By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers are back in the AFC championship game for the second time in three years, and there are many reasons for their success during a 12-4 regular season, No. 2 playoff seed and opening post-season win against the Baltimore Ravens.
It all starts with upper-level management for maintaining a competitive roster, fourth-year coach Mike Tomlin and his staff and a special mix of veteran players and youngsters. Several of those performed at such a high level this season that the club’s success would not have occurred without them.
On offense, it all starts with Ben Roethlisberger. No matter what his detractors have said, Roethlisberger is a franchise quarterback with two Super Bowls on his resume and a high probability of another. He clearly outplayed Baltimore’s Joe Flacco and should do the same when the Steelers face the New York Jets (13-5) and quarterback Mark Sanchez Sunday at 6:30 p.m. at Heinz Field.
Despite missing the opening four games due to an NFL-mandated suspension, Roethlisberger didn’t take long to hit his stride this season and has been spectacular lately with no interceptions in 190 straight passes. The Steelers have been in four AFC title games in seven years with Roethlisberger.
“It all starts at the top,” Roethlisberger said. “It starts with the Rooneys, awesome people, an awesome family (and) awesome owners.
“The coaches, I think all the players really respect the coaches from the head guy all the way down to our position (coaches). We are a family. We have been since I’ve been here, and we’ll fight and do anything for each other.”
Rookie center Maurkice Pouncey’s play was Pro Bowl-caliber, earned him a spot on the all-rookie team and helped solidify a Steelers offensive line that has been influx since last spring. He took over in the preseason and has been the unit’s anchor ever since, as the Steelers lost both tackles to season-ending injuries and other players for various amounts of time.
Pouncey, barring injury, should be a mainstay on the Steelers’ O-line and a top-notch center in the NFL for double-digit years. And Pouncey is hopeful for another big playoff win and Super Bowl championship after beating the Ravens. It would be a natural step for Pouncey, who also won a BCS title.
“Man, that would be awesome,” Pouncey said. “I think I’ve won a championship at every level, so it would really add to that. But winning a Super Bowl would be the greatest accomplishment I ever had playing football. It’s so much better than college. There’s so much more on the line.
“In college, it was awesome, and we had a great group of guys and a great coaching staff at Florida. But it was amazing (Saturday against the Ravens). It was unbelievable. Man, our fans were awesome. For them to be out there with that much energy. It was crazy, just an unbelievable experience.”
Along with Pouncey, fellow rookies Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders stabilized the wideouts after Santonio Holmes was traded to the New York Jets. Without their progress this season, Hines Ward and Mike Wallace would not have been as successful. Heath Miller, due to injuries and some O-line woes, has had to stay in to block more often and did not repeat a big numbers season.
“Our coaches have put us in great situations, (and) they’ve been with us every step of the way, encouraging us and teaching us how to be professional athletes,” Pouncey said. “The veterans have helped out, too.
“When (the rookies) got here, we all knew we were in a situation where we had to earn the respect of the team, and I think we did that. And now, I think all the guys are impressed with us.”
Defensively, strong safety Troy Polamalu is the clear-cut MVP, maybe in the NFL, but certainly on the Steelers. He is an amazing athlete and impact player, but not the only reason the club had an excellent year on this side of the ball.
Cornerback Ike Taylor has shut down opposing wideouts all season long, and while Bryant McFadden has struggled with injuries during the second half his play has been even more special. But free safety Ryan Clark has picked up his play substantially this season, especially while Polamalu has been banged up, and it hasn’t always been according to the game plan.
“Ike’s pressed every receiver he’s played this year, and guys aren’t catching balls against him,” Clark said. “He really can’t play any better than he’s playing. If he would have had a couple more interceptions, maybe that one pick six that was called back, he’d be in the Pro Bowl. But nobody’s playing better than Ike.
“(And) since Troy’s been injured, I’ve been playing closer to the line of scrimmage. That gives us more versatility, and it has helped me play better, too. It used to be that Troy would only do those things. It hasn’t been by design from the coaches, and it hasn’t been the coaches telling me.
“It’s been troy telling me,” Clark added. “We come out of the huddle and figure out what we want to do. Does he want to be back (deep)? Do I want to be back? It’s been working well, and you can’t tell what we’re doing as much. We’re not as predictable, and it allows us to give people different looks.”
Ziggy Hood’s play also has been solid, so the loss of Aaron Smith hasn’t been felt as much this season as it was last season. Hood wasn’t ready to step in last year, but he was more than ready this season. He has had one sack in each of the last three games, including one against Flacco and the Ravens.
“Let’s hope they lead to even more the rest of the way,” Hood said. “I’m just blessed to have great teammates around me. They do their job, guys like big Hamp and our linebackers, and that give me opportunities to make some plays. I’m just hopeful that I can keep it up a couple more games this year.”
Finally on defense, inside linebacker James Farrior has been “above the line,” as Steelers coach Mike Tomlin likes to say. Farrior’s steadily declining play last season was a major reason the club lost five straight and did not make the playoffs. He is asked to do so much, in both the run and pass defense, that any slip-ups stand out like Casey Hampton in a room full of bikini models.
This season, Farrior was second to Lawrence Timmons in total tackles, but he also has not been as vulnerable to passes down the middle. Timmons stepped up earlier this season as well, but his play has leveled off during the final third this season.
On special teams, kudos have to go to place-kicker Shaun Suisham and punter Jeremy Kapinos, who took over for solid veteran performers and really have not missed a beat. Will Allen and Arnaz Battle were brought in to solidify the coverage teams, and their presence has paid off. The return game has been spotty, but is in good hands (and legs) with Brown and Sanders.
So, with the overall talent assembled this season, the Steelers immediate future appears to be bright. And winning a seventh Vince Lombardi trophy certainly isn’t out of the question.