Monday, October 31, 2011

Steelers once again pack punch

Monday, October 31, 2011

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 30: Tom Brady(notes) #12 of the New England Patriots is sacked by LaMarr Woodley(notes) #56 of the Pittsburgh Steelers during the game on October 30, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Troy Polamalu had been the Steelers' voice of reason all through this muddled mess of a season. He was concerned but calm after the opening bomb in Baltimore, and he stayed just as measured after all those blah victories against bottom feeders.

Even after a decent effort in Arizona last week, the man was left wanting: "Time will tell."

Well, the alarm clock went off Sunday, and the Steelers answered the bell in a big way by beating New England up, down and all over Heinz Field, much worse than the 25-17 score.

They chased Tom Brady as if endorsement deals were hanging from his neck. They made Wes Welker eat grass within a millisecond of catching the football. They rode big tight end Rob Gronkowski like a bucking bronco. And they apparently caught defensive genius Bill Belichick wholly unprepared for, of all gimmicky schemes, the underneath routes of tight end Heath Miller.

The Steelers, finally, after eight games, are the Steelers again.

The playbook was fine, the individual execution maybe the best all season, but this was all about delivering a relentless series of punches to the mouth.

And enjoying it.

And feeding off it.

Know what that is?

"That's Steelers football, man," guard Ramon Foster said, fairly beaming. "We always want to go into the game and be physically better than the other team. We knew we'd have to be good fundamentally against the Patriots, and I feel like we were. From there ..."

From there came the punches.

Just ask nose tackle Casey Hampton, who burst through the New England line on the Patriots' first series and slammed BenJarvus Green-Ellis for a 1-yard loss. A big, early snack.

Or LaMarr Woodley and Ziggy Hood, for switching off, fooling and flattening the right edge of the Patriots' offensive line. Woodley stepped up, as he needed to in James Harrison's absence, and hunted down Brady for two sacks.

Or Foster and the rest of the Steelers' offensive line, for shoving forward and giving Ben Roethlisberger the kind of time and space Brady usually enjoys. Roethlisberger wasn't great, but his pocket was.

Or safety Ryan Clark, for bouncing New England's Kevin Faulk so hard off the Steelers' goal line he looked like a pinball. "Just wanted to get him going backward," Clark explained.

Or ask Polamalu, whose performance was visibly emotional during and after some breathtaking displays.

He downplayed his emotional reactions, which are rare: "It was an emotional game, that's all," he said. And he laughed off being that guy who rode Gronkowski for several yards: "I was on his back, and I'm like, 'What am I doing? Where am I?' " he recalled with a laugh.

For once, though, he didn't downplay his sentiment about these Steelers: He loved what we saw.

"You can't beat a good team without playing good football, and we played really good team football today," Polamalu said. "It's not about the offense putting up numbers. It's not about the defense getting off the field. It's all three phases working together. It's always been our formula for winning, and it always will be."

If that sounds like it's OK to believe again, well, have at it.

Half the regular season remains, as does the rematch with Baltimore on Sunday that many Steelers already were eagerly discussing. But this team is now 6-2, atop the AFC, and no one's calling them old, slow or done anymore.

That's especially true of the receiving corps, with so much promising youth injected in recent weeks. No one should envy Mike Tomlin's week ahead when he decides to sit Antonio Brown or Emmanuel Sanders — either of which would be ridiculous — or tell the once-great Hines Ward that he's now fourth-string.

This isn't the time for celebrating the past. The Steelers are very much contenders again, very much in the picture to return to the Super Bowl.

And just in case anyone so much as toys with the notion of excessive tinkering in the days and weeks to come, someone should pin this quote from Brady yesterday to the locker-room wall: "They run a lot of the same stuff, week in and week out. I don't think we did a very good job handling it or adjusting to it or playing against it. ... We really didn't match their physical style."

Few teams can when the Steelers are being the Steelers.

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