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Pittsburgh Steelers' winning formula based on chemistry

CINCINNATI -- The Pittsburgh Steelers like each other.

How much that factors into a football team's success probably isn't scientifically quantifiable, but somewhere in the aftermath of the Steelers' must-needed, absolutely-gutted-out and sort-of-schizophrenic 24-17 win Sunday night over the Cincinnati Bengals, the like became obvious. And right now, as the 3-3 Steelers sit 1.5 games behind the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North, hold a 1-0 mark in the division and (finally) own a road win, the like promises to be telling.

There was the way coach Mike Tomlin individually greeted all of his players postgame as they skipped into the locker room, with a handshake, a half-hug and a word for each. "Come back to me," he told injured center Maurkice Pouncey. "Ramon, my man, 'Muffle the screams,' " he said to offensive lineman Ramon Foster, repeating a phrase the offensive line had adopted.

There was wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders repeatedly ripping off the stats posted by third-string running back and first-time starter Jonathan Dwyer. (That's right, 122 yards on 17 carries was a career high for Dwyer and a season high for the Steelers' corps of ball carriers.) And crowing about a ground game that finally put an opponent away by rolling up 87 yards in the fourth quarter.

There was the way left guard Willie Colon turned an early two-yard run into a seven-yard brawl, sacrificing himself -- and maybe his hair -- for effect.

"We were flat," he said. "I'd do whatever I need to get guys going."

There was that patchwork offensive line, which relied on the sheer force of its collective will to keep at bay the most active defensive front the Steelers have seen this season. (The Bengals had 20 sacks coming in and 22 going out.) Missing two starters, the unit, which is far from dominant even when whole, put together its best effort -- and made sure to keep chattering the entire time.

"It was hard to be 'up' with the game I was having, but they made sure we were all fired up," receiver Mike Wallace said. "They were talking the whole game."

There was the way Ben Roethlisberger and Wallace loudly and laughingly went over a read the quarterback made late. They talked, they motioned in the locker room. And Wallace never had to say "Thank you" to Roethlisberger, for coming to him repeatedly after a set of unsightly drops, for never raising his voice or losing his trust in him.

"Always," Roethlisberger said. "I'll never shy away from a guy who drops the ball."

There was the unequivocal support for Ike Taylor. Every game, the cornerback takes on the opponent's top receiver, but he's struggled some lately, and this past week was called out by the football universe at large. On Sunday, linebacker Larry Foote loudly spoke up for Taylor, asking a beat writer in the visitors' locker room, "What do y'all gotta say about Ike Taylor now?" Safety Ryan Clark did it much more quietly, sharing that he told Tomlin last Monday to "Put Ike on No. 18."

No. 18 is the Bengals' superstar receiver, A.J. Green. Who had exactly one catch for eight yards Sunday night.

"We're brothers. We believe in him. I knew he'd have this laser-like focus," Clark said. "He did."

And yes, there was the unfocused way Roethlisberger respectfully referred to offensive coordinator Todd Haley as "Coach Haley." Not "Todd," not "the coach." "Coach Haley."

From the moment Bruce Arians was unceremoniously dumped as offensive coordinator to the time Todd Haley was installed as his replacement, the talk around this team has been about who doesn't like each other, specifically -- and allegedly -- Haley and his quarterback.

Wallace laughed about it Sunday night, saying that whenever he hears about the supposed clash between Haley and Roethlisberger, he thinks: "It's funny. Because if it's real, I've missed all of it."

Sanders insisted he'd know about a rift if it existed. He said the story wasn't a distraction "because it's a myth, not fact," then offered the most important truth of all: "It's working."

And it is. Roethlisberger is healthy. He's taking far fewer hits than he did last season. He's completing all sorts of high-percentage passes. Even he acknowledged that the Steelers have barely shown what this offense can do, saying Sunday night, "We haven't done much."

Just as Roethlisberger knows Wallace, knew he needed the ball again and a lot after those drops, Wallace knows his quarterback.

"I feel him," Wallace said. "Ben's a big-play quarterback. He always wants to go for the big play, and he probably won't be happy any play he's not."

Wallace laughed as he said that, insisting that the "not happy" part was being "blown out of proportion." Then, very seriously, Wallace said, "I've bought in. The receivers have bought in. I think Ben's buying in."

No, Wallace did not say Roethlisberger has "bought in." He said the quarterback is "buying in." The folks in Pittsburgh are plain-spoken, and don't bother with practiced platitudes. So yes, Roethlisberger might be coming around to the merits of his second professional offense a little slowly. But as the Steelers' run game continues to blossom, those big downfield shots will be there. And after this very important win, after a 27-for-37, 278-yard night that included a fumble and a lousy decision that led to a first-half end-zone interception, Roethlisberger said failing to get along is not an option.

"We're going to buy into whatever it is," he said.

Buy into this offense. Buy into this team and each other. On Saturday night, Tomlin gathered his squad, telling his players, "You can't rely on the past. This team has to win."

Six games in, the latest iteration of the Steelers is finding its identity. It hasn't yet turned a corner and it's not yet a convincing contender. But it does already have its chemistry.

Follow Aditi Kinkhabwala on Twitter @AKinkhabwala.

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