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Harris: Tomlin shouldn't have lost faith in veterans

| Monday, Dec. 28, 2009

See, Mike Tomlin. This is why you don't hang your football team out to dry with four games left in the season.

Steelers 23, Baltimore 20.

You don't throw dirt on your players, no matter how angry you may be at the time, because they're the defending Super Bowl champions.

They might not be what you want them to be, but they're not as bad as you wanted us to believe following the 27-24 loss to Oakland on Dec. 6.

Let's face it. Your Steelers aren't as good as they were a year ago -- injuries, poor play and bad luck saw to that.

Still, at 8-7, they're in mathematical contention for a playoff berth if they win next week's regular-season finale at Miami and the football gods smile upon them as they did at critical times during Sunday's nail-biter against the Ravens at Heinz Field.

"We never lost confidence. We're champions. We know what it feels like to be champions," said veteran nose tackle Casey Hampton, who has played his best this season down the stretch. "We know what we're capable of doing when we play to the best of our ability."

On the one hand, Tomlin's critical eye toward his players -- and his defense in particular -- may have sparked yesterday's must-win. I'm sure that's what he would like for us to believe.

On the other hand, the Steelers are a prideful group led by veterans who know how to take a punch. When backed into a corner, they came out swinging.

"It shows the character of this team and our leadership," said defensive co-captain James Farrior, who had eight tackles and an interception that set up the Steelers' first field goal yesterday. "We've had a rough season. We haven't played as well as we wanted.

"We feel these last couple of weeks if we can get these wins, we can redeem ourselves and sort of get this ship righted."

Farrior is typical of the Steelers' veteran leadership. At 34, he leads the team in tackles and has recorded 100-plus tackles for the seventh consecutive year.

Farrior has heard the talk about him losing a step in pass coverage. It's true. He's not as fast as he was a year ago.

But nobody's heart is bigger. Farrior is a gamer. If he can walk, he can play.

Next Sunday's game at Miami will mark the fourth consecutive season in which he has started every game.

Do the defending Super Bowl champions need to redeem themselves for losing five games in a row and all but knocking themselves out of the playoff race?

"For us, more than anything, we wanted to prove it to ourselves," Farrior said. "There are a lot of people out there saying we can't do it. This is basically the playoffs for us. It's win or go home. That's our attitude right now."

The Steelers' veteran leadership is personified in 34-year-old cornerback Deshea Townsend.

Townsend was a starting cornerback in 2008, but he lost his job because of injury and has been relegated to backup/nickel back status.

When Tomlin promised lineup changes a few weeks ago, Townsend's name wasn't in the mix. He was passed over for rookie Joe Burnett, who didn't get the job done. When starter William Gay struggled, Tomlin deferred to the veteran against Baltimore.

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Look for No. 26 in the starting lineup against Miami.

"It's about doing your job, staying humble, waiting on your opportunity," Townsend said. "My thing is to do whatever for the team. When coach told me earlier in the week, I was very excited for the opportunity to help our team win. To play 60 minutes, it's all about getting that timing back, getting in the flow of the game."

Townsend was reunited with cornerback Ike Taylor, who had a fumble recovery and his first career sack against the Ravens.

"Ike had an excellent game," said Townsend, who finished with seven tackles. "I think he was excited to see me out there. It was a great feeling to have -- me and Ike back at corner."

Tomlin selected his words carefully after the Steelers won their second straight.

What was once a bad football team has suddenly become a fortuitous one.

"I know that sometimes when you lose, you look for deeper reasons why, but every week, I come up here and tell you it's a play here or a play there. You've got to make significant plays at significant moments," Tomlin said. "When we've lost, it's because we haven't. When we won, it's because we have."

Townsend views the Steelers' season with a veteran's wisdom.

Where it was once easier for others to doubt the defending champions, Townsend said the players never lost faith.

"We haven't been getting some of the breaks that we got today," Townsend said. "That's how the ball bounces. Fortunately, it finally bounced our way."

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