 40 seconds.
Jacksonville’s defensive effort was more surprising.
The Jaguars had been gouged in every game this season, giving up an average of 451 yards and 38 points in the first four weeks. Coach Gus Bradley made a couple of personnel changes, but insisted the unit’s better days were ahead.
Jacksonville held Le’Veon Bell to 82 yards rushing on 15 carries and kept Antonio Brown and Heath Miller in check, too.
Brown finished with five receptions for 84 yards, and Miller added three catches for 46 yards a week after hauling in a career-high 10 passes.
Although the Jaguars fell to 0-5 for the second straight season, they have low expectations in the second year of a complete rebuild.
They figure Bortles will learn from his mistakes, and he’s playing with one of the youngest teams in the league. Jacksonville started a season-high seven rookies, including six on offense.
The inexperience showed, primarily with Hurns’ three drops, Bortles’ interception and holding/procedure calls on inexperienced offensive linemen.