Rested and healthy, Steelers look for another 2nd-half surge
PITTSBURGH — Darrius Heyward-Bey spent a rare fall weekend off traveling. That included a handful of hours in the air on Sunday afternoon, when the veteran Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver monitored a scoreboard that seemed to provide nothing but good news for the AFC North leaders.
Kansas City lost. So did AFC North rivals Baltimore and Cincinnati . Translation? The Steelers picked up ground in the playoff chase and within the division without so much as taking a snap. Still, it’s not like Heyward-Bey jumped into one of his team’s group chats and started spreading the word.
“We’re not looking ‘Oh, Kansas City lost, great,'” Heyward-Bey said. “Nah, they lost but we if don’t win, it don’t matter.”
Then again, losing is something Pittsburgh has rarely done in November and December lately. The Steelers (6-2) are 19-5 in the second half of the schedule since 2014. Yet each surge ended the same: with a loss on the road in the playoffs. The goal is to avoid having to leave Pittsburgh in January at all costs.
The Steelers are in prime position by largely steering clear of the early-season funk that backed them into a corner in 2014, 2015 and 2016. Sure, they responded each time. For once, it’s nice that they don’t have to.
“We’re showing that sign of maturity like ‘Hey, if we take care of our business early, we don’t have to be biting our nails late,'” Heyward-Bey said. “That’s what it was last year and the year before and the year before. But we (can’t) get relaxed because we got the upper hand. It means push on the pedal.”
Pittsburgh will get a chance to do just that while facing a schedule that doesn’t look nearly as formidable now as it did three months ago. The Steelers play five of their final eight at Heinz Field, and their road games include visits to Indianapolis and Houston. Both of them, by the way, are without their starting quarterback. So is Green Bay, which will visit Pittsburgh on the last Sunday in November without Aaron Rodgers.
Yet the Steelers are careful to not get lulled into a false sense of security. Yes, they’re in good shape. Yes, they’re almost absurdly healthy, especially with right tackle Marcus Gilbert (hamstring) and defensive end Stephon Tuitt (back) optimistic they’ll play against the Colts.
Still, they insist they remain a work in progress. By their own estimation, they’ve been OK but little more.
“Our team did what we’re supposed to do,” Tuitt said. “To be in the position we are in now, we just need to finish strong.”
They navigated the first eight weeks of the season by relying heavily on running back Le’Veon Bell and a defense that is near the league lead in sacks, points allowed and swagger.
“Our identity is to give 26 (Bell) the ball and let our best players make plays when they can, and that’s a great formula of winning,” Heyward-Bey said.
A formula altered by the realities that the passing game is still a bit of an enigma. Sure, wide receiver Antonio Brown is on pace for another 100-plus receptions. But Martavis Bryant has been largely a nonfactor, and while rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster and his viral touchdown celebrations have been a revelation, he doesn’t turn 21 until Nov. 22. He’s still figuring things out. So is quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has his lowest completion percentage and quarterback rating in nearly a decade.
Longtime quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner is fine with Roethlisberger’s play while allowing that the realities of 14 seasons, nearly 50,000 yards passing and 466 sacks could be starting to pile up.
“You get used to the Superman cape coming off all the time and it just hasn’t yet, maybe,” Fichtner said. “There’s been series, there’s been plays. There’s been a lot of really unique plays made.”
Including the franchise record 97-yard flip to Smith-Schuster against Detroit that gave the Steelers the breathing room they needed to get to 6-2 at the midway point for the first time since 2011. Yet Fichtner stressed the issue isn’t Roethlisberger’s ability but the fact he’s being judged by the giddy heights of 2014 and 2015, when he led the league in yards passing per game.
“What I think everyone, including ourselves, get caught thinking is that Superman cape should be coming off every play when it doesn’t necessarily have to,” Fichtner said. “If we protect the ball and keep giving ourselves a chance to win, that’s the end story, the end game, is to win the game.”
And win it without worrying about style points. Bryant included. He expects to be in uniform in Indianapolis after being deactivated against the Lions as punishment for comments he made on social media about his decreased role in the offense. Heyward-Bey gets where Bryant is coming from. He also wants Bryant to get over it.
“Frustration is going to happen,” Heyward-Bey said. “I’m frustrated. I want some playing time. But hey, I know my role and I’m fine with that; he’s going to be all right.”