On The Steelers: There's little in common with '05 team
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin speaks to the media during his weekly press conference .
Ryan Clark, bringing down Rams running back Steven Jackson, will not play Sunday in Denver because of the risk to his health from the high altitude.
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The rallying cry began last week and will thunder through this one as well: Remember 2005!
Now that the Steelers failed to overtake Baltimore for the AFC North title and the No. 2 seed and first-round playoff pass that went with it, they have and will recall that they successfully took this route before. In 2005, they became the first NFL team to win three playoff games on the road and then win the Super Bowl.
That path has become fashionable since; the Giants did it in '07, the Packers followed last season.
But these are not the same Steelers, and this is not '05. Far from it. That '05 Steelers team entered the playoffs on a roll, healthy and with an extra emotional mission to get Jerome Bettis to the Super Bowl in Detroit. They won their final four games to squeeze into the playoffs as the No. 6 and last seed.
The current version is staggering into the playoffs, winners of two in a row but highly unimpressive in three of their final four, including two close victories against 4-12 Cleveland and a 20-3 loss in San Francisco. In '05, they won their final four regular-season games by 105-33.
The injuries keep mounting, not only to those who have been knocked out of the lineup but to those who will play and those who will try to return, a list that includes quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, center Maurkice Pouncey, linebacker LaMarr Woodley and guard Doug Legursky.
They lost two more starters for this game, halfback Rashard Mendenhall and safety Ryan Clark.
The Steelers still can pull it off -- oddsmakers list them as the No. 3 team in the AFC behind New England and Baltimore, and peg them 11-1 to win the Super Bowl, tied for fifth with San Francisco --but this team in its current condition and in light of recent play is not up to its '05 standards.
Even though coaches and players have long professed they want to be playing their best football in December as they hit the playoffs, coach Mike Tomlin stiff-armed that theory Tuesday.
"I don't read too much into that, I really don't," Tomlin said. "I really focus on this week's challenges as opposed to looking at it like we are in the playoffs. Yes, we are in the playoffs, but this is Denver Bronco week. We need to do what is required of us to beat the Denver Broncos, how we match up against those guys. Our strengths and weaknesses against their strengths and weaknesses. That's where I am at.
"I haven't pondered some of those kinds of things from a rhythm standpoint. I understand and acknowledge what you mean, I just haven't given it a great deal of thought."
Maybe Tomlin could pull out that old Bill Cowher speech he gave his Steelers before they embarked on their long journey on the road in '05. Cowher compared their task to the one that faced Christopher Columbus in 1492 as he boarded his boats to venture to a New World, something that had never been done before.
But the Steelers have now done it, as have two other teams.
"For us that have been here, we understand what it's going to take," linebacker James Farrior said, speaking for the 16 players on their roster who also experienced '05.
"We know what we need to do. It's nothing new to us. We've been in this situation before, and we reached the mountaintop. Hopefully, we can do it again."
Mike Tomlin had little choice in deciding to keep safety Ryan Clark, the team's leading tackler this season, out of the Sunday game once medical advisors told him there remained a risk to Clark's health if he played in the high altitude in Denver.
"It was an easy decision for us," Tomlin said. "If he is in any more danger than any of the other 21 men on the field, then we err on the side of caution. Looking at all our data and variables in the equation, we came to the determination that he is at more risk. So, we aren't going to play him. It's just that simple."
Clark has the sickle-cell trait and lost his spleen and gall bladder from the stress of playing in the high altitude in Denver in '07. When the Steelers played there in '09, Tomlin would not let him play. Clark had no such reaction when he started for the Washington Redskins at safety in '05 in Denver and had eight tackles in the game.
The possible risk that Clark could have another reaction that might affect other organs, including his heart, was just too great.
Ryan Mundy will start at free safety, and Will Allen will back up both safeties.
"We expect both guys to play Ryan Clark-like football," Tomlin said.
Clark became the first safety to lead the Steelers in tackles since records could be found starting in 1970, as kept by their coaching staff. He had 100 tackles.
He has not missed a game since Tomlin held him out in Denver Nov. 9, 2009.
Tomlin said Clark will make the trip to Denver and help coach from the sideline as he did in '09.
Tomlin called halfback Mewelde Moore (MCL sprain) and cornerback Cortez Allen (shoulder) "questionable, at best" for Sunday, which would leave both positions thin.
With Rashard Mendenhall on injured reserve with his torn right ACL, the Steelers have only two healthy halfbacks, starter Isaac Redman and rookie John Clay, signed from the practice squad Dec. 22. Clay has 41 yards on 10 carries, including a 10-yard touchdown run on his first. Redman, fresh off career highs of 19 carries for 92 yards in Cleveland, finished his second NFL season with 479 yards on 110 carries.
They could "potentially" sign another back, but it's "not something we intend to do as I sit here today," Tomlin said.
"We are going to look at the men here that we have working, prepare those guys, and then maybe add to those guys as the week proceeds, but not as I sit here in front of you today."
Under more usual circumstances, the Steelers might sign someone from their practice squad, someone who knew their system, calls, etc. But they have no backs left on their practice squad. They have lost four running backs since training camp -- Mendenhall, Moore, rookie Baron Batch (ACL) and Jonathan Dwyer (foot). The only other back on their training camp roster was James Johnson, who last played in the NFL for Cincinnati in 2008.
Allen played in their dime defense, as does cornerback Keenan Lewis and both left with injuries Sunday in Cleveland. Tomlin said Lewis had an MRI, and little damage was spotted to his hamstring, so he should be OK for this week.
The coach also said that LaMarr Woodley, who has missed six of the past eight games with an ankle injury, and guard Doug Legursky, who missed last week with a shoulder injury, are good to go.
Roethlisberger's high ankle sprain is "OK," according to Tomlin, although the quarterback may be limited early this week in practice.
First Published January 4, 2012 12:00 am