Role players keying Steelers' playoff push
PITTSBURGH (AP) The numbers have become so sublimely routine, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is getting tired of talking about them.
Every week it seems Le'Veon Bell, Ben Roethlisberger or Antonio Brown are setting a new club record in something. The cruelly efficient engines of the best offense in the franchise's 82-year history are the driving force behind Pittsburgh's march to the cusp of the playoffs.
Yet they're hardly doing it alone. The Steelers' 6-2 surge following a 3-3 start is as much about the rapid maturation of youngsters like Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton and the steadying presence of William Gay as it is the weekly brilliance of its Big Three.
Tomlin wasn't just being politically correct when he praised Sunday's 27-20 win over Atlanta as the gelling of all three phases.
Sure, Bell ran for two scores, Roethlisberger passed for 360 yards without an interception and Brown pulled down 10 receptions to boost his season total to an NFL-high 115. Just as important, however, was Gay's third interception return for a touchdown this season. Wheaton's handful of third-down grabs to extend drives. Second-year linebacker Vince Williams' third-down stop of Atlanta's Harry Douglas that forced a Falcons' punt with just over 4 minutes left. Rookie Brad Wing's booming kicks that kept Atlanta returner Devin Hester in check.
For a season in which the Steelers have desperately been searching for balance, they appear to have found it. While the defense continues to give up chunks of yards, it also has scored four times. Three of them have come from Gay, who began the season as the nickelback then became the shutdown corner by default after injuries to Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen.
The eight-year veteran downplays his midcareer renaissance even as his twitchy end zone dance has become a once-a-month event.
''We're trying to stack wins,'' Gay said. ''Playing against good opponents and just putting everything on the line.''
Something the Steelers are finding a way to do with regularity. They have tracked down first-place Cincinnati over the last two months thanks in large part to the Bryant's emergence as a legitimate deep threat and Wheaton's viability as a sure-handed alternative on the rare play when Brown isn't open. Wheaton has turned seven third-down receptions into first downs over the last three weeks, including a drive-extending grab in the fourth quarter against Atlanta that allowed the Steelers to chew some clock.
''That's the work that he puts in,'' Roethlisberger said. ''You see him in practice, film, things like that. He will always come and talk with me to see what I want.''
What Roethlisberger and the rest of the Steelers have been searching for is consistency. After two workmanlike victories over teams with their own postseason hopes, Pittsburgh believes it is within reach. To grab it, the Steelers know they can't afford the kind of slip-ups that cost them in early losses to Tampa Bay and the New York Jets.
''There's a sense of desperation that we've played with the last couple weeks,'' defensive end Cam Heyward said. ''It's been about taking care of business on our side and not looking at anybody else.''
Heyward said Pittsburgh doesn't want to rely on losses by other teams. If the Steelers can run the table, they won't have to.
Bell, Brown and Roethlisberger are fresh despite the heavy workload, and the rest of the roster is relatively healthy. Safety Mike Mitchell is questionable for Sunday's game with the Chiefs (8-6) with a groin injury but linebacker James Harrison (knee), cornerback Ike Taylor (shoulder/forearm) and right tackle Marcus Gilbert (ankle) will all practice this week with a shot at returning.
The Steelers are healthy, hot and hungry. After two years watching the playoffs on TV, they're ready to get back in the mix. Less than half of the players on the 53-man roster have ever suited up for a postseason game. No better time to learn than the present.
''I'm watching those (young) guys and watching them closely and I like the way they're wearing the urgency of these moments,'' Tomlin said. ''They're utilizing it for good. They're not being consumed by it.''
AP NFL websites: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL