'It means a lot'

Posted Jan 1, 2018

Franchise sacks record highlights regular-season finale.

Winning the game was still the objective, no matter who had been designated inactive, but it’s the record that will be remembered.

“It means a lot,” defensive end and defensive captain Cam Heyward said of the six sacks the Steelers collected in Sunday afternoon’s 28-24 win over the Browns, a bounty that pushed their 2017 total to a franchise single-season record 56.

“A lot of great defenses have come in here and never done that. It’s a congratulations to the whole group, not one guy. Everybody contributed to this and we like it that way, they can’t just double (-team) one person.

“Hopefully, we can take it into the playoffs and set some new records.”

The Steelers had 55 sacks in 1994 and again in 2001.

“There have been a lot of really great teams and great players come through this organization, rookie outside linebacker T.J. Watt said. “To be able to come together as a unit and do that,  we’ve had DBs, linebackers, D-line, everybody be able to get sacks.

“We also have to give credit to the guys in coverage who don’t always get credit for the sacks. Without those guys covering the back end we wouldn’t be able to get to that number.”

Heyward watched from the sideline as a healthy scratch. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le’Veon Bell, center Maurkice Pouncey and guard David DeCastro were also designated inactive to protect them from potential injury.

Linebacker L.J. Fort and safety Sean Davis each recorded their first sack of the season against Cleveland.

The Steelers had 15 players combine for their 56 sacks this season, led by Heyward’s 12.

“I’m happy for my guys,” Heyward said. “To go down in history and say in 2017 we set the record for sacks in Steelers history is awesome.”

ON TO THE PLAYOFFS: Cornerback William Gay had a message for no one in particular as he made his way from the field to the locker room.

“Now the real party begins.”

The Steelers are unquestionably approaching the upcoming postseason with enthusiasm.

“There have been times in the past, I’m not going to lie, that you go into the playoffs and you’re  like, ‘Let’s just hope we can get through this game,’ because you have injuries and you have things going on,” Roethlisberger said. “This is one of those years that you’re excited about the postseason.”

There are multiple reasons Roethlisberger feels that way about this season’s playoffs.

“We have experience, I think that’s a very important thing, but there’s a no-panic kind of feeling around the group,” he continued. “There’s been a handful of games where we had to kind of come back or win it late or whatever it was, and guys just never panicked. There was never a worry, it was like ‘we can do this, we’re fine.’

“That’s big going into the postseason.”

Roethlisberger also maintains the Steelers are better equipped to sustain injury along the way this time.

“I think so,” he said. “Against Houston (on Dec. 25), that’s a good defense at their place, we didn’t have ‘A.B.’ (wide receiver Antonio Brown), we put up 30-something points (in a 34-6 win). We weren’t at our best but we were still pretty good. We’re equipped to handle that because we have so many good players.

“The biggest thing up front is the line. If they can stay healthy I feel confident that we can overcome pretty much anything.”

ALL-FOR-ONE MENTALITY: The Steelers will be playing to win the franchise’s seventh Lombardi Trophy in the postseason, and they’ll be playing for each other.

“I just know that we’re a super-close team and we fight for each other, and I can say that for all the positional groups,” offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert said. “If you have a guy in your fox hole that’s not willing to let you down on any given play, we’re going to finish to the very end.”

UNWAVERING FOCUS: That closeness was fostered, in part, the Steelers believe, by the adversity and potential distraction the Steelers dealt with on a consistent basis along the way.

Whether it was running back Le’Veon Bell’s decision to skip training camp, the national anthem controversy in Chicago, wide receiver Martavis Bryant’s early-season frustrations and the related fallout on social media, linebacker Ryan Shazier’s injury or linebacker James Harrison’s release, the Steelers didn’t allow themselves to become deterred.

“There were a few times this year it felt like it was us against everybody,” guard Ramon Foster said. “We’ve had a lot of stuff go on, on and off the field, and guys have just pushed through like it was nothing. That builds toughness, it brings tightness and you feel thick as thieves. The offense, the defense and the special teams, they actually like each other. Guys communicate off the field. There are so many group chats of offensive players with defensive players, or the communication we have with the specialists, it’s closer than I’ve ever seen.

“It doesn’t mean anything unless we keep it going but, damn, there aren’t many other teams that could have sustained that. Lose a player here and there, a breaking story here and there, and guys have fought through.

“I don’t think it’s bothered anybody. Something might have lingered on an off day, a Monday or a Tuesday. But Wednesday, when practice started, it ended for us all. I think it’s a testament to how mentally strong guys are and how guys realize that the only thing that can stop us is us.”  

EYES ON THE PRIZE: The Steelers will also enter the postseason hoping to take another step, as they have in recent postseasons. After reaching the first round in 2014, the second round in 2015 and the AFC Championship Game last season, there’s just one step left to take.

“We’re getting older, more mature,” Gilbert said. “We see what’s in front of us. When you’re that close to tasting a Lombardi Trophy, even getting there to the Super Bowl, it makes you want to come back and be great and get there again. Each year we got a lot closer. This is the time we really dig our cleats in the ground and hit fast, hit hard and try to push our way to this championship game in Minnesota.”

HE SAID IT: “I’m just really excited to be here. It’s not even about Cleveland anymore. It’s just about my new situation and I’m very happy, extremely blessed to be where I’m at right now. I don’t take it for granted at all. I’m just soaking it all up.” _ cornerback Joe Haden.