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|12-12-2010, 07:37 AM||#1|
A Son of Martha
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Steelers leading division against odds
Steelers leading division against odds
Sunday, December 12, 2010
By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
For a city that averages approximately 60 cloudless days a year, dark skies on the horizon are nothing out of the ordinary. But it is when leaden clouds are hovering above the Steelers.
A storm was brewing long before they would even get to training camp in late July, and at its center was a four-game suspension handed to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for violating the National Football League's personal conduct policy. But also swirling among the debris was the release of their top receiver and former Super Bowl XLIII MVP, Santonio Holmes, and a season-ending injury to their best offensive lineman, Willie Colon.
It was not the ideal way to begin after a season in which the Steelers not only failed to defend their Super Bowl XLIII title, they missed the playoffs with a 9-7 record that was largely attributable to a five-game losing streak.
"Everyone was picking the Bengals and Ravens," said wide receiver Hines Ward. "Not having our quarterback, losing Santonio, losing Willie Colon and stuff like that, it didn't look good. I wouldn't have picked us, either."
That, though, was just the beginning.
In the final preseason game, the Steelers lost quarterback Byron Leftwich (sprained knee), the player they signed specifically to replace Roethlisberger during his suspension. Leftwich's replacement, Dennis Dixon, started the first two games but was injured in the second quarter against the Tennessee Titans and eventually was placed on injured reserve.
And it just went from there.
The Steelers lost left tackle Max Starks for the season with a neck injury; lost both defensive ends, Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel, for extended periods of time; and last week lost punter Daniel Sepulveda with a season-ending torn anterior cruciate ligament. On top of that, they released kicker Jeff Reed, one of the longest tenured players on the team and the NFL's most accurate kicker the previous three seasons.
"It could have destroyed the whole season," said inside linebacker and defensive captain James Farrior, one of the oldest players on the team. "We had numerous things happen to this team that probably would have brought another team down."
And yet, despite the summer gloom, despite all the turbulence that would have rocked just about any other NFL franchise, the Steelers are heading into the final quarter of the season with an outlook rosier than a 10-day forecast in Maui.
They have won three in a row, are tied for the second-best record in the league (9-3) and are in prime position to get one of the two first-round byes in the American Football Conference playoffs. What's more, they play their next three games at home, beginning at 1 p.m. today against the Cincinnati Bengals (2-10) at Heinz Field.
Amazing might not be a strong enough word.
"We're a close-knit family," said Ward, who, in his 13th NFL season, is the longest tenured player on the team along with Smith. "This team has been battle-tested more than any team this year. We're winning the games we're supposed to win and finding ways to win. The resiliency of the past three weeks, never giving up, speaks volume to the character of our team, the players we have on our team."
The Bengals wish they could find the same resiliency.
First to worst
It wasn't supposed to work this way for the Bengals. This was the year they would disregard their recent history and do something they have been unable to do in eight years under their head coach, Marvin Lewis -- put together back-to-back winning seasons.
With nearly their entire roster returning, and the addition of Terrell Owens and Adam "PacMan" Jones in free agency, the Bengals were prepared to follow up their AFC North title-winning season of 2009 with, at the very least, another winning season in 2010. Seemed as certain as snow in Buffalo.
But, as they drag their tails into Heinz Field, the Bengals have done more than morph back to their former ways. For the third time in the past 20 years, they have lost nine consecutive games in a single season -- a dubious feat achieved by only 16 other teams since 1991.
And, if they manage to lose to the Steelers, the losing streak will be at 10, matching the same stretch of futility set by the 1993 Bengals under David Shula.
"It just hasn't been our year at all," said Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco. "The games that we've been close in are the games we pulled off last year."
To be sure, the Bengals have had their share of injuries, too.
They lost four of their top defensive linemen to season-ending injuries: Tank Johnson, Antwan Odom, Jonathan Fanene and Frostee Rucker. They put four other starters on injured reserve: fullback Fui Vakapuna, safety Chris Crocker, kicker Mike Nugent and right tackle Andre Smith, their 2009 No. 1 draft pick. Three reserves in the secondary also went on IR: Jones, cornerback Morgan Trent and safety Jabril Wilson.
