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Old 11-18-2011, 07:57 AM   #1
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Default Steelers' backups maintain starter mentality

Steelers' backups maintain starter mentality

By Scott Brown
Friday, November 18, 2011

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is in the midst of an MVP-caliber season. The wide receiving corps is as deep and talented as it has been in recent memory. The defense ranks among the top five in the NFL in three major categories, including scoring.

But there is another reason why the Steelers (7-3) are tied with New England and Houston for the best record in the AFC. It can't be quantified, and Chris Hoke calls it winning the battle of "you versus yourself."

"Sometimes you go into the film room, 'Oh, I'm only going to play five snaps this game,' " the veteran nose tackle said, "but you've got to fight that, and you've got to study like you are going to play the whole game because you never know when somebody's going to go down."

With injuries as much an unpleasant fact of life in the NFL as TV timeouts, the Steelers have needed players like Hoke to embrace the designation that coach Mike Tomlin assigns to those on the 53-man roster: starters and starters-in-waiting.

Ten position players that started the regular-season opener in Baltimore have missed at least two games. Two of those players were lost for the season before the middle of October.

They have used nine different starting lineups on the defensive side of the ball. Even punter Daniel Sepulveda is out for the season after tearing cartilage in his right knee.

All of the injuries the Steelers have weathered add up to 33 out of 50 position players on the current 53-man roster starting at least one game.

"We don't have benchwarmers here," said starting free safety Ryan Clark, who played for the Washington Redskins and New York Giants before signing with the Steelers in 2006. "A lot of places you go, it is all about the starters. The guys behind them don't receive attention from the coaches and aren't held to a higher standard.

"Over here, it's different. Everybody is held to a higher standard, but also everyone is respected in that way so when it's your turn to play, you feel like all along you've been nurtured to get your opportunity. That's why it's called a starter-in-waiting, not a reserve, not a backup."

That isn't a philosophy as much it as it an expectation from an organization that has won a record six Lombardi Trophies. And upholding the standard that is a popular refrain at the Steelers' South Side headquarters is ingrained in new players from the time they arrive in Pittsburgh.

Second-year linebacker Stevenson Sylvester said it is stressed during rookie orientation, when the organization tries to help new players adjust to every facet of life in the NFL.

"They give examples," said Sylvester, who started an Oct. 30 game against New England because of injuries at linebacker, "James Harrison's story and other people's stories about earning spots because they come in in situations where they're needed."

Harrison, cut three times by the Steelers before becoming a perennial Pro Bowler, is the ultimate example of persevering and then taking advantage of an opportunity.

Defensive tackle Steve McLendon, to a lesser degree, is another one.

McLendon spent most of 2009 and more than half of last season on the practice squad. He made his first career start in Arizona a month ago, when injuries sidelined Casey Hampton and Hoke.

The 6-foot-4, 280-pounder has performed well enough that he has dressed in place of Hoke the last two games even though the latter has been a valuable reserve for years (the Steelers are 16-1 in regular-season games that Hoke has started).

Doug Legursky has taken a similar path as McLendon.

He has risen from undrafted free agent on the practice squad to valuable interior lineman. Legursky, who has started at both guard positions as well as center since 2010, said unheralded younger players have no choice but to make sure they are ready to play every week.

"If you get your one opportunity to step in for an injured guy, and you don't make it happen, that's a fast ticket home," Legursky said. "If you jump in there after somebody goes down, and you execute it well and get the job done, eventually that job could be yours. And it's shown itself on this team time and time again."

Scott Brown can be reached at sbrown@tribweb.com or 412-481-5432.

Read more: Steelers' backups maintain starter mentality - Pittsburgh Tribune-Review http://pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsbur...#ixzz1e3rO0FQD
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