Monday, November 25, 2013

No time for Steelers' introspection

By Dejan Kovacevic
Published: Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, 9:30 p.m.


CLEVELAND — The clock had just ticked to 0:00, which felt very much like a match for the temps on this crushingly cold Sunday by the lake. Or better yet, for how FirstEnergy Stadium's scoreboard spoke anew the cold truth about who's nemesis and who's victim in one of the NFL's most sadly lopsided duels.

Steelers 27, Browns 11.

No contest.

No mas already.

This was as solid a whupping as it was a special victory, one that pulled the winning side from the 0-4 depths of London to a 5-6 record that, incredibly, almost unimaginably, has them in the thick of the AFC playoff picture.
And yet, if anyone among the visitors had sought so much as a split-second's satisfaction over it, that was squelched before they even left the field.

“Let's go! Everybody move!” Mike Tomlin was shouting, almost angrily, while waving his players toward the Steelers' tunnel. “It's now Tuesday already. I don't have any time.”

And if anyone thought Tomlin was simply going for symbolism, he kept it up in the locker room to great effect. Even Ben Roethlisberger, who takes an eternity to dress, suited up faster than Batman sliding down the Bat-pole.
When Will Allen, who had just had a terrific game, was among the last ones lagging, Tomlin boomed at him: “No time, Will! Come on, let's go!”

Within a half-hour, all 53 players had been whisked out, no doubt affording the coaches at least a small slice of their Sunday night to begin preparing for the Thanksgiving trip to Baltimore.

No time, indeed.

If anyone's searching for the best way to summarize all that's gone right for the Steelers these past couple of months, I'll try with two simple points:

1. Tomlin never allowed the Steelers to pause long enough to sulk or to forget that they're still the Steelers.

Sure, he's culpable for the terrible start. He entered the season too lax and, at times, looked ill-prepared. But give credit where due: He has never taken the foot off the gas. If anything, he has floored it. You know about taking away the silly table games in the locker room, but there's so much more. Practices and film sessions have been conducted with a vigor even veterans say they hadn't seen. Accountability has been raised. Moves have been made.

And if you ask the athletes, it all feels like it has happened in a blur.

“There's been so much work, so much attention to detail,” Ramon Foster was telling me after a superb showing against Cleveland's stout nose tackle Phil Taylor. “Our coaches have had a lot to do with that.”

2. They are still the Steelers.

Sure looked like it Sunday, anyway. Because no matter the low caliber of the Browns' play, the Steelers still beat a division opponent with a matching record on their field. No shame in that.

More to the point, the Steelers did it the way they used to.

Offensively they knew they had to run, despite facing the NFL's No. 5 defense, and Le'Veon Bell and the line pushed forward for 80 yards. At times he dragged defenders on his shoulders.

The passing had to come through, too, and Roethlisberger found not only Antonio Brown but also Emmanuel Sanders and Heath Miller to keep the opponents' schemes honest.

And the defense … wow, hard to know where to start when a group that couldn't find a loose football in a toy store suddenly became rabid ballhawks in forcing four. Troy Polamalu popped two balls loose. Willie Gay popped one loose and picked off another for a touchdown. Jason Worilds chased quarterbacks from here to Akron and back, building a compelling case that he should stay at left outside linebacker even when LaMarr Woodley is healthy. Cam Heyward continued to make the same case at defensive end.

They even had Gay smacking Browns quarterback Jason Campbell in the mouth, for which he'll no doubt be sending a check to the league office.

Dirty? Probably, but when is the last time that topic came up related to the Steelers?

Used to be every week until, you know, they stopped scaring anyone.

So I couldn't help but ask around that bustling locker room: Is the Steelers' brand of football coming back?

The answers were telling.

Roethlisberger: “Well, we ran the ball, especially down the stretch. That felt good. It was a good win, but we'll enjoy it for a second and turn around.”

Worilds: “Definitely on the way back.”

Polamalu: “I don't know. We'll see. Winning feels good, but we've got a tough, short week coming.”

Right. Better move it.

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