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Starkey: How the Steelers stabilized

| Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Christopher Horner
Steelers running back Jonathan Dwyer eludes Washington's Madieau Williams and Reed Doughty during the first quarter Sunday, Oct. 28, 2012, at Heinz Field. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review

Nobody expected the Steelers' season to hit a crossroads in the third week of October.

But it did.

Coming off a dreadful loss at Tennessee — two weeks after an equally dreadful loss at Oakland — Mike Tomlin's depleted crew lugged a 2-3 record into a Sunday night game at Cincinnati.

Among the missing were Troy Polamalu, Maurkice Pouncey, Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman, Marcus Gilbert and, sadly, Mike Wallace's hands, which never got off the bus.

Two days before the game, Ben Roethlisberger had referred to Todd Haley's offense as “dink and dunk,” a phrase that has since become a source of amusement but wasn't so funny on the heels of a meager outing against Tennessee's historically hideous defense.

It got less funny as the first quarter wore on. The Bengals on their first drive shoved the ball down the Steelers' throats. Wallace dropped footballs like they were flying porcupines. Baron Batch somehow lost Antonio Brown's gorgeous spiral in the lights.

Early in the second quarter, a second Roethlisberger turnover led to a quick Bengals touchdown, a 14-3 Cincinnati lead and mass panic in the Twitter-sphere.

Were the Steelers done?

Quite the opposite: They were just beginning.

What happened next was not just the story of a football game in the middle of October but the story of two franchises.

One, as usual, could not tolerate success.

The other, as usual, could not tolerate failure.

“We come together at those times,” said Doug Legursky, who started at center that night. “I haven't been in other organizations, but talking to friends around the league, that's what makes the Pittsburgh Steelers very special. We're a family here. It's a job to some point, but it's something to us to fight for our brothers in the room.”

The Steelers chose a most unusual way to fight their way out of that 14-3 hole — on a drive that started at the 11 after a special teams penalty (imagine that).

Haley — perhaps sensing that none of his players could catch — unexpectedly turned to his 31st-ranked running game and third-string tailback Jonathan Dwyer.

To that point, the Steelers had attempted 16 passes against six runs (for 9 yards). Yet Haley's play progression went like this:

Dwyer right.

Dwyer left.

Dwyer right.

Dwyer left.

Seems to me that's the point where the Steelers forged an identity for 2012.

“I appreciated it,” Dwyer said. “And I tried to take advantage of the opportunity.”

Seven consecutive running plays put the ball on the Bengals' 32. The drive netted only a field goal, but the Steelers had stabilized.

“We had our down moment,” Dwyer said. “We showed how tough we are by flipping it around.”

On Cincinnati's next possession, something strange and wonderful happened. In football parlance, it's called a turnover: t-u-r-n-o-v-e-r. The Steelers got a break when Andy Dalton's flubbed pass attempt banged off a helmet and into the waiting arms of LaMarr Woodley.

A few plays later, Heath Miller made two beautiful catches — one for a touchdown, the other for a two-point conversion — and the Steelers somehow went to the half tied, 14-14.

Since then, they have outscored their opponents, 61-35, and have looked like an entirely different football team.

Wallace is catching passes again — and then running really fast. He looked like the anchor in a 4x100 Olympic relay on his touchdown Sunday, prompting analyst Phil Simms to say, “That might be as fast as I've ever seen anyone run on an NFL field.”

The defense, still without Polamalu, now stiffens late in games and sometimes tackles quarterbacks.

The running game, still without Mendenhall, looks more punishing than at any time since the Super Bowl run of 2005.

Give Haley credit for going to the ground in that dire situation in Cincinnati. Give him credit, too, for reducing his menu of running plays since then. He's shown to be quite adaptable to his new environs. Willie Colon spoke to that when I asked if he'd seen Haley get in anyone's face yet.

“No, I haven't, and I'm kinda glad,” Colon said. “I don't think there's room for that here. I think there's a lot of guys who take pride in their work and understand that if you're not doing a good job, the guy behind you is more than qualified. So I think the competitiveness motivates guys.”

Something does — and the Steelers look plenty motivated with half a season left.

Plenty dangerous, too.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 “The Fan.” His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. He can be reached at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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