By Will Graves
December 15, 2015
DeAngelo Williams (USA Today Sports)
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- The 38-year-old linebacker, the one who retired for 18 days last fall, provided the pressure. The 30-year-old cornerback that never gets hurt and never gets credit provided the pick-six that swung momentum decisively in favor of thePittsburgh Steelers.
Oh, and don't forget the 33-year-old tight end fighting off a promising newcomer, or the 32-year-old running back with a chip on his shoulder roughly the size of Altoona.
Even at the tail end of a youth movement a half-decade in the making, the old guys can still play. Pittsburgh's latest December surge includes a handful of familiar faces making familiar contributions at a time in their career when the window was supposed to be closing, if not already completely shut.
James Harrison. William Gay. DeAngelo Williams.Heath Miller. All on the wrong side of 30 in an increasingly young man's game. All still vital parts of a team that suddenly looks as dangerous as any in the AFC as the Steelers (8-5) prepare to face Denver (10-3) on Sunday.
Miller played through a rib injury that forced him to sit out a week by catching 10 passes for 66 yards, including a handful of third-down grabs that extended drives. He's providing a silent, steadying force in a huddle that includes a trio of 20-something wide receivers and a handful of linemen who were still in high school when Miller entered the league in 2005.
''When (Miller) is on the field, he gets you going,'' said Steelers offensive guard David DeCastro. ''Making those tough catches in traffic with those sore ribs. You just try to mirror the way he plays.''
It's why coach Mike Tomlin offered a slight correction last week when asked if he was getting more comfortable with rookie tight end Jesse James as ''a starting tight end'' while Miller dealt with his rib injury.
''Let's hold out on the starting tight end,'' Tomlin said. ''Jesse is doing some nice things.''
But he's not Miller, whom quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (33 himself) called ''the best teammate I've ever been around.'' Miller, in his typical fashion, downplays any such praise. Last he checked, he's just doing his job, one of the reasons he barely noticed all the chirping done on both sides in Pittsburgh's decisive 33-20 victory.
''Between the whistles we know it's going to be physical,'' Miller said. ''What happens before or after, I don't really pay attention to because it doesn't matter. You want to bring that mindset into every game. We knew it was going to be a playoff-type game.''
So maybe it's no surprise some of the most impactful plays were made by a handful of guys with a Super Bowl ring (or two) at home.
With the Steelers leading by nine early in the third quarter and the Bengals attempting to generate momentum, Harrison crashed in from the edge on second-year quarterback AJ McCarron. The soft, late throw gave Gay all the time he needed to step in front of the pass and race 23 yards to the end zone to put Pittsburgh up 23-7.
The score was Gay's fifth of his career, tying him with Hall of Famer Rod Woodson for the franchise record. Heady territory for a guy who has spent most of his career in the shadow of higher profile teammates Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor. Both are gone now, and Gay is suddenly the wise sage, though one who knows how to have a good time. His extended celebration included some serious dance moves, a semi-elaborate handshake with safety Mike Mitchell, and a flag for excessiveness.
Maybe Gay got carried away because there was a moment when his availability was in doubt. Gay went through the NFL concussion protocol for the first time after getting dinged late in a win over Indianapolis on Dec. 6, the result of ''a 190-pound guy hitting a 300-pound guy,'' momentarily putting his streak of consecutive appearances in jeopardy. Tomlin gave him a day off after doctors cleared Gay, but he was back at practice by the end of the week and back in the lineup for the 141st straight game.
''Will is a guy who is always highly prepared and always does a nice job of playing the game from an above-the-neck standpoint,'' Tomlin said. ''When you're a guy who is consistently where you're supposed to be and seeing what it is you're supposed to see, you're generally opportunistic. I think he really embodies that. The older he gets I think the more it's highlighted.''
The same goes for Williams, who scored twice against the Bengals and has eight touchdowns this season, the second-highest total of his career.
''He means what he says in that he wants to win and he wants to be a part of it,'' Tomlin said. ''Statistics are less important to him, winning is most important to him. I really appreciate that.''
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