No looking back, Pittsburgh steeled for NFL playoffs
Gary Mihoces, USA TODAY Sports 6:32 p.m. EST November 26, 2013
After an 0-4 start, the Steelers have won their last three and are in the postseason mix
PITTSBURGH -- The Thanksgiving ritual for Ike Taylor of the Pittsburgh Steelers is to have his mom and two sisters visit from North Carolina and cook a feast topped off by pumpkin and sweet potato pies and his favorite, banana pudding.
But this won't be Thanksgiving as usual for the Taylors --or the Steelers.
"We're going to do it for Christmas," says Taylor, a defensive back who will line up for the Steelers on Thanksgiving night in Baltimore when they renew their heated divisional rivalry against the Ravens (8:30 p.m. ET, NBC). The Steelers beat the Ravens 19-16 in Pittsburgh on Oct.20.
On a three-game winning streak, the Steelers have a shot to avoid what only weeks ago looked to be December irrelevance -- rare for a team that has had only 10 non-winning seasons since 1972.
"Nobody on the outside is going to give us a chance," Taylor says. "But the guys in this locker room, we share what we've been through. We just have to go out there and perform."
Much is on the line for both teams, struggling to make the postseason. The Ravens have the extra pressure as defending Super Bowl champions.
The Steelers? No team in the National Football League can match their six Super Bowl titles. Like the Ravens, however, the Steelers still are looking for win No.6 this season.
Their 0-4 start was their worst since opening 0-6 in 1968, when they were known by the initials S.O.S. -- "Same Old Steelers" -- after decades of losing.
"You know what? It doesn't matter. That's irrelevant right now," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said after Sunday's 27-11 victory at the Cleveland Browns. "That's looking back. I'm not looking back."
In looking ahead, the no-huddle offense seems to be working better for Roethlisberger and the Steelers, who speak about their confidence in it.
"With this no-huddle offense (the past two games) and Ben finding his groove and throwing the football, just him being able to read the defense and choose a play, it's become really effective for us," fourth-year wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders said.
Roethlisberger passed for four touchdowns in a 37-27 win against the Detroit Lions on Nov.17. Sunday, he threw for two more in Cleveland. No interceptions in either game after 10 in the first nine.
Pittsburgh still ranks 30th in rushing. But second-round draft pick Le'Veon Bell ran for 80 yards against the Browns. "Being able to win the line of scrimmage and run the football gives you an opportunity under any circumstances," says Mike Tomlin, in his seventh season as Steelers coach.
In looking back, the Steelers had key injuries, such as losing Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey for the season with a knee injury in the opener. Roethlisberger has been denying reports he wants to be traded. The once famous "Steel Curtain" defense gave up 93 rushing yards Oct.27 to Oakland Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor -- on a single touchdown.
Defensively, the Steelers won their last two games despite linebacker LaMarr Woodley and end Brett Keisel, both starters, being out with injuries. Sunday, the Steelers recovered three fumbles, returned an interception for a touchdown and limited the Browns to 55 yards rushing. That's the kind of defense that won Super Bowls.
Safety Troy Polamalu, part of the rejuvenated defense, says 0-4 was the start, not the season.
"It was disappointing at the time," says Polamalu. "But you know, not all stories are written in 17 and 19-0 seasons. The story of redemption, we definitely have the makings of a story like that."
Rec room restrictions
The Steelers aren't alone when it comes to winning franchises taking their lumps. The New York Giants, four-time Super Bowl winners, are 4-7 after an 0-6 start.
The Steelers and Ravens still have shots to catch the first-place Cincinnati Bengals (7-4) in the AFC North Division, but more realistically would make the playoffs as a wild card. The Steelers have the slightly easier schedule, with three of the last four at home (combined 21-22-1 record of the opponents) vs. two at home for the Ravens (combined 23-20-1 oppoents' record).
"I'll root for them no matter what," says Linda Cosgrove, 41, one of the fans turning out for Taylor's online radio show (TribLive.com) at DI's Kornerstone Diner in McKeesport, Pa. "But you get spoiled, definitely. When you're champs so often, you get spoiled."
