PITTSBURGH -- At 2-2, coming off that humbling and ragged Week 4 loss in Houston, they looked old, slow and perhaps even insufficiently motivated. Now, not quite a month later, the Pittsburgh Steelers just look dangerous. Once again.
You know what is starting to get old? The notion that the Steelers might be getting old. How long have we been falling for that one now? Five years? Ten? Pittsburgh's demise, as it turns out, was once again prematurely reported, and greatly exaggerated.
"They do that every year, every year,'' said Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley, after Pittsburgh held the ball for more than 39 minutes and led from start to finish in a convincing 25-17 defeat of New England on Sunday at Heinz Field. "When I was in college they were saying the Steelers are getting old, and this team is out of it. That's every year.
"But definitely, when you're the dominating team in the league, everybody is always trying to talk negative about you. But every year we seem to prove everybody wrong by going out there and getting wins and playing in the big games for another year.''
The rest of the AFC probably isn't going to want to hear this about the team that has represented the conference in three of the past six Super Bowls, but it's a pretty good bet there are more big games ahead for this year's Steelers. You can't say Pittsburgh is back when it never went away in the first place, but you can tell the Steelers are figuring things out again, and that's never a good development for the title dreams of 31 other NFL teams.
Pittsburgh's 6-2 record is suddenly the best in the conference, and the Steelers just dismantled a Patriots team that had owned them in the past decade and features the top-ranked offense in the league. Riding a four-game winning streak into their Week 9 showdown next Sunday night at home against Baltimore (5-2), the Steelers have that look again. The confident look of a champion who knows it has taken a punch, survived, and is starting to re-impose its will on opponents.
From near-crisis mode to familiar dominance in four short weeks. That's the road these Steelers just traveled. Pittsburgh sent a message with this win, and then made sure to underline its point in the postgame locker room.
"Everybody across the league, everybody on TV, everybody was counting us out, and pretty much saying these last couple of wins have been against teams we're supposed to beat,'' said Woodley, of Pittsburgh's recent victories over Tennessee, Jacksonville and Arizona. "They said we weren't going up against elite quarterbacks, and everything was negative toward the Pittsburgh Steelers. There was nothing positive coming out all week. Everything you heard was that [New England quarterback Tom] Brady owns the Steelers, he owns [defensive coordinator] Dick LeBeau. It was all talk about their offense versus our defense. But no one said anything about our offense and the things they we're capable of doing.
"Everybody was looking at the past. You know, the past is the past. You have to look at the future and what's going on today. And that's what we went out there and displayed today.''
What the Steelers went out and displayed on Sunday was a determination that Pittsburgh's sorry recent past against New England would not matter on this day. The Patriots entered 6-2 against the Steelers in the Bill Belichick coaching era, winning four of their past five games at Heinz Field, including those dominant, Super Bowl-clinching performances in the 2001 and 2004 AFC title games. Brady was 6-1 against Pittsburgh in his career, and the weight of all that cumulative history resulted in the Steelers being established as a three-point home-field underdog, their largest such deficit in 10 years.
But the Steelers didn't adhere to the past and what it held in regards to this series, and nothing made that point clearer than Pittsburgh's brilliant and effective game plan. The Steelers determined they would largely set aside their power running game and the quick-strike, big-play passing game that had served them so well this season, and beat the Patriots at their own game. They would spread the Patriots out, throw underneath, exploit the middle of the field with tight end Heath Miller, and above all keep the clock moving with a possession passing game.
The results were spectacular: Roethlisberger completed 36 of 50 passes for 365 yards and two touchdowns, with Pittsburgh controlling the ball for almost two-thirds of the game (39:22). In the first quarter, the Steelers ran 26 plays to the Patriots' three, rolling up 13:39 of possession time and outgaining New England 140-7. Pittsburgh held a 7-0 lead after the first quarter, made it 10-0 on the first play of the second quarter, and was never really threatened afterward.
In essence, the Steelers offense played superb defense, keeping the ball out of Brady's hands and limiting New England to 213 total yards, a mere 261.5 below its season average. The Steelers scored on five of their first seven possessions and didn't punt until the final 30 seconds of the game.
"It was paramount [to possess the ball],'' Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. "They know that. We know that. We needed to control the ball and keep their offense off the field. We tried to control it with the pass a little bit. We were able to do that with Ben Roethlisberger. He threw some completions early, and that was necessary for us to be on schedule with the chains, like we were.''
The Steelers were on schedule and then some. Roethlisberger had 231 yards passing in the first half, and his 23 completions in 32 attempts in the first 30 minutes were both first-half career highs for him. Even though Pittsburgh has thrived on the home-run ball this season -- receiver Mike Wallace had a 95-yard touchdown catch just last week in a win at Arizona -- it was satisfied with hitting singles all night against New England, never once completing anything longer than 26 yards.
Try as it might, the Patriots' 32nd-ranked pass defense simply couldn't cover the Steelers receivers, and even though all the action was in front of the New England defensive backs, Pittsburgh kept killing them with the underneath stuff. Taking a page out of the Patriots playbook, Miller, the Steelers' Pro Bowl tight end, was Roethlisberger's most effective pass-catcher, exploiting the middle of the field for seven receptions and a team-high 85 yards.
"They gave us a lot of underneath stuff,'' Roethlisberger said. "We came in with a game plan of throwing the ball, and we did a good job of that. We came in planning to take some shots, too. You would have thought the game plan was just dink-and-dunk, dink-and-dunk, but that's what they gave us. They took away the deep ball.
"For us, taking away the deep ball, it opens up the underneath stuff. When you think about us possessing the ball, and keeping control, it's usually running the ball. But we kind of showed we can do it without always running the ball. We can take the short pass and the screen to the wide receiver, and we can move the ball. We can be as good as we want to be. When we don't kill ourselves and stop ourselves, we can be pretty dangerous.''
Without the burden of having to defend against Brady and the Patriots ultra-productive passing game for more than one-third of the game, the Steelers defense thrived as well on Sunday. Staying in more man coverage than anything else, Pittsburgh frustrated the Patriots, sacking Brady three times and holding New England to 170 net yards passing, less than half of the Patriots' season average in their first six games (350.5). Brady finished 24 of 35 for 198 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions, but the Steelers defense finally cut him down to life-like size.
"I'm pretty sure some of our [young) guys have been watching TV and maybe reading some newspaper clippings about how the Patriots have had Pittsburgh's number for years, and they wanted to have an opportunity to change that around a little bit,'' Woodley said. "And they did that today. You always take it a little personal when no one's giving you credit, and when they say somebody owns you.''
The Steelers for now have settled their score with New England, and now they have one to settle with Baltimore, who embarrassed them 35-7 in Week 1 at M&T Bank Stadium. The Ravens enter next week's showdown in the familiar position of trailing Pittsburgh, a half-game behind the Steelers and tied for second place in the AFC North with surprising Cincinnati (5-2). After getting its shot at Baltimore, Pittsburgh travels to Cincinnati in Week 10, meaning the road to yet another division title is suddenly laid out quite nicely before the Steelers.
"Everybody's always saying what they say about us, but we just let them talk,'' Steelers receiver Mike Wallace said. "I will tell you one thing: Nobody on this team, nobody in this locker room, ever said we were getting old or hung their head. We just knew we had a bad game that day [in Houston]. People are going to have a bad game. But I mean, you have a bad game and people say you're getting old, you're getting slow? But we're going to let everybody talk about what they want to talk about. We're going to just come out and keep playing winning football.''
After all, as Sunday proved once again, that is what these Steelers still do best. In Pittsburgh, the big games and big wins never get old.