On the Steelers: Players set welcoming tone for reunion with Santonio Holmes

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Santonio Holmes returns to Heinz Field with the New York Jets Sunday and his performance has been about what his bosses had hoped to get from him when they traded a fifth-round draft pick to the Steelers in April.

After serving a four-game suspension to start the season, Holmes has 41 receptions for 620 yards, a 15.1-yard average and four touchdowns. He dropped a pass in the end zone Sunday when he was wide open and the ball hit him in the facemask. It cost the Jets four points when they settled for a field goal in a 10-6 loss to Miami.

But that is what you get with Holmes, who dropped two touchdown passes in close losses for the Steelers last season. He can make the spectacular play and miss the easy one. He helped the Jets win three consecutive close games with big catches in regulation or overtime this season.

The reunion of particular interest will be Holmes vs. cornerback Ike Taylor. The two were together for four seasons after the Steelers drafted Holmes in the first round in 2006.

"Santonio came off his four-game suspension and is really doing his thing, turning into a man, coming up late in big games -- three touchdowns I think in three games, game-winning touchdowns," Taylor noted. "We know what 'Tone can do. You can see [quarterback Mark] Sanchez looking for him every game. That's what he does.

"No question, he'll be fired up. He'll be ready. I'll be ready, he'll be ready."

So will safety Ryan Clark, who insisted that Holmes was a good teammate and never caused internal problems when he played with the Steelers.

"I'm excited about it," Clark said. "First of all, excited because he's playing well. I think he's an amazing player. And despite all the outside stuff people say about him, he was a good teammate. He's a good guy in the locker room -- never any problem in the locker room, didn't have an attitude, wasn't arrogant -- so it's good to see him doing well.

"Next week I hope he doesn't catch a pass."

Mike Wallace replaced Holmes as the starting split end for the Steelers. His five receptions for 78 yards Sunday gives him 46 for 946 yards. Those yards rank eighth in the NFL. He is second in the league with an average of 20.6 yards per catch and his eight touchdowns rank 10th.

'In good position'

The Steelers like their position at 10-3 and the No. 2 seed in the AFC with three games left. This time last season, they were 6-7 after losing five in a row.

Even a loss to the Jets Sunday would keep them at No. 2.

"We're in a good position," Hines Ward said. "We control our own destiny. To be 4-1 in the AFC North feels good right now."

That record in the division would be the first tiebreaker should they and the Baltimore Ravens finish deadlocked. The Steelers have one more game against a division opponent, Jan. 2 in Cleveland.

"I think we're in the driver's seat in the AFC North," linebacker James Farrior said. "And that's the key, win the North and getting a ticket to the dance."

The Steelers play Carolina at home a week from Thursday.

"We still have the Jets, we still have Carolina and the Browns," linebacker LaMarr Woodley noted. "When you start looking ahead, that's when teams beat you. We just have to focus on what's in front of us."

Close calls

Clark was among the few who sounded a note of concern with how the Steelers have been squeaking by opponents lately.

"We're not dominating," Clark said. "We're not dominating. We're winning, we're not dominating."

Do they need more production on offense?

"Yeah," Clark said. "We would like it. You know what I mean? We know we need to be a balanced team -- offense, defense, special teams. We know everybody needs to play well.

"I think in Buffalo, we were clicking [on offense], we just weren't getting into the end zone. And you look at the Baltimore game, you take what you can get against a defense like that.

"But we know we need to score more points. Those guys are working on it. It's crazy because we moved the ball. We move the ball on people. We clearly have the talent and I think they'll get it going."

While they have dominated only a few teams on the scoreboard -- a 36-13 win in Tampa, a 38-3 win against Oakland -- the Steelers have been dominated themselves just once in a 39-26 loss at home to New England.

The Patriots hold the No. 1 seed in the AFC with an 11-2 record, same as Atlanta in the NFC. The Steelers beat the Falcons in the opener at home in overtime, 15-9.

"I don't know who you would say is elite," Clark said of all the NFL teams. "I don't think anybody here is scared to go play Atlanta. Nobody here is scared to play the Patriots again."

Not even after the Patriots roughed them up in Heinz Field?

"Sometimes people have good days," Clark said. "We don't worry about that. We'll see them again, hopefully."

For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette on the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Ed Bouchette: ebouchette@post-gazette.com .


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