A year ago, the Steelers lost five of their last seven games to finish 8-8 and miss the playoffs. They have been depleted in recent years by retirements of such key players wide receiver Hines Ward, linebacker James Farrior and defensive linemen Aaron Smith and Casey Hampton. Linebacker James Harrison was released in the offseason after he and the Steelers couldn't agree on a contract. Wide receiver Mike Wallace left as a free agent for the Miami Dolphins
Besides Pouncey, tight end/fullback David Johnson and linebacker Larry Foote also were lost to injuries. Offensive tackle Levi Brown, acquired by trade in October, sustained a season-ending triceps injury while warming up for his first game.
In September, the Steelers flew home from London after dropping to 0-4 with a 34-27 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. In a 55-31 loss to the New England Patriots in their eighth game, the Steelers yielded 610 yards (197 rushing, 413 passing) and the most points in their history.
Was Tomlin shocked by those earlier developments?
"No, not really," he tells USA TODAY Sports. "There's nothing mystical about it. ... We need to prepare better. We need to play better. I think that was my mentality at the time. And, really, it's my mentality today."
At 0-4, Tomlin did curtail locker room recreation. The ping pong, pool and shuffleboard table are still in the room. But Tomlin took away the paddles, cues and shuffleboard discs. Earlier, Steelers vets had decided no games in the locker room for younger players. Tomlin applied it to all.
"Those games are good, constructive things to provide competitors a positive environment," says Tomlin. "But under the current circumstances, I thought it was inappropriate. So I took them away."
It's anybody's guess when the Steelers will get their toys back."Right now, everybody knows what we're focusing on," rookie first-round linebacker Jarvis Jones says, "and that's getting better every day in the film room and on the field."
Sack the Big Ben trade reports
If reports about Roethlisberger have been a distraction, it hasn't shown in the results.
"The focus is on this (game Thursday). There's no hot streak, there's no win streak, there's no (losing) streak," Roethlisberger said Tuesday. " We're looking for our first win this week."
The three-game winning streak coincides with a Nov.10 report by NFL Network insider Ian Rapoport that Roethlisberger was likely to request a trade in the offseason. Rapoport said Roethlisberger, a two-time Super Bowl winner, was "incredibly frustrated" with the state of the team and the offensive coaching, including second-year coordinator Todd Haley.
Rapoport also reported Rothlisberger's displeasure is linked to money. The 10th-year quarterback is set to make $12 million next year and $11 million in the final year of his deal in 2015. Other top quarterbacks earn $20 million or more annually.
Roethlisberger responded last week by saying, "I love being in Pittsburgh." Asked if he would stay for less than he could earn elsewhere, he said, "I would do whatever I need to do. But that's something that can be discussed when the time comes."
"I would say go by what you see, not what your hear," says Haley. " ... I don't know how many ways each of us can say that we're excited about the direction of our relationship. But really, that shouldn't matter. It should matter what's happening on the field."
One reason the Steelers hired Haley was to keep Roethlisberger from taking a pounding from pass rushers. He has been sacked 36 times this season, among the higher totals in the league, but just once the past two games (while the Steelers' defense had seven sacks).
"We had a little tumultuous start with some key, key injuries," says Haley. " ... We turned the ball over 11 times (interceptions and fumbles) in the first four games, and Ben obviously had a chunk of those. But he's now kind of gotten settled into a rhythm, and he's making a lot of good decisions, and I think it's showing."
Could Taylor imagine a Roethlisberger trade?
"I don't even want to think about that," he says. "That man got me to three and won me two. Super Bowls, I'm talking about."
Strong Steelers support
Taylor knows how Steelers fans react to the successes and setbacks.
"You can tell on Monday when we win how lively the city is," says Taylor. "And when we lose how dead the city is. It's a ghost town when we lose."
Diane Elias, owner of DI's Kornerstone Diner where Taylor did his show last week, says some fans overreact to losses.
"I yell at people, 'Stop your crying,'" she says. " ... Sometimes, you don't do that good. They've won six Super Bowls. There's nothing to complain about."
Frank "Frankie Day" Dittig, 73, who owns an office supplies company and also hosts an oldies show on radio, also says it's important to savor past successes.
"I still have faith in the Rooneys (the Steelers' owners) and their football coaches that we'll make a strong comeback," he says.
Duane Stanton, 66, a retired tow truck driver, wondered at the start of this season if the Steelers were stuck in a ditch.
"I thought they were going to blow the whole thing," he says. "But they've come back. ... I think they can go all the way."