- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Charlie Batch will never forget the deafening silence. The Steelers' backup quarterback and his teammates were in the locker room at the Dolphins' stadium last January, after beating Miami 30--24 in the regular-season finale, when word came down that despite the win, Pittsburgh would not be getting a chance to defend its Super Bowl title. The playoff tiebreakers had fallen against the Steelers, and at 9--7, they would miss the postseason. In that all-pervasive quiet Batch could hear 53 hearts breaking.
"I can still remember the look on everybody's face," he says. "It was the look of emptiness. In a matter of seconds you go from that ultimate high of winning to the ultimate low of not being in the playoffs. Next thing you know, Coach [Mike] Tomlin comes in and says, 'We'll go home and have a final meeting tomorrow.' You could hear a pin drop. It was over just like that."
On Sunday afternoon Pittsburgh journeyed to Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, where the temperature was 90° with 62% humidity at kickoff. By the time the Steelers left the 65,000-seat steam room with a 38--13 victory over the previously unbeaten Bucs, they had a growing sense that they might not have to sweat out playoff scenarios this season.
Despite playing without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who's serving a four-game suspension for violating the league's personal conduct policy, the Steelers are 3--0 for only the second time in the last 19 years and face the division-rival Ravens at Heinz Field on Sunday. Many around the league thought Pittsburgh would be fortunate to go 2--2 without its two-time Super Bowl--winning signal-caller, but this year's team has shown a resiliency that was missing in 2009, when each of the Steelers' defeats was by a touchdown or less.
In the first three weeks Pittsburgh has beaten the Falcons 15--9 in overtime without scoring a touchdown in regulation, the Titans 19--11 without scoring an offensive touchdown at all, and the Bucs with Batch—the fourth-string quarterback who through much of the preseason had looked to be a roster cut—throwing for three scores in his first start in nearly three years. More impressively, the wins have come against teams that are tied for first place in their divisions and whose only losses have come at the hands of the Steelers. "Football is the ultimate team game; it's not predicated on one player," says veteran wide receiver Hines Ward. "If somebody goes down, it's another person's opportunity to come in and fill his shoes. That's what we're about. No one expected us to be 3--0, but we are. And when Ben comes back, I know he's going to be angry after missing some games."
Roethlisberger is scheduled to return on Oct. 17 against the Browns, following Pittsburgh's bye. Then the Steelers enter the thicket of consecutive road games at Miami, New Orleans and Cincinnati followed by a home date versus New England. Each of those teams is 2--1 and tied for first in its division, but what had appeared to be a daunting stretch during which the Steelers would be scrambling to make up for Roethlisberger's early absence now looks like an opportunity for Pittsburgh to build on its stunning start and stake its claim as a bona fide Super Bowl contender.
Not surprisingly, the key to the Steelers' season so far has been their defense. Ten starters are back and healthy from the squad that ranked No. 1 in fewest yards and fewest points allowed in 2008. The only change is at inside linebacker, where Lawrence Timmons has stepped up to a full-time starting job.
The proud unit shouldered the blame for the team's failure last year, having squandered fourth-quarter leads in five of the seven defeats and surrendered the go-ahead score in another game that was tied in the fourth. A big reason for those late-game collapses was the absence of All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu (knee) and underappreciated end Aaron Smith (shoulder), who both missed all or parts of each defeat with injuries.
As the defense struggled, outsiders speculated that age was as big a culprit as injuries. Seven of the current starters are 30 or older, and two others turn 30 next year. The senior member of the group is 35-year-old inside linebacker James Farrior, who says the criticism fueled him during off-season workouts with respected trainer Tom Shaw. Instead of hearing Shaw's voice in his ear, he heard the critics'. "Whenever you're not as successful, age is the first thing people are going to look at," Farrior says. "I definitely took that and ran with it this off-season. I trained with a little funk in my step."
It's not as if the defense was horrible in 2009. The primary problem was an inability to get critical stops with the game in the balance. In Week 2 the Bears scored a touchdown on third-and-goal from the seven before winning 17--14 on a field goal. The next week the Bengals converted on fourth-and-two and fourth-and-10 on the decisive touchdown drive in their 23--20 victory. The Steelers gave up a 61-yard catch on third-and-five in overtime against the Chiefs and lost 27--24 in Week 11; the next week they allowed Baltimore to convert on fourth-and-five en route to a field goal that forced overtime in a 20--17 defeat; and a week later they permitted Oakland to convert on third-and-10 from the Raiders' 29-yard line on the decisive touchdown drive.