Expected to struggle out of the gate in the absence of Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers are off to a shocking 3--0 start behind a resurgent defense and the contributions of some unlikely heroes
This is an article from the Oct. 4, 2010 issue
Charlie Batch will never forget the deafening silence. The Steelers' backup quarterback and his teammates were in the locker room at the Dolphins' stadium last January, after beating Miami 30--24 in the regular-season finale, when word came down that despite the win, Pittsburgh would not be getting a chance to defend its Super Bowl title. The playoff tiebreakers had fallen against the Steelers, and at 9--7, they would miss the postseason. In that all-pervasive quiet Batch could hear 53 hearts breaking.
"I can still remember the look on everybody's face," he says. "It was the look of emptiness. In a matter of seconds you go from that ultimate high of winning to the ultimate low of not being in the playoffs. Next thing you know, Coach [Mike] Tomlin comes in and says, 'We'll go home and have a final meeting tomorrow.' You could hear a pin drop. It was over just like that."
On Sunday afternoon Pittsburgh journeyed to Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, where the temperature was 90° with 62% humidity at kickoff. By the time the Steelers left the 65,000-seat steam room with a 38--13 victory over the previously unbeaten Bucs, they had a growing sense that they might not have to sweat out playoff scenarios this season.
Despite playing without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who's serving a four-game suspension for violating the league's personal conduct policy, the Steelers are 3--0 for only the second time in the last 19 years and face the division-rival Ravens at Heinz Field on Sunday. Many around the league thought Pittsburgh would be fortunate to go 2--2 without its two-time Super Bowl--winning signal-caller, but this year's team has shown a resiliency that was missing in 2009, when each of the Steelers' defeats was by a touchdown or less.
In the first three weeks Pittsburgh has beaten the Falcons 15--9 in overtime without scoring a touchdown in regulation, the Titans 19--11 without scoring an offensive touchdown at all, and the Bucs with Batch—the fourth-string quarterback who through much of the preseason had looked to be a roster cut—throwing for three scores in his first start in nearly three years. More impressively, the wins have come against teams that are tied for first place in their divisions and whose only losses have come at the hands of the Steelers. "Football is the ultimate team game; it's not predicated on one player," says veteran wide receiver Hines Ward. "If somebody goes down, it's another person's opportunity to come in and fill his shoes. That's what we're about. No one expected us to be 3--0, but we are. And when Ben comes back, I know he's going to be angry after missing some games."
Roethlisberger is scheduled to return on Oct. 17 against the Browns, following Pittsburgh's bye. Then the Steelers enter the thicket of consecutive road games at Miami, New Orleans and Cincinnati followed by a home date versus New England. Each of those teams is 2--1 and tied for first in its division, but what had appeared to be a daunting stretch during which the Steelers would be scrambling to make up for Roethlisberger's early absence now looks like an opportunity for Pittsburgh to build on its stunning start and stake its claim as a bona fide Super Bowl contender.
Not surprisingly, the key to the Steelers' season so far has been their defense. Ten starters are back and healthy from the squad that ranked No. 1 in fewest yards and fewest points allowed in 2008. The only change is at inside linebacker, where Lawrence Timmons has stepped up to a full-time starting job.
The proud unit shouldered the blame for the team's failure last year, having squandered fourth-quarter leads in five of the seven defeats and surrendered the go-ahead score in another game that was tied in the fourth. A big reason for those late-game collapses was the absence of All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu (knee) and underappreciated end Aaron Smith (shoulder), who both missed all or parts of each defeat with injuries.
As the defense struggled, outsiders speculated that age was as big a culprit as injuries. Seven of the current starters are 30 or older, and two others turn 30 next year. The senior member of the group is 35-year-old inside linebacker James Farrior, who says the criticism fueled him during off-season workouts with respected trainer Tom Shaw. Instead of hearing Shaw's voice in his ear, he heard the critics'. "Whenever you're not as successful, age is the first thing people are going to look at," Farrior says. "I definitely took that and ran with it this off-season. I trained with a little funk in my step."
It's not as if the defense was horrible in 2009. The primary problem was an inability to get critical stops with the game in the balance. In Week 2 the Bears scored a touchdown on third-and-goal from the seven before winning 17--14 on a field goal. The next week the Bengals converted on fourth-and-two and fourth-and-10 on the decisive touchdown drive in their 23--20 victory. The Steelers gave up a 61-yard catch on third-and-five in overtime against the Chiefs and lost 27--24 in Week 11; the next week they allowed Baltimore to convert on fourth-and-five en route to a field goal that forced overtime in a 20--17 defeat; and a week later they permitted Oakland to convert on third-and-10 from the Raiders' 29-yard line on the decisive touchdown drive.