And that doesn't include the tragic loss of No. 3 wide receiver Chris Henry, who was killed in a vehicular accident last December.
All that has conspired to send the Bengals from first to worst in the AFC North, the only 2009 playoff team to fall so hard so quickly in their division. Even the Arizona Cardinals, who have lost seven in a row after winning the NFC West in 2009, cannot match the Bengals' futility. The Cardinals, though, have an excuse -- they lost quarterback Kurt Warner to retirement.
"The teams that are losing close games just can't find ways to win games like that," Ward said.
The Steelers are doing that this year, further defining the fine line that exists between a 9-7 non-playoff team and a team that can conceivably clinch a playoff spot today, two weeks before Christmas.
• A dropped interception by rookie cornerback Joe Burnett against the Oakland Raiders last season is replaced by a dropped touchdown by Stevie Johnson of the Buffalo Bills this season.
• A fourth-and-10 conversion in the final minute by the Bengals last season was a fourth-and-5 failure with 34 seconds remaining by the Bengals in Paul Brown Stadium this season.
• Dennis Dixon's overtime interception in Baltimore last season was replaced by Troy Polamalu's stunning forced fumble in the final minutes last Sunday night.
"We're a resilient bunch of guys," Farrior said. "We've been going through this for a while. It seems every year someone goes down or a group gets hit and we've always done a good job of plugging someone else in and getting the job done."
Indeed, in their most recent history, the Steelers have managed to avoid the monumental collapses that have afflicted the Bengals, even when it appeared they were headed in that direction.
After winning Super Bowl XL in the 2005 season, they started 2-6 the following season, only to go 6-2 in the final eight games to finish at .500.
Last year, following a five-game losing streak in which the Steelers lost to three teams with no more than two victories -- Kansas City, Oakland, Cleveland -- they won their final three games to finish at 9-7, just a game from making the playoffs.
"If we do have that one bad year, we find ways to rectify it," Ward said. "As players, we have a lot of prideful guys. I thought winning those last three, I knew what kind of club we were going to be because nobody ever quit, nobody gave up."
A steady course
The Steelers' ability to avoid such colossal meltdowns comes as no surprise to Lewis, the Bengals coach who spent four years with the Steelers as an assistant coach, all as a playoff participant.
"The system has stayed in place, year after year," said Lewis, who is in the final year of his contract with the Bengals. "I think that is important. If you look at the backup players and take a look at the defensive line, [John] Mitchell has coached those guys for a long time and they have one new guy [Ziggy Hood] who was drafted a year ago.
"But I think that makes a huge difference, so when you lose a fine player in Aaron Smith for an extended period of time, the other guys are there. Charlie Batch has stayed in the mix throughout and Byron [Leftwich] was there a couple of years ago, so you've got guys. And Kevin [Colbert] and Mike [Tomlin] have done a nice job of keeping guys in the family. I think when you can do that and if you choose the right ones and they are productive, that makes a big difference.
"Because the system stays the same, you are changing one, maybe two, pieces but the other nine pieces continue to roll forward."
Wide receiver Antwaan Randle El left the Steelers after back-to-back appearances in the AFC championship game and a Super Bowl victory in 2005. Now he is back, after four years with the Redskins in which they made the playoffs just once, and not much has seemed to change.
The Steelers remain on the same course as when he departed, even with all the injuries, suspensions and departures.
"It's a combination of the organization and the way they run things, the hires they make with Mike Tomlin and the staff, and the players," Randle El said. "They have players who have been here and won; they know what to expect. Everyone is on the same page of what we're trying to do to win. Everybody puts their self aside and just focuses on the team. I don't think we have any selfish guys in here and, if we did, you would hear the players talk about them and they'd be trying to get them out of here."
Gerry Dulac: email@example.com.
Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/10346...#ixzz17u8F7NIS
|12-12-2010, 08:21 AM||#2|
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Re: Steelers leading division against odds
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|12-12-2010, 08:42 AM||#3|
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Re: Steelers leading division against odds
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