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Kevin Gorman: 'Monday Night Football' not the same showcase for Steelers

Kevin Gorman
| Sunday, Dec. 3, 2017, 8:40 p.m.
Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Shuster pulls down a catch against the Colts on the final drive Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Shuster pulls down a catch against the Colts on the final drive Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

Monday night marks the end of the work week for NFL players, and the Steelers love to end theirs playing in prime time.

When the Steelers play the Cincinnati Bengals on “Monday Night Football” at Paul Brown Stadium, it will mark their third consecutive prime-time game.

“There's always a chance to make a first impression on the world,” Steelers left guard Ramon Foster said. “It's a great time to stake your claim in this league. That's what Monday Night Football does for you: You write your own story.”

Foster's favorite story about MNF isn't associated with his play but rather the telecast. His children are allowed to stay up to watch the personalized introductions of the starting lineups.

“It's exciting to me because when I go home, the next morning my kids will wake up and they'll be like, ‘Ramon Foster, Tennessee,' ” he said. “My kids love that. If there's a best moment, it's my kids saying the intro because it's too late for them to go to the games. They absolutely love it. After the intros are done, they go to bed.”

Foster's kids aren't the only ones sleeping on Monday Night Football. Once the main attraction, its ratings are down as the NFL has showcase games on Thursday and Sunday nights, where flex scheduling allows for better matchups.

“I think it's probably taken away from when Monday Night Football began because of the Thursdays and Sundays now, but it is the only one,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. “I think it's lost a little bit, but I think it's exciting for the city and the fans.”

Maybe more so for fans of the Steelers, who own a 44-24 record on Monday Night Football since its debut in 1970. That's the third-most wins of any NFL team, behind San Francisco (48) and Dallas (46).

The Steelers' affection for playing night games is reflected in their record under Mike Tomlin: They are 11-2 on Monday nights — including 6-2 on the road, with one of those losses coming at Cincinnati in 2013 — and have won their past 10 games played in prime time.

But is playing on Monday Night Football still special?

“I think all of them are the same in the sense that it's still prime-time football,” Foster said. “You can group them all together, from Thursday to Monday. I honestly don't see a difference.

“It still has the same aura of being the only thing for me. I watched it growing up and was excited, from the intro to the song, all the way through. It was the only thing on. I still feel the same way. Coach T has wired us a certain way. I gotta give credit to him. He'll say it's a five-star matchup because so-and-so is in it. We embrace that.”

This, however, isn't your father's Monday Night Football, when the broadcast booth and celebrity guests were as much of a draw as the game, when Hank Williams Jr. sang in his country twang, asking if you were ready for some football.

Even so, Steelers cornerback Will Gay still watches it every week, sometimes going to a sports bar.

“It dates back to all the way when you were a young kid, before the Thursday night games were really popular,” Gay said. “You were like, who's playing on Monday night? That's it. That's the only football game you're going to get. That's what makes it special. Thursday, you can get a college game on. Monday night, you're not getting no college game or nothing. You're getting NFL football.”

That doesn't mean everyone embraces it. For some Steelers, Monday Night Football has lost its luster. It's just another night game to them, and the elongated week could be disruptive to preparation for the Baltimore Ravens' visit Sunday night to Heinz Field.

“It used to be when I was younger. Now, I just look at it as it gives me a short week for the next game,” said Steelers safety Mike Mitchell, who is out with an ankle injury.

“When I was in Oakland, it was something you used to get up about like, ‘Man, this will probably be the only time we'll be on national TV.' In Pittsburgh, I don't know, maybe I'm spoiled, but I'm used to that. The prime-time games I want to be playing in are usually in January or February.”

This will mark the Monday Night Football debut for Steelers rookies T.J. Watt and JuJu Smith-Schuster, starters who could gain national exposure. Smith-Schuster had a breakout game on a Sunday night at Detroit, with seven catches for 193 yards, including a team-record 97-yard touchdown.

Watt awaits his star turn.

“This is my first time on a Monday night, and I'm looking forward to it,” Watt said. “It's Monday Night Football. There's definitely something to be said for wanting to go out there and put on your best performance, hopefully, of the season.”

Just in case the world is watching, even after the introductions.

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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