STEELERS – THURSDAY
By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — Hines Ward, James Farrior, Aaron Smith and Chris Hoke, players with lengthy tenures with the Pittsburgh Steelers, were gone after last season.
Several starters were questionable to open the season due to offseason surgery, while injuries, turnovers and eventually losses mounted as this season wore on. This has prompted Steelers fans to question the team’s leadership and commitment at nearly every misstep.
“I still believe that we have great leadership in this locker room,” Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel said Thursday after practice. “It is different from a standpoint when you lose great guys like James and Aaron, Chris Hoke and Hines Ward. Those guys were proven, great players and natural leaders.
“I think the guys have adjusted well into playing without them, but we certainly have had our ups and downs this year. We still have a shot at this thing, but we just have to take advantage of it. We can’t afford any more problems in these final two games in the regular season, and we have to win both.”
A four-game winning streak buoyed a 6-3 start to this season, but the Steelers have won just once in the five games with two straight losses to lug a 7-7 record into the final two regular-season games. The Steelers can still make the playoffs and even win the AFC North Division with victories against the Cincinnati Bengals this week and Cleveland Browns Dec. 30, both at home.
But putting together one win, let alone two straight, has been easier said than done for the Steelers. There were eight turnovers in a humiliating loss at Cleveland Nov. 25, prior to a heart-pounding win at Baltimore, followed by lapses in concentration, judgment, more turnovers and more injuries in losses the past two weeks to San Diego and at Dallas.
The last two defeats were particularly debilitating, especially after the Ravens win with Charlie Batch at quarterback, but also because Keisel gave a resounding pre-game speech prior to the Chargers game.
“We haven’t played well the past few games, for a lot of different reasons,” Keisel said. “We’ve had a lot of different combinations in there on both sides of the ball, and we just weren’t able to seize our opportunities for various reasons. There’s a time and a place for everything, but the team knows what’s at stake.
“You’ve got to be ready to play every week, regardless of who you’re playing. I’ve said that before, but … I don’t think it’s too late for us. I feel like I’ve been a leader here for a long time, even when those other guys were here. Just like there are a lot of leaders here that are that way, and the younger guys look up to those guys.
“Max Starks, Larry Foote, Troy, Heath Miller is a great leader, but he doesn’t say much,” Keisel added. “They lead by example. That’s how they are, but there are different combinations. And I believe we have the right amount of leaders in both situations. So, I don’t see a lack of leadership as a problem.”
Starks agreed with Keisel.
“I think we have a lot of leaders on this team, different kinds of leaders,” Starks said. “Ben’s a leader on offense, Heath Miller, and I’d like to think I’m a leader, too, certainly as a veteran on the offensive line. And I definitely don’t believe a lack of leadership is a problem here.”
But with a 7-7 record and the Steelers teetering on the verge of missing the playoffs, any issue that occurs certainly gets magnified.