Return of good old Steelers against Giants means trouble for AFC
After starting the year 2-3, the Steelers' win vs. the Giants was their third in a row
Pittsburgh is relying on a familiar formula -- strong running, defense and resiliency
Plagued by fourth-quarter woes early in the season, Steelers have excelled lately
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Thanks to Hurricane Sandy and its trying aftermath, the Pittsburgh Steelers didn't have an extended stay in the New York-New Jersey region on Sunday. But as it turns out, they were here just long enough to recognize themselves maybe for the first time all season, courtesy of all those traits we've come to know so well when they play and win with quintessential Steelers football.
You know the familiar features: The versatile Pittsburgh power running game that wears down an opponent and seems to infuse the Steelers with purpose; the stifling defense that owns the fourth quarter, shutting down all escape routes; and that Steelers resiliency, believing that the game will go long enough for them to turn it to their advantage, no matter how dire things once looked.
You don't want to overstate the importance of a win in Week 9, with almost two months left to play in the regular season, but the Steelers look like the Steelers again, and that has to give the rest of the AFC pause.
"It was a great win for us,'' said Steelers running back Isaac Redman, who rushed for a career-best 147 yards and the game-winning touchdown with 4:02 remaining in Pittsburgh's 24-20 defeat of the New York Giants, a game the Steelers trailed 20-10 entering the fourth quarter.
"I'm not going to sit here and downplay it. We were on the road, and all week we were focused in and we knew that we needed this win. It's a great situation to be in now, because we feel like we're starting to hit our stride. We're ready to keep this rolling.''
At 5-3, just a game behind first-place Baltimore in the AFC North, and with five of their six division games still remaining, the Steelers are indeed well-positioned to be a force in the season's second half. The running game has returned with a flourish, no matter who Pittsburgh trots out there week to week, and the defense is flexing its muscle when the game is on the line, routinely locking down the fourth quarter in its past three wins (just three points allowed total in those 45 minutes of action against Cincinnati, Washington and New York).
When you add in the quirky travel schedule the Steelers had to endure on Sunday, making a same-day trip to New Jersey due to the shortages of hotel rooms brought on by last week's storm, this was a signature win of sorts for Pittsburgh. They came, overcame, then quickly headed home with a satisfying performance that nicely sets them up for bigger and better things in November and December.
"I feel like this is possibly the best win that we've had since I've been on this team, just because we overcame so much,'' said Steelers receiver Mike Wallace, a member of the 2010 AFC champion Steelers. "We had a lot of adversity to overcome today, but everybody stayed together. Everybody stayed positive and we won the game.''
Then the Steelers beat it for a hasty exit back to Western Pennsylvania, making the most of their unusual day trip to New Jersey.
"We're out of here,'' Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin yelled amid the happy din of the Steelers postgame locker room. "Let's load up the buses and make this the shortest trip in the history of the NFL.''
Short and sweet. For so many reasons, really. Not the least of which was Redman's next-man-up act. With Rashard Mendenhall (Achilles) and Jonathan Dwyer (quad) down with injuries, it fell to Redman to carry the load and the running game. He did that and more, just as Dwyer had done the past two weeks, with his own pair of 100-yard rushing games. Redman's 147-yard effort represented 20 more yards than he had amassed in his other five games this season.
Every team goes three deep at running back, but leave it to the Steelers to win with all of them, in an interchangeable rotation brought on out of necessity. In their past three games, the Steelers have churned out 167 yards against Cincinnati, 140 against Washington and 158 against the Giants, fueling the 3-0 run that has turned the season around in Pittsburgh.
"With Isaac, he's very quick side to side, with his agility,'' Steelers veteran left tackle Max Starks said. "He makes a decision and he's a one-cut runner. He's not dancing. He makes that decision and he just goes straight ahead, and you can either get on the train tracks or you can get out of the way. I think most people know if you get on the train tracks, you don't really win that much.''
Redman repeatedly made yards after first contact with Giants defenders, spinning off tacklers, bouncing out of closed holes and making the most of his opportunity -- and his second opportunities on nearly every run.
