Pittsburgh Steelers  

 

Pittsburgh Steelers in panic mode after 2-3 start? Not so fast

PITTSBURGH -- This is Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh Steelers are 2-3. Which means either a) it feels like the sky is falling or b) the sky is really falling.

In the general football-playing world, there are only two teams in the AFC with winning records, the Houston Texans and the Baltimore Ravens. The Green Bay Packers just provided a blueprint for beating the Texans, the Ravens' defense was just gutted by injury, and entering Week 7, the conference is wide open. Multiple teams might need only to be good enough to make the postseason.

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Of course, this is Pittsburgh, where good enough doesn't fly. Win 12 games in three of the past four years, go to three Super Bowls (winning two) from 2005 to 2010 and no, there is no taking a step back and big-picturing 2-3. If the Steelers beat the Cincinnati Bengals in their AFC North opener Sunday night, they'll be 3-3 and in the hunt. But that won't cut the panic either.

Cornerback Ike Taylor stood in the Steelers' parking lot Tuesday and laughingly explained to a Steel City newcomer (me) that this city won't settle down until the Steelers have 12 wins.

Laughing, but only sort of joking.

This isn't a franchise that kens to rebuilding. This isn't a fan base that allows for down years. And this isn't a head coach who offers friendly learning curves.

"This is not a patient man's business by any means," Mike Tomlin said Tuesday. "We need growth and development yesterday."

The Steelers have made an ethos of "Next Man Up," but what happens when the next man up struggles? When Tomlin was asked if the development of his backups is where it needs to be, he point blank, without a breath of hesitation, said, "No."

(To be fair, he did then modify it with: "But I think I'd say that if I was sitting here at 5-0.")

It's accelerating the growth of the next man, the meeting of what Tomlin likes to call "The Standard," that the Steelers have to figure out right now. Offensive guard Willie Colon said last week that when he was a younger Steeler, the older players were extremely hard on him. Taylor and Ryan Clark had similar sentiments. And while the conversation did have a "When I was your age, I walked 10 miles in the snow" quality to it, it also made Colon at least a little introspective. Is it on him, and his older teammates, to impart urgency on the younger players?

Tomlin was unequivocal in saying he still believes his younger players have the talent and potential to become the grown-up Steelers this town recognizes. But he didn't say how he will demand more of his second- and third-stringers this week, offering only that he attempts to always foster that sort of environment. Still, something has to click and click now.

Tomlin isn't a man who would cop to checking in on his division mates or the league at large, but he did acknowledge he is aware of where they are. ("I run across information because I don't live in a vacuum," he said, with an entirely straight face.) So he knows the 5-1 Ravens had a horrid weekend; they lost star cornerback Lardarius Webb and heart Ray Lewis for the year. He knows the 3-3 Bengals are struggling, on a two-game slide, and everyone knows the Cleveland Browns are still the Cleveland Browns. So he definitely knows there is huge opportunity for his Steelers this weekend. Everything the Steelers want -- a division crown, a playoff berth, a Super Bowl title -- is still on the table.

And so, no, as much as it feels like the sky is falling, it's only a feeling. The Steelers are getting healthier. James Harrison said he is feeling no ill effects after playing two weeks on the knee that sidelined him for nine months. The Steelers expect fellow linebacker LaMarr Woodley to dress Sunday. They've had Harrison and Woodley bookending things for exactly one quarter of football this season.

Troy Polamalu is still out, but there have been no whispers of a season-stealing issue, so there is hope. The offense still needs to put together a more consistent effort, which makes finding a running game job No. 1. But of course, this team still has Ben Roethlisberger, an elite quarterback in his prime. And Big Ben still has a bevy of dangerous weapons at his disposal.

And so, before the doom and gloom fully descends, let's see what happens Sunday night in Cincinnati.

Follow Aditi Kinkhabwala on Twitter @AKinkhabwala.

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