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NKySteeler
12-30-2008, 09:06 PM
Battle-tested team appears poised for deep playoff run
By BOB LABRIOLA • Editor

What began to form in mid-summer on a college campus in Latrobe is what the Pittsburgh Steelers will use as they enter the 2008 NFL playoffs in search of a Super Bowl championship. The team they are today is the result of thousands of hours on practice fields and meeting rooms, hardened by a regular season schedule that included games against eight teams either in the playoffs or still in contention heading into the regular season’s final weekend.

They are as ready as they can be for what awaits them in this postseason, and how they fare will be determined in part by the issues outlined here.

Sprint, don’t jump

In 2007, the Steelers went into the playoffs in decline. The injuries had gotten the better of them, and as they entered the postseason their injured reserve list read too much like a Pro Bowl press release. The defense had been relegated to holding on by the fingernails instead of attacking and dictating, and the offense was a one-dimensional outfit that had trouble pass-protecting for that dimension.

In hindsight, the outcome of their Wild Card Round game against Jacksonville was predictable, because the way the Steelers lost to be eliminated from the postseason was a reflection of issues the team had battled at various points of the regular season.

These 2008 Steelers are clearly on the rise, because even though not every individual aspect of their game is functioning at peak level there has been enough of a synergy present to have gotten them through tough games in difficult venues.

Any team’s ability to be resilient and overcome adversity is a function of the length of its weekly injury report, and the Steelers actually are getting healthier as the playoffs are about to begin. And the players who have missed extended periods of the season have been out long enough that their replacements have had sufficient time to integrate
themselves.

Max Starks has started 11 straight games at left tackle; Darnell Stapleton has started 12 straight at right guard. Brett Keisel is back. Willie Parker has fewer carries on his body this season and should be fresher as a result. Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t had to miss significant practice time in almost two months. Tomlin has been taking care of the
veterans’ bodies, and they have thanked him with their play on Sundays.

Steel sharpens steel

Now, it’s an advantage. It sure didn’t look that way back in early April when it was announced, but today the Steelers are better for having played the most difficult schedule the NFL presented a team in a long time.

The Steelers’ 2008 schedule was labeled a killer back in the spring, because only two of the teams on it — Baltimore and Cincinnati — were coming off sub-.500 seasons, and the only two of the 10 non-division opponents to have missed the previous postseason were the Houston Texans and the Philadelphia Eagles.

So often, what’s tough in April is not come October, but the only team that has badly underachieved is Cleveland and the Browns were replaced in a big way on the degree of difficulty scale by the Baltimore Ravens. And a case could be made that it was the Steelers who sent Jacksonville and Washington on the death spiral that ultimately kept both out of the playoffs.

During one four-week stretch starting after Thanksgiving, the Steelers played at New England, vs. Dallas, at Baltimore and at Tennessee, and they won three of those games. They dealt with the games against some of the most physical teams in football — the Ravens, Cowboys, Titans and Giants. Others, like San Diego and Indianapolis and Philadelphia, presented them with a different challenge, one that
comes with facing marquee quarterbacks — Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning and Donovan McNabb.

The Steelers didn’t win them all, and it cannot even be argued that they played well in them all, but they’ve seen it all and measured themselves against it.

Defining ‘Steelers Football’

Since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, the Steelers have rushed for more yards — and their lead still is in the thousands of yards — than any
other team over that 39-season span. During the seasons in which they won the Super Bowl, the Steelers have ranked second, second, 14th, second and fifth, respectively, in the NFL in rushing; in 1978, the season in which they were 14th, they just happened to have a Hall of Fame quarterback and two Hall of Fame receivers, all in their prime, going against defenses having to adapt to the new 5-yard chuck rule.

But if nothing sends Steelers Nation into a froth more quickly than the issue of running the football, the reality is this team has not been that good at it.

The 1978 Steelers’ average per rush of 3.6 yards is the lowest of any of the franchise’s previous championship teams, and that’s the average the current team amassed. But a more significant issue, an issue more to Polamalu’s point, is the one of rushing attempts.

In 1978, the Steelers ran the ball 641 times, an average of 40 times a game. Compare that to 2008, when they were averaging 28.6 running
plays per game. More rushing attempts by a subpar running offense might not seem like it makes a lot of sense, but those are plays that eat time off the clock and keep your defense off the field.

Finding a balance between employing an aggressive offense and not doing things that put the defense in jeopardy is a delicate enterprise, to be sure.

The 2005 run to the Super Bowl XL championship often is remembered as an example of leaning on the passing game instead of fretting about running the ball, but in the three AFC playoff wins, Ben Roethlisberger attempted 19, 24 and 29 passes, and then it was 21 attempts in the one that brought home the fifth Lombardi.

60-Minute Men

Ray Seals was so inspired by similar words from Bill Cowher that he got a trademark for the slogan “60-Minute Men,” and splashed it on hats and T-shirts that sold by the thousands to Steelers fans all over the country. The idea to cash out on the subject of a pep talk was uniquely Seals’, but the concept of playing hard until the scoreboard
clock says it’s time to stop has been around as long as the sport itself.

All coaches preach it, but it’s only the good teams capable of doing it in a way that produces victories in crunch time. The word that describes a football team that wins a lot of close games is “winner,” style points be damned, as Tomlin has said.

The Steelers already have lined up against a large percentage of this particular playoff field, and they have played a lot of quality opponents who were fighting for their own playoff lives at the time. There is no such thing as a true playoff atmosphere unless the threat of lose-and-it’s-over is real, but the Steelers already have been involved in a whole bunch of games that were as close to that as a team can get.

MeetJoeGreene
12-30-2008, 09:41 PM
Nky -- back posting articles w/ a vengeance!!

NKySteeler
12-30-2008, 09:47 PM
Nky -- back posting articles w/ a vengeance!!

Ha Ha!!!.... Just getting into the whole "playoff spirit"!..... :wink:

costanza2k1
12-30-2008, 10:08 PM
Nky -- back posting articles w/ a vengeance!!

Ha Ha!!!.... Just getting into the whole "playoff spirit"!..... :wink:

I love it! Thanks, it's appreciated.