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Steelers' veteran newcomers finally enjoying elusive success

Chris Adamski
| Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, 8:57 p.m.
Steelers tight end Vance McDonald catches a pass in front of the Bengals' Shawn Williams during the second quarter Sunday, Oct. 22, 2017, at Heinz Field.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Steelers tight end Vance McDonald catches a pass in front of the Bengals' Shawn Williams during the second quarter Sunday, Oct. 22, 2017, at Heinz Field.
The Steelers' Artie Burns during warm ups before playing the Bears Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017 at Soldier Field in Chicago Il.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Steelers' Artie Burns during warm ups before playing the Bears Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017 at Soldier Field in Chicago Il.
Steelers cornerback Joe Haden celebrates his interception with Sean Davis during the third quarter against the Bengals Sunday, Oct. 22, 2017, at Heinz Field.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Steelers cornerback Joe Haden celebrates his interception with Sean Davis during the third quarter against the Bengals Sunday, Oct. 22, 2017, at Heinz Field.

Six-year NFL veteran Coty Sensabaugh was standing in the middle of the Steelers' locker room last week when he took a second to scan the dozens of players around him.

“Some of these guys, they don't even realize how hard it is to make the playoffs,” said Sensabaugh, a cornerback with his fourth team. “My first year in the playoffs was last year — and we were one-and-done in New York.

“It's hard, man.”

No one, it seems, knows that more than the six NFL veterans who are new to the Steelers in 2017. They joined a franchise that has made three consecutive playoff appearances and has won more games since the 1970 AFL/NFL merger than any other team.

Compare that to where they collectively came from: Sensabaugh, cornerback Joe Haden, defensive end Tyson Alualu, tight end Vance McDonald, receiver Justin Hunter and safety J.J. Wilcox combined for 31 prior NFL seasons. They collectively had four winning seasons, made the playoffs four times, won just two division titles and have a total of three playoff victories between them.

For basis of comparison, over the past 31 Steelers' seasons, they have 21 winning seasons, 18 playoff appearances, 13 division titles and 20 playoff victories. Plus, two Super Bowl wins and nine appearances in the AFC championship game in that time.

The only time one of the Steelers' new veteran six had been part of a conference title game was back in 2013 when McDonald was a rookie for San Francisco. Now, this group — one that had won just 34.5 percent of their games in the NFL — is on a team that played in last season's AFC championship and is off to a 5-2 start.

“I have never been 5-2 since I have been in the NFL,” said Hunter, a five-year veteran. “So it feels good. It's a different feel from the locker room walking in every morning. No muggy looks and whatnot, so I can say I am enjoying it so far.”

Hunter and Sensabaugh were teammates on Tennessee teams that followed a 2-14 season in 2014 by improving to ... 3-13 the next year.

Drafted by Jacksonville in 2010, Alualu's Jaguars went 8-8 when he was a rookie but won just 22 games in the six seasons since.

McDonald probably considered himself lucky to join a winner when the 49ers drafted him in 2013. They were coming off a Super Bowl berth and went 12-4 his first season.

He wouldn't play for a winning team again, bottoming out as a starter for a 2-14 team last year.

Traded to the Steelers on Aug. 29, McDonald has played a secondary role to Jesse James among tight ends. But McDonald expresses only relief.

“I have been on both sides of it, and I know what it's like to not win,” McDonald said. “And it's miserable.

“So just helping out in any way and being a part of winning team right now, it's a great feeling.”

Of all the new veteran Steelers, Wilcox — by far — came from the most successful organization. But even though Wilcox enjoyed NFC East champion seasons during his four years with the Cowboys, he also slogged through a 4-12 campaign in 2015.

Now, he's on a team that hasn't had that poor of a record since 1969.

Since Mike Tomlin was hired as coach in 2007, the Steelers have played only one game in which they were eliminated from the playoffs. In other words, the longtime Steelers have no idea what it's like to merely be playing out the proverbial string in November and December.

“Everything is under a microscope,” Wilcox said of struggling franchises. “Everybody is on the hot seat — coaches, players. Most everything people can complain about, they complain about.

“(Coaches) start playing with your playing-time rotation and stuff. When you start going down that road, it's a whole different journey and mindset. So I am just glad to be 5-2. We're feeling good.”

Because his team went 13-3 last year, Wilcox is the exception among the new veteran Steelers. Not counting Wilcox, the other five have had two winning seasons among 27, going 134-297 — a .310 winning percentage that's the equivalent of going 5-11 every season. Two of their 27 seasons resulted in playoff berths but none in division titles.

Still, as bad as Alualu's Jaguars, McDonald's 49ers and the Titans of Sensabaugh and Hunter were, they all know it could have been worse.

“Joe,” Hunter said, “had it the worst out of all of us.”

“Poor Joe,” Alualu said.

“I feel bad for those Browns guys, man,” Sensabaugh said.

They're referring, of course, to Joe Haden. He was with Cleveland from the time of his drafting in 2010 until he was suddenly released at the end of training camp in August.

The Steelers — the franchise his former team constantly measured itself against but beat just twice in 14 tries while he was there — signed Haden to a $27 million contract the next day.

“You can just see he walks around this building with a smile,” Hunter said.

Haden looks back longingly at 2014, when the Browns were in first place on Thanksgiving.

“And then we lost the rest of our games,” Haden said.

The Browns, in fact, lost 33 of the final 37 games Haden was there for.

“At the end of the day, you're still a professional, and I was still going out there going as hard as I could,” Haden said.

“Coaches there will even tell you, ‘You're not only playing for the Browns. You're playing for the other 31 teams, what you put on tape is your resume.' ”

That isn't what drives Haden now — not when there are division titles and Super Bowl rings to provide the realistic motivation in Pittsburgh.

“Here, it's different. The victories, you're No. 1 in the division. You're No. 1 in the AFC,” Haden said. “Playoff position is something that you seriously talked about, everybody understands where we are. Going into each game, we feel like we can win.”

Haden released a relieved chuckle.

“It's just a totally different feeling,” he said. “I am just glad to be here.”

Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at cadamski@tribweb.com or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.

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