HOUSTON — Presented with a question seeking perspective on what enables the Steelers to maintain an annual standard of excellence, Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin took a micro path toward his answer, one that could reflect his team’s preparation efforts this week.
What the Steelers (11-3) must overcome in advance of their final road game of the season, a Christmas Day tilt against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium, was essentially a double loss last Sunday against the New England Patriots.
Not only did the Steelers blow a fourth-quarter lead and subsequently an opportunity to control home-field advantage for the AFC playoffs, but they also lost Pro Bowl receiver Antonio Brown to a calf injury for the remainder of the regular season.
One day following the defeat, Tomlin refused to give in to any of the discord. There was ample controversy surrounding how the Steelers lost, with a game-winning touchdown wiped off the scoreboard via replay reversal. There was the last-second, red-zone interception tossed by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger when a field goal would have sufficed, with the injury sustained by Brown just enough to send the Steelers into a bit of a tailspin.
However, part of sustained excellence is perseverance in the face of adversity, and when Tomlin relayed how quickly his team moved beyond what happened against the Patriots, it provided a clue as to how the Steelers manage to regularly play their way into championship contention.
“I don’t know that I have the answer to that,” Tomlin said. “Really, we just put all our eggs in the 2017 basket. We don’t waste a lot of time thinking about the things that we’ve happened to have enjoyed in the past or worked to build off of those things. We’re singularly focused on this opportunity with this group, and I think that singular focus helps us probably more than anything.”
Pittsburgh certainly has the depth to push forward without Brown in the interim, particularly given the level of competition the Steelers will face over the final two weeks of the season. (They will host the winless Cleveland Browns in the finale). Roethlisberger might not perform at the elevated level of seasons past, but he has been excellent enough to earn another Pro Bowl nod.
Roethlisberger was one of an NFL-high eight Steelers named to the Pro Bowl on Tuesday. The collection includes Brown, running back Le’Veon Bell, injured linebacker Ryan Shazier, kicker Chris Boswell and offensive linemen Alejandro Villanueva, David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey. Brown will be missed, but Pittsburgh will survive.
“It’s hard to quantify that,” Texans coach Bill O’Brien said of how much the Steelers will miss Brown. “He’s such a great player, and to me, they have other great players. You go through their film, obviously, Ben Roethlisberger — Hall of Fame quarterback, great player. Le’Veon Bell, Martavis Bryant, JuJu (Smith-Schuster), Jesse James. Offensive line’s real good.
“So, do they have guys that can make up for the loss of Antonio Brown? Yes. They’re a very explosive team, but he’s a great player. There’s no doubt about it.”
The adversity facing the Texans (4-10) centered on O’Brien answering questions regarding his future in Houston. With one season remaining on his contract and the bottom having fallen out on his team this season, O’Brien was nevertheless adamant that he is where he wants to be.
Desperate for any positive news, the Texans received some when receiver DeAndre Hopkins and outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney earned their second Pro Bowl selections.
Despite a revolving door at quarterback that included Tom Savage, Deshaun Watson and T.J. Yates as starters, Hopkins has 92 receptions for 1,313 yards and 12 touchdowns, a franchise record. He is first in the NFL in targets (168), tied for fourth in receptions, second in receiving yards and first in receiving touchdowns. Hopkins also was a Pro Bowl pick in 2015.
Clowney will make back-to-back trips to the Pro Bowl. With two games remaining, Clowney has set career highs for sacks (nine), tackles for loss (an AFC-high 20), and quarterback hits (20).
“They deserve it,” O’Brien said. “Those guys have played well this year. They’ve shown up every week and played very hard, played very productively. To be recognized as one of the best players at your position in the NFL is a big deal.”