Steelers shift into crisis mode for stretch run
Mike Tomlin summoned his inner Russell Crowe when he declared that the Steelers plan to "unleash hell in December."
What the Steelers coach said following a 20-17 overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens was not a coincidence. Tomlin had watched "Gladiator," the blockbuster movie starring Crowe, the night before the game in his Baltimore hotel room.
When the Steelers return to practice today, Tomlin will tell his players that the key to storming through December lies in forgetting what happened in November — or at least the span in which the Steelers (6-5) lost three consecutive times and endangered their playoff hopes.
"If we're going to get done what's in front of us, we cannot carry the baggage of recent weeks," Tomlin said about the first three-game losing streak of his coaching tenure. "We've got a veteran group, a group that's faced a lot of adversity, individually and collectively. I would expect they're capable of doing that."
They have done it before.
The Steelers were 7-5 in 2005 following an early December loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. They proceeded to win their last four regular-season games by a combined score of 115-33.
The Steelers then beat four more teams to become the first No. 6 playoff seed to win the Super Bowl.
"We still have a lot of veterans on this team that were around for that," defensive end Brett Keisel said.
Indeed, 12 of the 22 Steelers' starters, plus kicker Jeff Reed, were on the team that made history in 2005.
One key player from that team who has since retired said the seeds for that run were planted when the Steelers simplified their thinking.
Former running back Jerome Bettis said that following the loss to the Bengals, the Steelers wiped clean a blackboard that had the results of the previous games that season on it as well as the team's goals.
For the rest of the season, Bettis said, the Steelers stayed singularly focused on their next opponent and did not worry about anything else.
"When you go into playoff mode it's one game, and if you lose you're eliminated," said Bettis, who rushed for more than 10,000 yards from 1996-2005 for the Steelers. "You just focus on one game. Hey, we didn't know if we could do it or not, but we didn't have a choice."
The Steelers may not be in that dire of a situation, but they are on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoffs.
They have little chance of winning a third consecutive AFC North title. They are two games behind the Bengals, with Cincinnati also holding the tiebreaker.
If the playoffs started today, the two wild-card spots would go to the Denver Broncos (7-4) and Jacksonville Jaguars (6-5), who have a better conference record than the Steelers and Ravens (6-5).
Bettis said he has no doubt that the Steelers have a run in them similar to the one they made at the end of the 2005 season.
"At one point this season, you had to think they were among the top two or three teams in the NFL," Bettis said. "When you see guys capable of playing like that, they can beat anybody. I don't think there's anybody on their schedule that you look at and say they can't beat."