By Joe Starkey
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith (11) is sacked on a fourth down by Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison, right, and Will Allen (20) during the first half of an NFL football game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Dec. 21, 2014. (Don Wright, AP / FR87040 AP)
We know the Steelers can lose to anyone, anywhere. That has been well-established. But unless the New York Jets or Tampa Bay Buccaneers suddenly materialize on the January calendar, there's nothing to worry about there.
The relevant question is this: Can the Steelers beat anyone, anywhere?
Does this team have a reasonable chance to win the Super Bowl?
Two months ago, in the wake of a humiliating loss at Cleveland, that question would have been preposterously funny. The Steelers looked dead. This was their wake by the lake. The Browns were dancing on their graves. Nobody's laughing now, unless they're watching Johnny Football highlights.
The Steelers are alive and well. And yes, absolutely, they have a reasonable chance to win the Super Bowl. That's not a prediction. I still believe the Steelers' undoing will be their pass defense.
Specifically the cornerback position. But I'd give them more than a puncher's chance of navigating the AFC. They have the right quarterback, an offense that can travel, excellent coaching (yeah, I said it) and a defense pointed in the right direction.
Let's start with the coaching. For all the criticisms of Mike Tomlin, the undeniable truth is that he is one of the top handful of coaches in the NFL. It's a bottom-line business, and Tomlin's bottom line reads like this: .638 winning percentage (fifth among active coaches and just ahead of Curly Lambeau and some guy named Bill Cowher on the all-time list), two AFC titles, one Super Bowl title, zero losing seasons.
Tomlin never loses his team. Even the infamous “unleash hell” club from 2009 rebounded to win its final three games and stay alive until the season's final moments. In Tomlin's worst years, the Steelers have a chance until the bitter end. In his best years, they go to Super Bowls.
I asked free safety Mike Mitchell about the key to cutting through rough waters this season.
“Believing in our leader, Coach Tomlin,” he said. “It's believing in him, man. He stays consistent. He keeps us singularly focused (that sounds familiar) on the next objective — and what the big objective is.”
Tomlin, as he does with all newcomers, made sure Mitchell was aware of the “big objective” the minute they met.
“He said, ‘We're bringing you here to win a world championship,' ” Mitchell said. “That set the expectation pretty high.”
The rest of the coaching staff is stocked with veteran winners. Todd Haley's offense earned criticism with a string of hideous early-season performances but has since morphed into the most prolific offense in team history. It is built for all situations.
Shootout in a dome? Capable. Kill the fourth quarter on land? Sure. It's the offense Tomlin has long craved. He once cited the Patriots as an example of the kind of offense he wanted, one that could morph into the personality required to win on a given day.
“I've said it since the beginning of the season: I feel like we're a really good offense,” guard Ramon Foster said. “We can compete with anybody.”
Defensively, the questioning of Dick LeBeau reached ridiculous proportions in recent years. As if the defense hadn't been depleted by age. As if it wasn't in a transitional phase. As if the likes of Josh Victorian and Curtis Brown weren't trying to cover people.
LeBeau, defensive line coach John Mitchell, linebackers coach Keith Butler and secondary coach Carnell Lake have done a remarkable job this season with a defense that could kindly be described as patchwork.
Asked specifically about Mitchell and LeBeau, defensive end Cam Heyward said, “They've seen it all. These guys have won Super Bowls. If you're not listening to that, you're in the wrong place.”
The defense is shutting down the run again. It has held four of the past five opponents and six of eight under 100 yards rushing. Steve McLendon's return at nose tackle makes a huge difference. And when James Harrison is healthy — as he was in home games against Indianapolis, Baltimore and Kansas City — they are capable of getting after quarterbacks.
It's a wide-open AFC. The Patriots are the clear favorite. But they're often the favorite. They're beatable.
“Once you're in the show, it's a free-for-all,” Foster said. “We're a team that can definitely compete with anybody in the AFC, and we plan on being in A-Z.”
That would be Glendale, Ariz., site of Super Bowl XLIX.
“We're not shocked about this,” Mitchell said, upon clinching a playoff spot. “This was a goal. Give yourself an opportunity to go play for a championship. We did that. We now have a better opportunity: to win the division.”
Better opportunities await thereafter. It's a free-for-all. Incredibly enough, the Steelers have a real shot.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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