Steelers take Tomlin’s words to heart, score 1st win
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — An NFL coach sometimes is a motivational speaker who inspires his players, a country preacher who puts them on the right path, a master salesman who convinces them his way is the only way.
With his trying-to-do-too-much quarterback caught up in a landslide of mistakes, his defense looking old and spent and his team’s season one more loss away from irrelevance, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin needed to deliver a powerful, impassioned message as his players went on a four-day break following a discouraging 34-27 loss to Minnesota in London.
“Do you think the circumstances dictated it?” Tomlin said.
His players answered Tomlin’s rhetorical question with their first Steelers-like performance on both sides of the ball, a 19-6 victory Sunday over a Jets team that looked just like a Weeks 1-through-4 version of the Steelers: confused, mistake-prone and less than confident.
Tomlin’s message, according to several players, was equally inspiring and calming — namely, that the season wasn’t lost despite a winless September and the franchise’s worst start (0-4) in 45 years. That there was, contrary to public opinion, much to play for in the final 12 weeks, including a barely begun AFC North race.
“Coach T is a motivator, and he never changes his mentality,” said receiver Emmanuel Sanders, whose 55-yard catch represented the game’s only touchdown and the Steelers’ longest play from scrimmage this season. “His mentality is always strong-minded, and at the end of the day that’s what he always preaches.”
Especially when a loss at MetLife Stadium might have been the end of the season. Not even Ryan Clark would be talking playoffs had the Steelers opened 0-5.
“Coach just said (winning) just feels right,” left guard Ramon Foster said. “It’s not the Super Bowl, but we’re just stacking building blocks right now.”
Until Sunday, all they had been stacking were bad plays, turnovers, excuses and what-ifs.
The Steelers became the first AFC team to win 600 games and avoided becoming the first team in NFL history to fail to generate a turnover in its first five games — interceptions of Jets rookie Geno Smith by Ryan Clark and Lawrence Timmons prevented that. Ben Roethlisberger couldn’t avoid becoming one of only two quarterbacks to start 0-3 after winning multiple Super Bowls (Eli Manning is the other), but he righted himself to play mistake-free after committing nine turnovers during that winless start.
Last week Clark caused something of a stir by saying the quarterback needed to “tone down” his reliance upon improvisation because it was resulting in too many mistakes. A sturdy and steady Roethlisberger apparently wasn’t tone deaf to the message.
“He came in with the mentality of protecting the football, and he did,” Sanders said of Roethlisberger, who was 23 of 30 for 264 yards with no interceptions or fumbles lost against the NFL’s No. 2 defense.
“It’s more than just you as a quarterback being consistent,” Roethlisberger said. “It’s everyone around you knowing the consistency of your play.”
That consistency helped the Steelers overcome the kinds of mistakes and gaffes that tripped them up while they were being outscored by 10.2 points per game in their first four. Antonio Brown dropped a certain touchdown pass in the end zone, and Roethlisberger was forced to power his way out of a potential safety early on, a couple of plays after one of his passes ricocheted comically off Brown’s helmet.
What made the biggest difference, however, was the much-maligned offensive line settling down after a shaky beginning by new left tackle Kelvin Beachum, who committed three penalties. Playing with a lead didn’t hurt, either.
Three of Shaun Suisham’s four field goals — he is 10 for 10 — made it 9-6 in advance of Roethlisberger’s TD throw to Sanders on the Steelers’ third play from scrimmage in the second half, a deep pass on third-and-1 that created the first double-digit lead of the season.
“I looked up, and I saw Emmanuel running by himself,” Roethlisberger said. “I kind of hesitated for a moment because I couldn’t believe he was so open.”
The Steelers probably couldn’t believe it when they looked at the scoreboard and saw they were ahead in the second half, something that hadn’t happened since Dec. 30 against Cleveland.
“There was nothing mystical about it. We maintained possession of the football, and we got the football,” Tomlin said. “We got the football (via turnovers) in the red area, and that took points off the board. We made splash plays defensively, and we maintained possession of the ball offensively. Hopefully, it was the springboard of things to come.”
All of a sudden, it was the other team looking desperate and out of rhythm.
“It puts pressure on their offense to make plays, allows us to open up the playbook,” said Troy Polamalu, who was active and aggressive, once leveling Jets receiver Stephen Hill with a powerful hit.
The next three weeks may tell the Steelers whether this was a one-week anomaly or the start a comeback. On Sunday, it’s the not-quite-super Ravens (3-3) in the first division home game, followed by road games at Oakland (2-4), where they keep losing even against bad teams, and New England (5-1).
“Now you are just trying to win every game,” said Clark, who took advantage of Smith’s decision to throw into triple coverage to make the Steelers’ first interception, on the Jets’ possession following Sanders’ touchdown. “There is not as much pressure on each and every play, especially for the younger guys who have never had a win.”
And a lot of the older guys, too, on a defense that limited the Jets to 184 yards passing and 267 total yards. A revived defense on a coach-motivated team that, at least for three hours, no longer looked old, slow and done.