Monday, December 22, 2014

Steelers win something to celebrate

Pittsburgh Steelers inside linebacker Vince Williams (98) celebrates with linebacker Ryan Shazier (50) after recovering a fumble by Kansas City Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles (25) during the second half of an NFL football game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Dec. 21, 2014. (AP Photo/Don Wright)

PITTSBURGH — Nope, no celebratory spraying of champagne. No limited edition, official locker room "Postseason 2014" hats, t-shirts or hoodies to be seen. Maybe a few more smiles than usual, but there was no outward indication that the Steelers had clinched their first playoff berth in three years.
Maybe some other organizations would revel in such modest success, but these are the Steelers, for whom, if you hadn't heard, the standard is the standard. A 10-5 record, a spot secured in the postseason and a chance to win the division title at home are nice but not the stated goal for an organization that measure success only by Lombardi trophies won.
Looking for something to celebrate? How about this: The Steelers have come together as a team. It's taken them 16 weeks, but they've arrived as a legitimate contender. "Evolved," as Mike Tomlin put it.
"We're doing what teams need to do this time of year, which is ratcheting it up and being a more difficult team to beat," Tomlin said.
If Sunday's 20-12 win over Kansas City showed anything, it reaffirmed this: They are more just than three guys.
Ben Roethlisberger threw for 220 yards on Sunday, his fourth-fewest this season. Antonio Brown had 72 receiving yards, his lowest output, while Le'Veon Bell had 63 rushing yards, or 28 less than his season average.
Despite all that, the Steelers still won. Convincingly, too. In a what amounted to do-or-die, the Steelers did, and mostly on a defense, which, until recent weeks, had been ripped to shreds both on and off the field. And usually rightfully so.
The Steelers recorded a season-high six sacks and repelled four Chiefs trips into the end zone. That, more than anything, is why they won.
The defense's play the last two weeks, at the season's critical juncture, is the biggest cause for optimism heading into the postseason. They have saved their best for last.
"We're starting to mesh together," linebacker James Harrison said. "Guys are doing their jobs more consistently, not too many lapses. It just really showed today."
No, there wasn't any 60-plus yard touchdown pass, but there was another big takeaway. Stephon Tuitt, in addition to recording his first sacks, forced a third-quarter fumble that Vince Williams recorded at the Pittsburgh 28. Forcing turnovers, always big, has become vital for the Steelers, who have forced four in their current three-game winning streak.
"The main challenge for us is to keep taking that next step," said defensive end Cam Hewyard. "We don't want to be complacent with just three wins in a row. We want to get greedy."
This evolution of the Steelers' defense, from a bend-but-don’t-break group to something resembling reliable, has been a work in progress. From the outset of training camp, Dick LeBeau has said it would take time for his unit to develop. It appears that time has come.
"I really think we're just coming together as a group," safety Mike Mitchell said. "A lot of times, fans, people on the outside don't really know. We're guys from all across the country, different walks of life. It's a beautiful thing when you can see a team and a group of guys come together. That's what this is. We've got guys from Texas, Florida, California, Kentucky, where I'm from. We're all trying to come together and play as a team."
Nope, no champagne. But considering where this team and this defense has been, that's something worth celebrating.

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