Hines Ward on the Steelers' remaining schedule: "The playoffs officially begin for us this week. You lose, we're pretty much out of it."
By Ed Bouchette Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Forget the apology Hines Ward delivered to his teammates yesterday. You should have heard his guarantee.
While he did not use the precise word uttered by a long-gone young defensive back two years ago before the Steelers played at New England, and while it occurred in a different context, Ward made some assurances about Sunday's game against Oakland in Heinz Field.
He did not guarantee a victory; he guaranteed the season would be over if they lose.
"The playoffs officially begin for us this week. You lose, we're pretty much out of it," Ward stated. "We know what's at stake. Our playoff season begins this weekend. This team knows if we lose we're pretty much out of it."
The Steelers' three-game losing streak has tumbled them from first place to third in the AFC North Division with the possibility that if they are to make the playoffs they must win all five of their remaining games, or at least four, provided the Dec. 27 game against Baltimore is one of them.
Their losing streak -- the longest under coach Mike Tomlin -- combined with the tiff over quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's sudden departure in status from healthy and ready to third-team quarterback Saturday, has tested the unity of a team long known for its strength in that area.
"I think our locker room is tight, it always has been and I don't expect it to be any different," tight end Heath Miller said.
No one would admit otherwise after Ward found it necessary to apologize yesterday to his teammates for stirring stuff up with his interview on NBC when he said the Steelers were "50-50" whether Roethlisberger should have played in Baltimore.
"I apologized to the team today for having to even answer questions about this," Ward said. "We've moved on and [we're] getting ready for Oakland."
Linebacker James Farrior thought it was needless for Ward to do that.
"I think it was more just getting it off his chest than something that we needed. Everybody in here knows what Hines is and what he brings to the table and how bad he wants to win."
Ward said he and Roethlisberger talked about it Monday night at length. "The issue's been resolved," Ward said.
Roethlisberger, not scheduled to speak with the media until today, said pretty much the same thing in a conference call to Oakland yesterday.
"He called me and we talked. We're moving on and everything is fine."
Roethlisberger, who went through a full practice yesterday, also told the Oakland media, when asked about his head, that he was "feeling great. All the headaches are gone. Feeling good."
Of course, he said similar things after practice a week ago.
Correcting a mistake
It's rare when football coaches admit they made a mistake, but the Steelers acknowledged they made one by their actions yesterday. They released cornerback Anthony Madison before the season even though he was one of their special teams dynamos. That, of course, was before they allowed four kickoff returns in five games.
Yesterday, they corrected that mistake when they signed Madison to a one-year contract, one day after Indianapolis released him.
The Steelers released cornerback Corey Ivy, who signed last week to play special teams. Ivy became the fourth player released over the past three weeks because of their poor special teams play. Ivy was active for Sunday's game in Baltimore.
Madison was a special teams ace for the Steelers the past two seasons; he led their special teams with 25 tackles in 2008. He played for Cleveland until the Browns released him Nov. 3. Indianapolis signed him Nov. 3 and released him Tuesday.
If the Steelers can run 38 times against one of the NFL's best run defenses in Baltimore, what might they do Sunday against one of the NFL's worst?
Oakland ranks 31st as a rush defense, allowing 161.1 yards a game.
"Last week was the first game this season that we've committed to the run," center Justin Hartwig said. "We ran the ball 38 times. We haven't come anywhere near that this year, so I felt good with the fact that when we did run it we had some success."
The Steelers got 153 yards out of those runs, their second best in 11 games this season. They have come close to that total though, rushing 36 times twice, against San Diego and Cleveland. However, it's the first time they threw it so much less on a percentage basis. They ran it 59.4 percent of the time in Baltimore, nearly reversing their season long run-pass ratio and doing so against what was the league's fifth-best run defense.
"We ran for 4 yards a carry against a really good run defense," Hartwig said. "That's something to build on, but that's not typically what our offense does week in and week out.
"But it is good to know. I think it gives our coordinator some confidence that if we do need to run the ball, we feel we can."
Shortly after saying he believes he can return to start on Sunday, guard Chris Kemoeatu went through a full practice at left guard yesterday. He missed the game in Baltimore with a sprained MCL.