Monday, November 25, 2013

Steelers now legitimate playoff contenders

By Scott Brown
November 24, 2013

Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown (84) catches a 41-yard touchdown against Cleveland Browns cornerback Joe Haden (23) in the second quarter of an NFL football game on Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland. Photo: Tony Dejak, AP

CLEVELAND -- Most of the players had cleared out of the visiting locker room at FirstEnergy Stadium, leaving behind a carpet covered with athletic tape, empty water bottles and some stray towels. 

Will Allen, one of the unlikely catalysts of a three-game winning streak that, three weeks ago, seemed as likely as a Ben Roethlisberger statue in Cleveland, had just stripped off his uniform. When Mike Tomlin saw Allen, the coach reacted as if he had swallowed the whistle that he wears around his neck during practice. 

"Take that shower pill, Will," Tomlin said as he made one of his final sweeps of the locker room late Sunday afternoon. "Let's go." 

Tomlin had every reason to be in a hurry after the Steelers resumed their dominance of theCleveland Browns with a 27-11 win despite being outgained and yielding more than two football fields' worth of receiving yards to Josh Gordon

The Steelers have a short week before their game in Baltimore on Thursday, and they didn't exactly have time for a quick visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame before busing back to Pittsburgh. The brisk pace that Tomlin encouraged after his team won its third game in a row was fitting on a symbolic level, too, since the best thing the Steelers can do right now is keep moving. 

Stopping to look around after improving to 5-6 can be only counterproductive to what the Steelers are now in position to do: make the playoffs after nearly burying themselves by going oh-for-September. 

The Steelers are among a cluster of teams in line for the second wild-card berth in the AFC, but you aren't likely to hear them talking about playoff scenarios, not even if they beat theRavens on Thanksgiving night and sweep their rivals for the first time since 2008. 

"Can't," Roethlisberger said after throwing for 217 yards and a pair of touchdowns and improving to 16-1 against the Browns. "I'm not looking around. It's all about focusing on one game, because that's all we can control, you know?" 

Fair enough. 

And it would be foolhardy for the Steelers to do anything but stick with the tunnel vision that has allowed them to overcome the shelling they absorbed in New England as well as Dick LeBeau, one of the keenest defensive minds in the history of football, suddenly forgetting how to coach. 

LeBeau sure looks a lot smarter when blitzing cornerback William Gay takes advantage of an unobstructed path to the quarterback to deliver a jarring hit that produces a fumble, as he did Sunday against the Browns' Jason Campbell. Or when Gay steps in front of a receiver for an easy pick-six because the Browns have to start throwing the ball almost exclusively to make up a huge deficit. 

Gay and strong safety Troy Polamalu were the biggest reasons the Steelers came up with four takeaways against an offense that was largely helpless aside from Gordon. 

The Steelers are plus-seven in turnover differential the past two weeks, and, as loathe they are to look at the big picture, recent developments bode well. The Steelers are creating turnovers and hanging onto the ball. They are protecting Roethlisberger (he has been sacked just once in the past two games), and they are running the ball enough, if not always efficiently. 

That is a formula for winning. It also produces the kind of synergy that allows teams to do what the Steelers refer to as "stacking wins." 

"There's not one unit right now that's carrying the team," Roethlisberger said. "One unit doesn't feel like they've got to step up because they've got to pick up the other groups. We all are playing together, and I think that's what's so much fun about it." 

The Steelers have had fun the past three weeks at the expense of teams with perpetual quarterback issues (Bills and Browns) as well as an oft-downtrodden one (Lions) that looked down after ascending to first place in the NFC North. 

Questions remain about whether the Steelers' defense can stand up to a big-time quarterback. And, as Polamalu said after Gordon caught 14 passes for 237 yards, "It was definitely nice getting turnovers, but we gave up a lot of big plays on the back end. If we want to compete with elite teams in the league, we can't do that." 

How and where the Steelers stand relative to the rest of the league is the last thing they are worrying about. Such things are for others to debate, whether it is sitting in front of a radio microphone or standing with colleagues in the coffee station. 

"Right now, we're just trying to dig our way out of a hole. Are we out if it? No, I don't think so," wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders said after catching six passes for 52 yards and a touchdown. "Are we playing like a playoff team? I don't know. Is there room for improvement? Yes, there is, and that's what it's all about." 


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