"I honestly don't think it even mattered," New York Jets receiver Santonio Holmes said Sunday evening, after the Steelers -- without their two best defensive players -- squashed what the Jets had thought was a high-flying offense.
In Week 1, the Jets tagged the Buffalo Bills for a franchise-record 48 points. On Sunday, they scored 10 points on their first two drives at Heinz Field, and then they didn't score again. Afterwards, Polamalu, the all-world safety with the all-world hair, grinned like a proud papa, saying "That was 100 percent enjoyment and zero percent pain."
Make no mistake: The Steelers need Polamalu, who has a nagging calf issue, and linebacker Harrison, who underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in August. The usually cryptic Harrison, who is the greater concern at the moment, offered a not-so-optimistic clue to his health on Friday when he said there was no reason to hurry back at the risk of sustaining further damage later. But with Sunday's 27-10 win, the Steelers did something enormously valuable. They made it possible for their coach to keep using his favorite slogan, namely: The standard is the standard.
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On Friday, Mike Tomlin refused to say his defense would have to compensate for the loss of two of the league's best defenders. He said whoever filled Polamalu's role would have to play up to the veteran's standard, and the same went for the man taking Harrison's spot. His players parroted the lines. They said they believe in the theorem of "next man up." But they also don't live in an alternate universe.
"There may be a standard," safety Ryan Mundy said, placing his hand chest-high, "but Troy's standard is way up here," he added, moving his hand far above his head.
The Steelers' defense was as staunch as it was on Sunday because the players recognized just that -- and did the best they could. Clark openly tried to take the blame for the Jets' first touchdown. He said he tried to do too much instead of just doing his job, and that he then narrowed his scope. That's when the Jets stopped scoring.
Though the final stat line wasn't all that fancy, the Steelers were steady. They allowed no back-breaking plays.
After every drive, Polamalu made a beeline for someone in his secondary, be it Clark, Mundy or cornerback Cortez Allen. Not once, Allen said, did Polamalu tell him to do something only Polamalu can do. He just gave him tips and reads and advice, and talked about the skills that Allen has to stifle pass-catchers.
"It's exactly what he did all through training camp and all in practice. He doesn't expect me to be him," Allen said.
So the Steelers compensate with depth. They compensate with the mentality that no one player is indispensable. (Remember, again, how they went 3-1 during quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's four-game suspension in 2010?) They compensate with laughs, like the one defensive end Brett Keisel offered when he responded to one of the biggest knocks against the team.
"So much for being too old, huh?" he said.