Make a stop, win a game. During their remarkable 2008 season, the Steelers limited opponents to a league-low 31.4% conversion rate on third down. Last season they ranked 28th at 42.3%. "We strayed a little bit from what the defense called for," says linebacker James Harrison. "A lot of guys were pressing, trying to do too much, not taking care of their responsibility because they were too concerned about helping somebody. That's when teams started to hit plays. And not having Aaron and Troy—that was 50 percent of it."
Polamalu is arguably the most valuable defensive player in the league. Because of his high football IQ, coordinator Dick LeBeau allows him to freelance. Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber took a look at Polamalu on film during the week and marveled at how the eighth-year strong safety confuses quarterbacks. He pointed to a sequence in Pittsburgh's opener against the Falcons.
Atlanta appeared to have momentum after driving for the tying field goal with 3:24 to play. After the Falcons had forced a punt to regain possession with 1:45 to go in regulation, quarterback Matt Ryan dropped back from his own 21 and looked for wideout Roddy White on a 10-yard sideline route. It was the correct read for Ryan based on the coverage he saw; except that Polamalu was playing his usual cat-and-mouse game. He came in at a full sprint and intercepted the pass to force overtime. Pittsburgh won on a 50-yard touchdown run by Rashard Mendenhall.
"That's just him understanding the offense and what it's trying to do," marveled Barber. "He's something."
Polamalu made another highlight-reel play the next week when he leaped clear over the line of scrimmage on first-and-goal from the one and sacked Titans quarterback Kerry Collins for a one-yard loss. "I kind of looked up, and said, 'Dude, that was a great play,'" Collins said afterward. "What can you say?"
With Polamalu and Smith healthy, the Steelers are in familiar territory, atop the league standings in scoring defense through Sunday. They're surrendering just 11 points a game, and even that is deceiving considering that in each of the past two weeks they allowed a touchdown in the final two minutes when the game was in hand. Take away those TDs and Pittsburgh is surrendering just 6.3 points per game. It has also forced 10 turnovers.
"We're playing as good as I've seen in a while—just as good as two years ago," says Farrior. "We're shutting teams down. We don't give them a chance to do too much. We focus on the running game and stopping their Number 1 runner; then we try to make the quarterback beat us."
The perception was that if the Steelers did lose during the first month of the season, it would be because their quarterback, not the other team's, beat them. Initially, veteran Byron Leftwich was supposed to fill in for Roethlisberger, but Leftwich sprained his left MCL in the preseason finale and was sidelined for at least four weeks. Mobile third-year QB Dennis Dixon started the first two games, but he went down with torn knee ligaments in Week 2 and will be out for two months.
That opened the door for Batch, a 13-year veteran whose last start was on Dec. 30, 2007, in a 27--21 loss at Baltimore. During 2010 training camp Batch was limited to throwing in seven-on-seven and one-on-one drills. The only work he got with the full first- or second-team offense was when one of the quarterbacks ahead of him was tired.
But Batch showed little rust on Sunday. Though he threw interceptions on his first and last passes, he finished 12 of 17 for 186 yards and three touchdowns. Batch capitalized on the Bucs' excessive attention to the Steelers' running game—which behind the emerging Mendenhall is averaging 150 yards a game (compared with 112.1 in 2009)— and the inexperience of safety Cody Grimm (a rookie seventh-round pick who was making his first start in place of the suspended Tanard Jackson) by using play-action to find Wallace for scores of 46 and 41 yards.
"You never want to be that guy in the meeting that everybody can point at and say, 'You let us down this week,'" Batch said of his unexpected opportunity. "People on this team take pride in being accountable. Even if a practice squad player is getting called up the Saturday before the game, the expectation for the level of play doesn't drop. Coach Tomlin always says, the standard is the standard."
The ultimate standard is winning Super Bowls—something no team has done more often than the Steelers, who have six Lombardi Trophies. But their two most recent titles, in 2005 and 2008, have been followed by disappointing seasons in which Pittsburgh failed to make the playoffs.
"We're playing with a chip on our shoulder," says Ward. "We want to get back to the postseason. It feels great to be 3--0, especially when nobody on this earth probably picked us to be here. What greater feeling can you have than to play before the entire world and prove to people that they were wrong?
"We know there's a lot of football left, but the learning experience from what we went through last year will pay dividends this season. We've been through the tough times. We know the disappointment. We don't want to feel that again."
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