Monday, December 21, 2015

Steelers becoming something special

Sunday, Dec. 20, 2015, 10:57 p.m.
 Steelers move into playoff position, Broncos struggling
Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown (84) catches a touchdown pass behind Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris (25) during the second half of an NFL football game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Dec. 20, 2015. (AP Photo/Don Wright)

Craziest part is they're not even in the playoffs yet.

Know what is even crazier?

They're probably the best team in the NFL. And maybe a team is what Mike Tomlin has been trying to build out of these Steelers all along?

Sure seemed that way after their whirling, Terrible Towel-twirling, and possibly unnerving (for AFC contenders) 34-27 win over the Denver Broncos at Heinz Field.

Only minutes after that victory Sunday, the coach greeted every single Steeler with a message before players entered the locker room. It was almost as though Tomlin had been waiting to use the exact words.

“Way to stay in the fight,” he said, leaning into players for a quick hug.


For a guy who has mangled some clock-management situations, Tomlin ironically has perfectly timed the transformation from a partial rebuilding project into the league's most frightening football team. With two will-win games at Baltimore and Cleveland remaining, his Steelers are primed to enter the playoffs as perhaps the first No. 6 seed expected to reach the Super Bowl.

Crazy talk?

Well, how many other NFL teams are ripping off 30 points every week?

And how many ever have ripped apart the quality of defenses these Steelers have over the past month?

In a half — a half, by the way, they began behind by 14 points — the Steelers ran 40 offensive plays, gained 192 yards, earned 14 first downs and scored 21 points.

They managed that against the NFL's best scoring defense.

“We felt good at the half,” Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib said.

Pretty sure the Seattle Seahawks felt good near the end of the last Super Bowl, too.

NFL games — heck, NFL history — can change on one snap.

On Sunday, the Broncos seemed to doom themselves to defeat the first time Britton Colquitt jogged onto the field. You might not even have noticed, though, because Denver's punter wasn't needed until after his team's 41st offensive play.

Over the next 27 minutes and 42 seconds, the Broncos' “No Fly Zone” defense was treated with about as much respect by the Steelers' offense as Jar Jar Binks is by “Star Wars” fans.

The “force” might be with Big Ben's crew.

The Broncos were the fifth top-10 scoring defense the Steelers have faced when Ben Roethlisberger lined up behind center. The others belong to the Bengals (ranked 2nd), Seahawks (3rd) and Patriots (10th).

The Steelers' offense has averaged 24 points against those defenses.

If you're looking for an adjective, “super” is a pretty good one to go with.

“I had to remind myself to breathe a couple of times,” Steelers president Art Rooney II said in between congratulating players after the game.

The Chief's grandson — deserving of more credit than he receives (or seeks) for the subtle-but-needed modernizing of a flagship franchise — wasn't really talking up the Steelers' offense.

He is a Rooney, after all.

So, it was the Steelers' defense that left him on the verge of breathlessness.

Whatever assistant coach Joey Porter said at halftime, he probably should start speaking up before the opening kickoff.

“Everybody was (ticked) off,” said Cam Heyward, who is to these Steelers what Porter was as a player to the Super Bowl XL champions.

“We all knew we played like (dirt). We really just had to wake up.”

To shake off the sleepiness, the Steelers' defense opted for hard punches instead of cold water.

The Broncos had converted each of their eight third downs in the opening half. They finished 9 for 17.

Do the math.

Actually, start counting how many defensive starters for these Steelers weren't regulars most of last season. There's defensive end Stephon Tuitt, linebackers Ryan Shazier and Jarvis Jones, cornerback Antwon Blake and safety Will Allen.

They're not part of the Steel Curtain.

They're not part of Blitzburgh.

They're part of something — a particular thing that Tomlin has taken on — known anywhere else as a rebuilding project.

Only this being Pittsburgh, where standards are standards, nobody dares utter the word “rebuild.”

“TEAM” is the word Tomlin prefers.

His Steelers haven't crumbled despite injuries, and they never divided into groups when either the offense or defense was taking turns being the reason for victories.

Now Tomlin's team is on a roll — the Steelers have won five of six — that looks like it might last the rest of this year and early into the New Year.

I've got a feeling about this team.

And I think you know what I mean.

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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