"It felt kind of weird, coming the day of [the game], but any obstacle that comes in our way, we just push it aside and come to work,'' Redman said. "We knew the Giants were dealing with their own adversity, so we couldn't feel bad for ourselves. We just came out here ready to play. When you're a Steeler, that's what it's about. It's about never giving up, regardless of how we started off the season. Coach Tomlin said, 'This game is the fork in the road, which way do we want to go?' We're in the right direction.''
Not that Sunday went smoothly at all times for the Steelers. Pittsburgh, through three quarters, certainly didn't look like it was about to snap the Giants' four-game winning streak. The Steelers committed six penalties for a whopping 119 yards against New York, including two pass interference calls for 87 yards on cornerback Kennan Lewis. They wasted a superb 63-yard fourth-quarter punt return by receiver Emmanuel Sanders, with Tomlin unwisely opting to run a fake field goal try that went nowhere at the Giants' 3-yard line, rather than kicking a game-tying three-pointer with about 10 1/2 minutes remaining.
And they were on the wrong side of a very questionable call against quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who was ruled to have fumbled in the second quarter, with Giants linebacker Michael Boley returning the loose ball 70 yards for a touchdown and a 14-7 New York lead. Referee Bill Leavy ruled it a fumble and failed to overturn it via replay, even though it appeared Roethlisberger's arm was clearly moving forward when he lost control of the ball, which could have made in an incompletion.
Roethlisberger said afterward that he felt it was a case of the tuck rule, and should have been incomplete, but that Leavy told him the ruling was that the ball came loose in the quarterback's hand as he was following through, and was thus a live ball.
"I didn't ask for an explanation,'' Tomlin said, with an air of disgust. "I can't figure out some of this stuff now. I just tried to move on as best I can, because that's what our guys need to do.''
That's where that famed Steelers resiliency is starting to show itself again. Plenty went wrong for Pittsburgh against the defending Super Bowl champs, but the Steelers didn't wilt, didn't fade and didn't fluster. When the fourth quarter came around, they faced down their 10-point deficit and overcame it. Pittsburgh lost its first three road games this season largely because it melted down in the game's final 15 minutes, but that trend started reversing itself two weeks ago at Cincinnati, and continued against a Giants team that desperately wanted to come up clutch for its weather-beleaguered fan base.
"So we traveled the day of the game, but the thing is, when it's time to go out and play at 4:30, you have to just go out there and be ready to play,'' Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley said. "You can't have no excuses. We just wanted to go out and win the football game.
"We've been losing games in the fourth quarter, and not been closing them out. We knew they were a good team in the fourth quarter, with an offense that scores a lot of points in the fourth quarter. But we came out here and answered the call, and everybody was doing what they're supposed to do. I guess that's what Steeler football is all about.''
Steelers football looks like Steelers football again. Pittsburgh forced New York into three consecutive three-and-outs in the fourth quarter, with the Giants not registering a first down in those pivotal 15 minutes. The Steelers held New York to just 2 of 10 on third downs in the game, limited the Giants to 182 yards of offense and made quarterback Eli Manning jittery enough to coax the worst game of the season out of the two-time Super Bowl winner: 10 of 24 for 125 yards, two sacks, no touchdowns, one glaring interception and a dismal 41.1 passer rating.
With a running game that can be depended upon no matter who has to start, a defense that comes up stout when it matters and the typical Ben Roethlisberger showing (216 yards and two touchdowns, with one interception, 98.8 rating), who knows where the ceiling is for this Steelers team that started the season by losing three of its first five games?
"The biggest thing is we're headed in the right direction,'' Starks said. "By far we're not a finished product by any stretch of the imagination. We still have things to shore up. But we're finally not digging ourselves in holes any more. We're starting to fill it in with a little bit of concrete so we can get some solid footing. We still have a long way to go, but we have a lot of division games left, and at the midpoint of the season, we're almost where we want to be.''
Meaning back playing a very familiar style of winning football as November dawns. From all appearances, the Steelers are the Steelers once more. Feel free to warn the rest of the AFC.