By Gerry Dulac / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Ike Taylor has been around the Steelers for 11 years, long enough to appear in three Super Bowls and four AFC championship games. In that time, he has missed playing in the postseason three times, the most recent coming in 2012.
Through a series of offseason departures the past two seasons, Taylor, 32, has become one of the veteran leaders. He has watched teammates with whom he has won two Super Bowls -- Hines Ward, James Farrior, Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, James Harrison, among others -- leave the organization, creating a void in veteran leadership and causing many to wonder if the Steelers are a team in transition, if not decline.
Taylor, the team's top cornerback, can only chuckle.
"They've been saying that forever," he said. "They always say that. I remember when we were 6-10, they said it. I remember when we were 8-8, they said it. Every time they say we wind up bouncing back. I hope they keep saying it."
The Steelers have been more than just one of the most successful teams in the NFL in the past 12 years. They have also been one of the most resilient.
Since 2001, they have never had back-to-back seasons in which they missed the playoffs, often bouncing back in grand style when it was least expected. The most recent example was when they didn't make the postseason in 2009 and bounced back and went to the Super Bowl in 2010.
"I think it's the willingness to get back on top," said defensive end Brett Keisel. "This team, historically, is known to be a very good team and one that competes every year. Hopefully this is one of those years."
That will be put to the test this season after the Steelers went through another wave of veteran departures in the offseason, losing seven starters from last season, including five who played in two Super Bowls -- Hampton, Harrison, Max Starks, Willie Colon and Rashard Mendenhall.
"Playing in Pittsburgh, you can't go 8-8 twice," Taylor said. "You go 8-8 twice, someone has to go, that's just the way it is. Expectations are sky high. You don't have six Lombardi trophies sitting on the second floor in the front office just because 8-8 is acceptable. That's just something you don't do around here. Guys feel it."
General manager Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin weren't going to sit still after one 8-8 season, let alone two. They let several of their top players go in free agency, including receiver Mike Wallace and cornerback Keenan Lewis, dismissing their departures as players from an 8-8 team.
Maybe that's part of the reason for their success. Chuck Noll was once accused of hanging on to his Super Bowl players too long, causing a decline in the 1980s. Not this regime.
They have maintained a level of success that few other NFL teams can claim.
"I wish it wasn't like that," said veteran inside linebacker Larry Foote, who has played on three Super Bowl teams. "But we have big a challenge to make the playoffs this year."
Since Bill Cowher became coach in 1992, the longest playoff drought the Steelers have endured is three consecutive seasons (1998-2000). For all intents and purposes, the skid began on Thanksgiving Day 1998 when Jerome Bettis made the wrong coin-toss call in overtime in Detroit, leading to a defeat that started a streak in which the Steelers lost 18 of 24 games over three seasons.
But, since 2001, the Steelers are one of only three teams (New England, Indianapolis) to never miss the playoffs in back-to-back seasons. In that 12-year period, they have failed to make the postseason just four times -- 2003, 2006 (Cowher's last season), 2009, when they won their last three games to finish 9-7; and last season, when they lost five of their last seven.
In that same period, they have been to three Super Bowls (winning two) and made five appearances in the AFC championship game.
The Steelers have followed each non-playoff season with a postseason appearance, and, in at least one instance (2010), made it to the Super Bowl the following season. After they missed the playoffs in Cowher's last season, Mike Tomlin won the Super Bowl two years later.
"First of all, it's the talent on the team," Foote said. "If you don't have that, you don't have a chance to make the playoffs. And through the past decade we showed that we can rebound because we have the talent."
"One thing is, usually we don't focus on the year before," said safety Ryan Clark. "Once you hit the field it's a new year. Guys here have confidence that comes from winning a lot and we understand how to do it."
How do the Steelers do it?
How do they manage to bounce back from non-playoff seasons, sometimes with a bang?
There are several reasons.
One is the combination of Ben Roethlisberger and a defense that annually ranks at the top, or near the top, of the league. Having an elite quarterback and a defense that doesn't allow many points means the Steelers are never out of any game and, by extension, any season.
Another is their style of play. The Steelers do not blow out teams with impressive offensive displays, nor do they typically get blown out.
In the past five seasons, the Steelers have scored 30 or more points in a game just 14 times. In that same period, they have just three losses by 17 points or more.
They play conservative, keeping the score close, waiting to create a break and are content to win a lot of games by a touchdown or even a field goal.
"We know how to figure out how to win those games in the fourth quarter," Foote said.
Last year, though, the approach backfired.
The Steelers were involved in nine games decided by four points or fewer and were 4-5 in those games. The most critical defeats came at the end of the season in Dallas (27-24) and at home against Cincinnati (13-10).
Antonio Brown's fumble on a punt return and Roethlisberger's overtime interception led to the defeat in Dallas. Roethlisberger threw another costly interception in the final minute against the Bengals that led to the winning field goal.
"That's why we're stressing turnovers on defense," Foote said. "When you look at the whole season, it comes down to, we got to catch the ball and defensively we have to control our side of the ball and help our offense out as much as possible."
Or risk another season of missing the playoffs.
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