Steelers back in picture after three consecutive wins
After three consecutive wins, Heath Miller and the Steelers are back in the hunt for the AFC North title.
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Three consecutive victories might not have erased a poor start, but the Steelers return home for two games at Heinz Field in position to take control not only of the AFC North Division but to make their move in the conference as well.
The Steelers are "back, back, back," declared Tony Dungy Sunday night on NBC. They have done so, Dungy said, playing "old-time football: Run the ball, play defense and good special teams."
They seemed incapable of doing any of that while trudging to a 2-3 record. Their once renowned ground game ranked 31st in the NFL, their defense gave up fourth-quarter leads as if they were Halloween candy, and special teams never saw a penalty they could not commit to wipe out big returns.
Oh, and they could not win on the road, even against some of the worst teams the AFC has to offer.
But here they are, back in the race on Election Day.
"We're definitely headed in the right direction and that's what it's all about," said Emmanuel Sanders, who helped keep them there Sunday with his punt returns and a touchdown catch to beat the reigning Super Bowl champion New York Giants, 24-20. "As the season progresses, we shouldn't decline. We have to progress and continue to climb.
"If we're a championship-caliber team, we'll win on the road, we'll win the games necessary for us at the end of the season to be Super Bowl champs."
Their defense ranks No. 1 overall in fewest yards allowed in the NFL and No. 1 against the pass. Their running game has climbed 10 spots to No. 21 by averaging 155 yards per game over the past three. And Sunday they got big returns on punts and kickoffs that were not wiped out by penalties.
At 5-3, they are one game behind Baltimore (6-2) in the AFC North with two games against the Ravens in three weeks after their next game Monday night against the Kansas City Chiefs (1-7) at Heinz Field.
They put themselves in that position by coming back from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit against the New York Giants to win. Instead of giving away fourth-quarter leads as they did on the road in Denver, Oakland and Tennessee, they took another one away.
"It's a real big win," declared Isaac Redman, whose 147 yards rushing on two sore ankles ranks as one of their best performances of the season. "It keeps us on a roll, three in a row. We just want to keep stacking victories. We lost to a couple of opponents we feel we shouldn't have lost to and we don't want to do that anymore."
Those losses to Oakland (3-5) and Tennessee (3-6) could still come back to haunt them. All three losses have come to AFC teams and that's an important playoff tiebreaker if it comes to that.
But Houston (7-1) and Baltimore are the only teams with better records than the Steelers in the conference, and they don't need help to change that with the Ravens.
Halfway through the season, the Steelers might not have the record they would prefer but they are in position to finish with the one they want.
The improvement in the ground game goes hand in hand with improvement in the offensive line play. But veteran tackle Max Starks suggested that consistency in another area might be a key as well.
Perhaps because of injuries, the Steelers no longer have rotated backs in and out of the game over the past three and that helps both the backs and the line, according to Starks.
"By committing to a primary runner as opposed to a runner by committee has also played a big role in that," Starks said. "Having a guy know he can run -- and if it doesn't go well, they're going to shelve him and put a guy in for couple plays. Knowing you're committed to him and allowing him to get a feel for the game, to get into a rhythm with us, I think that's the biggest thing, having that continuity."
The Steelers haven't had much choice. Of their big three -- Rashard Mendenhall, Redman and Jonathan Dwyer -- only Redman played Sunday. In the previous two games, only Dwyer was healthy.
If all three are healthy at the same time, Starks believes they should still stick with one primary runner in a game.
"If everybody's healthy, you still make that commitment to one guy being the feature runner regardless of health. Making sure you have that commitment is the biggest thing."
It's not just for the back's advantage either.
"It helps us out a lot, knowing as we're playing how he's running and what he's doing," Starks said.
Their philosophy seems to have changed since the early portion of the season. In Denver, Dwyer carried nine times, Redman 11 and Chris Rainey twice. In the second game against the Jets, Dwyer and Redman each carried a dozen times. At Oakland, Redman carried nine times and the other backs split nine carries. Against the Eagles, Mendenhall and Redman each carried 13 times, and against Tennessee, Mendenhall had six carries and Redman five before each left with an injury and then Baron Batch finished with 10.
Ryan Clark feels he's being targeted by the officials after he was flagged in the end zone for what referee Bill Leavy ruled was a "hit to the head" of Giants receiver Victor Cruz.
Replays clearly showed the hit was to Cruz's midsection and the Giants later announced that Cruz had bruised ribs from it.
Former NFL supervisor of officials Mike Pereira, a Fox commentator, wrote on Twitter, "that is not a blow to the head and not a foul."
The penalty, on a third-down pass incompletion, gave the Giants the ball at the 1 and they went on to score a touchdown.
"I thought I did the right thing," Clark said. "I thought I hit him in the ribs. I tried to get my head to the side, tried to obey the rules as they've been laid out to me.
"I think referees have meetings about me before the game. I think anytime they see '25' flash and a hit be made, there's going to be an opportunity for me to get a flag."
First Published November 6, 2012 12:00 am