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Kovacevic: Steelers fight for 'who we are'

| Sunday, Dec. 22, 2013, 10:20 p.m.

GREEN BAY, Wis. — Honestly, I don't care that Mike Tomlin made as ill-advised and ill-timed a call as any we've seen in his tenure as Steelers coach.

Not right now anyway.

I don't care that the other team came within a last-second slant pattern of popping everyone's bubble.

I don't even care that the playoffs remain, incredibly, at least a remote possibility heading into the final week.

Want to know what moved me after this “wild, insane ride,” to borrow adjectives from the Steelers' Ramon Foster, of a 38-31 outslugging of the Green Bay Packers on a snowy Sunday night at Lambeau Field?

I care that they cared.

And no, that's not some fluffy, feel-good Christmastime sentiment. I'm talking about the degree to which this coaching staff and this group, both fairly maligned through this 7-8 mess, came to play with as much energy, as much emotion … well, as we had come to expect over the years.

They played with an edge.

They played “ticked off, seriously ticked off,” Marcus Gilbert said.

Tell me when was the last time that was seen, to this extent, from this team.

Sure, it's fair to ask why it was stored until Week 16, but it's also fair to point out that when a season opens with four haymakers to the chin, the thought process also takes a hit. The focus is on survival, security, embarrassment.

That's why, after 0-4 in London, I wrote that nothing could mean more for this franchise moving forward than to reclaim some semblance of its identity.

Well, how does 7-4 since returning to this hemisphere sound?

More to the moment, how does this revitalized snarl strike you?

When Steve McLendon set up for a routine tackle, he instead picked up his Packer and slammed him to the tundra.

His explanation: “That's how Cam Heyward's been playing for weeks.”

When the Packers jumped offsides on the Steelers' field-goal try in the fourth quarter, Gilbert didn't just celebrate drawing his man into the neutral zone. He whooped it up and walked through the Green Bay line to, um, share the joy.

“Saw that, huh?” Gilbert came back with an unapologetic grin. “Hey, man, that was a fight out there for us.”

When the Steelers were ridiculously ripped off by the refs after that blocked field goal, they met in the huddle breathing fire, per Foster: “We were steamed. I mean … wow. But you know what? We had to take control from the refs. We had to take it into our hands. We had to start knocking bodies back.”

They did that for 68 yards and a TD. Le'Veon Bell began it by hurdling the Green Bay defense for a 25-yarder, part of his 124-yard breakout.

“This team keeps fighting,” Bell said.

Heard that word a lot Sunday.

Scoff at it if you want. Scoff at the notion of looking at intangibles when so much has tangibly gone wrong. But the fact is, the Steelers are nothing without their snarl. They've always been a team that's won ugly, that's won through attrition, through attitude. And they'll always be able to find another linebacker or left tackle, but they'll never be able to replace that.

Let's revisit Tomlin.

No question he blundered by not running out the clock and having automatic Shaun Suisham boot through the winning field goal. Instead, he almost lost it, continuing a long, unacceptable run of bungled clock management.

He must learn from it. He needs to hire a specialist, be open to new data.

But don't forget this in the process: Tomlin could have lost this team. But he didn't. And he won't. This season cements that more than ever.

This was Tomlin's response when I asked why he didn't kneel and kick: “I'm not into that. We had an opportunity to put the ball in the end zone. With weather conditions like that, anything can happen.”

Sorry, no. Wrong call.

At the same time, I'll take the coach who bungles that — and preferably learns from it — over the one who can't hold a job because he can't hold his players' respect for more than a couple seasons. There are 29 or 30 of those.

I'll also take the franchise quarterback who goes on the field and gets it done. To say it yet again: This is Ben Roethlisberger's finest season, given his performance and the context.

No one took London harder, but he answered the same way Sunday when I asked the same question as over there: Did he really believe the Steelers could still make something of this season?

“Absolutely,” he answered in a quiet moment after the media session. “I believed in the talent. I believed in the will.”

And then this …

“It's who we are.”

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