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Kovacevic: Steelers' motivator? The mirror

| Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012, 9:09 p.m.
Troy Polamalu suggested when the Steelers were 2-3 that the team lacked veteran leadership. After winning three in a row, no one is suggesting that now. Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey celebrates Heath Miller's second-quarter touchdown pass against the Redskins on Sunday, Oct. 28, 2012, at Heinz Field. Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review

It was early October, and a small group of reporters had huddled around Troy Polamalu's stall to pepper him with questions about the lifeless, limping Steelers.

We're paid to be annoying like that, you know.

We're also paid to listen closely — not always easy with Polamalu's negative decibel level — and one unsolicited concept he unmistakably raised was this: “We don't have guys like James Farrior and Aaron Smith, the core leadership since I've been here.”

That quote packed as powerful a wallop as anything spoken by any player during that 2-3 start, but who could deny it?

Who were the leaders in this locker room?

Who was speaking up?

Who would right things?

If not Farrior, Smith and Hines Ward, all retired over the summer, then who?

It seemed that, until that question could be answered definitively, the Steelers' season would stay the same sad course.

And yet, something funny happened along the way to winning their next three going into this Monday night matchup with the Chiefs at Heinz Field.

“I can't point to just one or two leaders,” Ryan Clark was saying over the weekend. “People just took responsibility. People took ownership of what they were doing, negatively or positively, to affect the team. They started being the best version of themselves. That's what this team is about right now.”

It really is.

Clark was one of several veterans I've canvassed on the topic since the uplifting upset of the Giants last weekend, and the answers … well, they were appropriately all over the place. Some cited Ben Roethlisberger and Brett Keisel, the offensive and defensive captains, as the leaders. But it was never just those two. I also heard Heath Miller, Casey Hampton, Jerricho Cotchery, Larry Foote, Ike Taylor, Maurkice Pouncey, Rashard Mendenhall, Willie Colon, Max Starks, Clark and ... I might actually be forgetting a few.

The only area of full agreement was that this team still doesn't have a Farrior or Smith, or a Jerome Bettis or Joey Porter, and that it doesn't matter.

Whatever or whoever led to that critical, pivoting-point win in Cincinnati three weeks ago, it didn't involve any one player standing up in the locker room with a win-one-for-the-Bus or they-shot-me-in-the-backside motivational sermon.

Rather, it was a matter of individual reflection.

Literally.

“It was time to look in the mirror, man,” Mike Wallace recalled. “Nobody needed to say anything. It was like we all said, ‘We're 2-3. That's not us. We can't get to where we need to go if we don't change right here.' ”

“Nobody had to say it,” Colon echoed. “I think guys just understood the urgency of now. They couldn't take their play or being on the field for granted.”

Maybe a lack of leadership explains the poor start, then.

“You mean the lulls early on? I don't know,” Keisel countered on that point. “It's taken time for us to figure out who we are, our identity. For the most part, now we know what type of football team we have, and we know we can compete with anybody.”

This tale doesn't exactly make for NFL Films-type fodder toward illustrating how these Steelers have become the Steelers again. But there it is.

And it does kind of make sense when you consider the roster's composition.

The vets left in the wake of Farrior, Smith and Ward aren't the team's biggest mouths. Even though Mike Tomlin summoned Polamalu to offseason training activities in the apparent hope of lifting his leadership quotient, it just isn't Polamalu's way. Same goes for James Harrison, the other big name on defense.

At the same time, there were plenty of options, notably the extra-talkative Clark and Foote.

The offense is much the same, beginning with exactly the position you'd want. As Colon sweetly put it, “Ben's got the ability to be fearless but to also keep us under control.”

There also have been pitch-ins from Cotchery as “Old Money” for the receivers, a mature-beyond-his-years Pouncey for the line, a cool Mendenhall pulling for his stirringly competitive fellow running backs, and even the E.F. Hutton of tight ends.

“When Heath talks,” Wallace offered with a giggle, “that's like when a mute speaks up. You have no choice but to listen.”

Will it keep working like this, leadership by committee?

Ask again in 24 hours.

Good teams beat the champs and take care of business against 1-7 teams that have yet to hold a lead in regulation.

Good teams do to the Chiefs what the Ravens did to the equally sorry Raiders on Sunday.

Good teams don't look ahead to two of the next three being against those archrival Ravens.

Good leaders see to that.

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