Steelers bracing for daunting two-week stretch
Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger throws a pass against the Arizona Cardinals in an NFL football game Sunday in Glendale, Ariz. (AP photo)
True, the defending AFC champions improved to 5-2 after a 32-20 win over Arizona on Sunday. Yet even they admit they haven’t exactly been dominant against a largely mediocre schedule.
For an organization that lives by the mantra, “the standard is the standard,” there is a definite sense the Steelers aren’t quite the Steelers yet.
“It’s good to get the wins, especially going on the road like this and to win, but for us on offense specifically, we want to continue improving,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said after throwing for 361 yards and three scores. “We are not satisfied with where we are at. We feel like we can still improve and that’s good. We need to have that mentality.”
Pittsburgh begins a daunting two-week stretch on Sunday against rested New England (5-1), which is 6-1 against the Steelers when Tom Brady is under center. For an organization that likes to save its best football for December and beyond, there’s a sense of urgency in late-October.
“I’ve been here for most of those losses, (Brady) has had our number,” linebacker Larry Foote said Monday. “We have to try and correct that this Sunday.”
Particularly if the Steelers want to put to rest the “old, slow ... over” mantra that’s dogged them since a season-opening loss to Baltimore, who comes to Heinz Field on Nov. 6.
Pittsburgh has righted itself with solid if not always spectacular play. And while they’re hardly complaining about a three-game winning streak, they also know the next two weeks are a significant step up in quality.
New England and Baltimore have combined for nine wins. The five teams the Steelers have beaten have combined for just six victories entering Monday.
It’s why coach Mike Tomlin didn’t get too high even after watching his team take command late in the third quarter after the Cardinals closed to within 17-14. Pittsburgh scored the game’s next 15 points to put the game away.
Roethlisberger hit Emanuel Sanders for a 4-yard touchdown pass, the defense forced a safety when LaMarr Woodley pressured Arizona quarterback Kevin Kolb into intentional grounding and Shaun Suisham kicked a couple of field goals as the Steelers finished with the kind of flair they’ve lacked at times.
“Hopefully that is a window to what we are capable of as a 53-man unit,” Tomlin said.
It was as close as the Steelers have come to excelling in all three phases all season.
The defense kept Arizona wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald in check, the offense moved the ball with ease behind the play of Roethlisberger and wide receiver Mike Wallace — who teamed up with Roethlisberger for a team-record 95-yard touchdown pass — and Antonio Brown nearly returned a punt for a late touchdown.
All positive signs, to be sure. All of which will be meaningless if Brady comes in and has his way with the Steelers again.
The 2007 NFL MVP has carved up Pittsburgh’s vaunted defense during his career, completing nearly 68 percent of his passes for 2,008 yards and 14 touchdowns against just three interceptions.
The Steelers are wary but not in awe. Woodley is playing arguably the best football of his five-year career, recording sacks in three straight games and solidifying a Pittsburgh run defense that has been suspect against quality opponents.
The Patriots, however, present a unique challenge, one the Steelers know they must answer. Yes, the season isn’t quite at its halfway point yet, but Pittsburgh knows beating the Patriots now could pay off down the road.
“You’ve got to stack the wins if you want to get invited to the dance,” Foote said.
Then again, Heinz Field hasn’t particularly been an advantage for the Steelers when Brady plays. He’s won a pair of AFC championships on Pittsburgh’s home field and is on pace to set an NFL records for passing yards in a season.
The Steelers lead the league in pass defense, allowing an NFL-low 171.9 yards per game. When Arizona running back LaRod Stephens-Howling took advantage of a missed assignment to go 73 yards for a touchdown — by far the longest pass play Pittsburgh has allowed this season — cornerback Ike Taylor brought the entire unit together for a little pep talk.
“There was a lot of things I can’t say on TV,” Taylor said. “We need to buckle down. We don’t want to start this again. Games don’t need to be close, that’s how we feel. We feel like the offense is clicking now, special teams. It’s a play away on defense. (We’re) close, but not where we want to be.”