Steelers rounding into form as second half looms
PITTSBURGH (AP) Mike Tomlin isn't interested in progress reports. The final grade is all that matters to the Pittsburgh Steelers head coach. So forgive Tomlin if he's not ready to assess his team or the division it plays in as the season reaches its midway point.
''It's easy to write and tell stories at the turn, I'm not going to,'' he said.
The way Tomlin figures it, if the AFC North is the toughest division in the NFL it'll play out over the next two months. By then the fact Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Baltimore and Cleveland are all over .500 heading into November may be long forgotten.
''I think if we are (the best) it's going to be revealed in the second half of the season,'' he said.
One thing is for certain, however. After a sluggish start the Steelers are in the mix. Pittsburgh (5-3) finally has momentum heading into Sunday's rematch with the rival Ravens (5-3). The Steelers have won two straight for the first time all season and looked every bit the role of contender while dismantling Indianapolis 51-34 last weekend.
Tomlin praised the offensive line, particularly right tackle Mike Adams, for giving quarterback Ben Roethlisberger all the time necessary to pass for a club record 522 yards passing and six touchdowns. Adams filled in capably with starter Marcus Gilbert out with a concussion, helping Roethlisberger get off 49 attempts without getting sacked once.
Though Gilbert will be back in the lineup barring a setback this week, Tomlin's assessment of Adams' play against the Colts might as well double as a status report on a team that spent the first half of the year searching for consistency as it flip-flopped wins and losses regardless of who was on the other side of the field.
''I thought he was a finisher,'' Tomlin said of Adams. ''I just liked his performance. A big arrow pointed up relative to some of his other performances.''
Yet the Steelers are wary of how quickly the arrow can change direction. They felt pretty good about themselves after a road victory at Carolina in Week 3 then followed it up with a still hard to fathom home loss to Tampa Bay.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger believes he leads one of the most talented offenses in the league. The tricky part is trying to get it to perform that way on a weekly basis. After some troubling growing pains, the Steelers appear ready to hit their stride.
While Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell give Pittsburgh one of the best quarterback/wide receiver/running back combinations in the NFL, it's the development of the players around them that has keyed the recent surge.
Rookie receiver Martavis Bryant needed six weeks to earn a spot on the active roster. The 6-foot-4 fourth-round pick has quickly emerged as a valuable target, catching three touchdowns in his first two games. Veteran Lance Moore languished on the depth chart behind Justin Brown but has flourished since moving into the slot position he felt he deserved to hold all along. Second-year wideout Markus Wheaton emerged from a lengthy slump to catch an 18-yard scoring pass from Roethlisberger against Indianapolis that jolted the Steelers to life
Out of the entire group, Bell might be the best pass catcher on the team not named Brown. He already has 42 receptions at the midway point
''We know what we're capable of,'' Bell said. ''We showed everybody. Now we have to go out there and put performance on top of performance.''
It's what Tomlin calls ''stacking wins.'' How high the pile becomes will depend on if the offense can finish drives the way it did against Indianapolis - when five of six red zone possessions ended in touchdowns - and if the defense can create even a little bit of chaos.
That hasn't happened with any regularity so far, though there were flashes against the Colts. The Steelers sacked Andrew Luck twice and sent him to the turf so often Colt's pristine No. 12 white jersey was a decidedly darker shade by game's end. Pittsburgh will need to keep the pressure on to compensate for a secondary that struggles to stay in front of anyone.
Cortez Allen's rise to the role of shutdown corner has come to an abrupt stop. Luck picked on Allen repeatedly, with most of the passes resulting in big plays or penalties. It's not what the Steelers had in mind when they signed Allen to a five-year extension on the eve of the season opener. While Tomlin stresses he has confidence Allen can bounce back, Allen will need a good week of practice just to start against the Ravens.
''Often times he's in position ... but positioning is just an element of it,'' Tomlin said. ''You've got to finish.''
A message sure to resonate throughout a locker room eager for a return to the postseason after a two-year absence.
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