PITTSBURGH -- During the few rough patches the Pittsburgh Steelers encountered while winning the Super Bowl last season, they emphasized their camaraderie and selflessness pushed them through the tough times and set them apart from most teams.
Linebacker James Farrior said they were more like a family than a football team. Players campaigned for teammates -- not themselves -- to make the Pro Bowl. The team's season highlight film was called "Brothers and Champions."
A season later, the Steelers' much-admired team unity is being tested by a three-game losing streak and the unexpected decision to sit quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hours before one of their biggest games all season.
The Steelers (6-5), drooping after two overtime losses in as many weeks, admittedly are a desperate team. The next 10 days might tell them if they're a divided team, too.
As former coach Chuck Noll once said, there are many problems and they are great, beginning with some rarely-seen-in-public infighting.
The Steelers' players were stunned and unhappy upon learning that Roethlisberger wouldn't play in the 20-17 overtime loss in Baltimore on Sunday night because of post-concussion headaches. Wide receivers Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes suggested Roethlisberger was letting the Steelers down by forcing them to play the inexperienced Dennis Dixon in a critical game with limited preparation.
Ward: "This game is almost like a playoff game. It's almost a must-win. I could see some players or teammates questioning, like, 'It's just a concussion. I've played with a concussion before.'"
Holmes: "We would have liked for him to play. If he had the opportunity, he should have played for us, but he didn't. And we didn't get the job done."
Afterward, coach Mike Tomlin explained the last-minute decision wasn't made by Roethlisberger, as some players apparently thought, but was the team following a recommendation by neurologist Joseph Maroon.
Ward and Roethlisberger have had their moments before, such as when the quarterback lobbied for the team to draft a tall receiver last year and Ward objected. Still, this is the first time Roethlisberger has been so harshly rebuked in public by a teammate, and it comes just as the Steelers are trying to save their season.
Tomlin, always proactive in settling any issues, is convinced he doesn't have an estranged team.
"I'm not worried about a problem in the locker room," Tomlin said. "In that instance, maybe Hines was misinformed. I didn't give him the detailed explanation that went down in terms of the decision-making. ... I was more concerned with getting Dennis ready to play."
The Steelers faced nearly identical circumstances in 2005 -- a three-game losing streak and a season that appeared to be getting away from them -- only to win their final eight games and the Super Bowl. The danger is they can't realistically expect to mount such a late-season drive every time they suffer a late-season slide.
Three of the Steelers' final five games are at home, and they meet the Raiders (3-8) and Browns (1-10) in a five-day span starting Sunday -- a get-well-in-a-hurry stretch if there ever was one. They also play the Packers (7-4) on Dec. 20 and Ravens (6-5) on Dec. 27 at home and the Dolphins (5-6) on Jan. 3 on the road.
"I don't feel it (the season) is over yet," linebacker James Harrison said.
To get turned around, the Steelers badly need the NFL's No. 3 defense to quit allowing late scoring drives; they led or were tied in the fourth quarter during all five losses. They also could use the return of safety Troy Polamalu, although he could miss one or two more games with his left knee injury. It also might help if they got an interception or two by their cornerbacks, who don't have one all season.
"We will not go gently," Tomlin said. "We will unleash hell in December because we have to. We won't go in a shell. We'll go into attack mode, because that's what's required."
Tough words by Tomlin. He'll find out soon if he has a team tough enough to match them.
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press