In the first four installments of 2010: The season in review, the Steelers had overcome a tumultuous offseason, had gone to training camp and come back as a unified, focused team, and they had completed the first half of their regular season with a 6-2 record. All praiseworthy, but the Steelers also realize they were 6-2 the previous year only to have it all unravel with the five-game losing streak that followed. Even though the personnel is virtually identical, these Steelers see themselves as a different team, and they're itching for the matchup against New England at Heinz Field.
Part V looks at the second half of the 2010 regular season
Nov. 10: More bad news, more of the same kind of bad news. It's injury-related bad news. Max Starks, who left the game against the Bengals with what was called a stinger, actually has a disc injury that will require surgery and is season-ending. Now, two starting tackles – Starks and Willie Colon – were on injured reserve, and there is still half of a season to go.
Nov. 12: The 6-2 Steelers will host the Patriots with a re-configured offensive line: Jonathan Scott at left tackle and Ramon Foster at right guard. But the spotlight will be on Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger.
Nov. 14: Brady gets the better of the battle of the quarterbacks, for sure. He passes for 350 yards and three touchdowns, a rating of 117.4, in a 39-26 win over the Steelers that really wasn't that close. Against a New England defense that had been pushed all over the field the previous weekend by the Browns, the Steelers manage three points through three quarters. The biggest shock to many is the way the Steelers defense is unable to do much of anything to stop the Patriots from moving the ball and scoring points. Brady completes 15-of-17 for 161 yards with two touchdowns during the Patriots' first three possessions.
Nov. 15: One day later, Troy Polamalu sums it up. "It's incredibly humbling."
Nov. 16: After what might have been as decisive a defeat as the Steelers have endured since the team hired Mike Tomlin, he responds in definitive fashion. Jeff Reed has been struggling all season after having the franchise tag placed on him, and his invincibility at Heinz Field and from 40-49 yards is over. After missing again against the Patriots and then being critical of the fans and the Heinz Field surface after the loss, Reed is released. Shaun Suisham is signed, and there will be another surprise waiting for the players when they return to the practice facility on Wednesday to start preparing for the Oakland Raiders.
Nov. 17: The Steelers practice in full pads.
Nov. 21: A very good Raiders team comes to Heinz Field, and after Oakland takes a 3-0 lead, the Steelers erupt for 35 points in a win that is every bit as decisive as their loss to the Patriots. The Steelers defense punishes Oakland's running attack, while the offense rolls up a season-high 431 total yards. "Last week was embarrassing," says LaMarr Woodley. "New England kind of walked up and down the field on us, so we wanted to come in here with a new attitude. We're trying to get to the Super Bowl."
Nov. 22: "A win is a win," says James Farrior, "but we definitely wanted to establish our physicality and mental toughness. Last week (after the loss to New England), it got questioned a little bit."
Nov. 23: The only downside to the win over the Raiders were the 14 penalties for 163 yards. "We're not going to get overly concerned about the penalties," says Tomlin. "All we're going to do is play the game extremely hard, play as fairly as we can, play within the rules and play to win."
Nov. 28: With a trip Baltimore looming for control of the AFC North Division, the Steelers go to Buffalo almost lose to a bad Bills team they needed to beat to set up the Ravens game as a virtual winner-take –all. But "almost losing" still is winning, and the Steelers accomplish it with some luck, but they also make some of their own good fortune and escape with a 19-16 win in overtime to set up the showdown in Baltimore. Penalties again are a problem. There are 10 against the Bills, and too many are for offensive holding. Tomlin is annoyed that no offensive holding penalties were called on the Bills.
Nov. 30: It's Ravens week. "I don't think their head coach likes me," says Hines Ward of Baltimore's John Harbaugh. "I tried to shake his hand before we played them the last time. He gave me a fake handshake. He didn't even look at me. That's fine. Whatever."
Dec. 1: In a happening as expected as the sun rising in the west, Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs sticks up for James Harrison during a conference call with the Pittsburgh media. The conversation had turned to the number of fines Harrison had received already. "I don't feel sorry for anybody," begins Suggs, "but I do know (officials) are looking at him more closely than they are looking at anybody else in the league. I think in the referee-world, they kind of re-flagged him."
Dec. 5: Based on just about every statistical category, the game is even, but the Steelers take control of the AFC North Division with a 13-10 win in Baltimore, and it all was because one of their great players makes a great play at a critical moment. Troy Polamalu comes off the blind side and instead of just sacking Joe Flacco, and after LaMarr Woodley recovers the fumble and returns the ball to the 9-yard line, it's Ben Roethlisberger's turn to be great. One play after fighting off Suggs and throwing an incomplete pass to avoid a big loss, Roethlisberger hits Isaac Redman on a third-and-goal for the game-winning touchdown. "A lot of guys would just go in there and sack the quarterback," says Tomlin about Polamalu's play. "He sees the game differently." Takeaways are great, but they only become game-changing if the quarterback converts. Roethlisberger does.
Dec. 6: Ward assesses the Steelers' chances to win the AFC North and thereby earn a first-round bye in the playoffs. "Four games left, it's in our control and we don't need any help. We can't ask for anything better than that." Especially in a season that began with their starting quarterback suspended for the first four games.
Dec. 7: Already having made a change at placekicker, the Steelers will need a new punter after it's revealed Daniel Sepulveda tore an ACL in Baltimore. The new punter will be Jeremy Kapinos.
Dec. 12: The Steelers get one of the wins they need by defeating the Bengals, 23-7, but the victory is a costly one even though they don't realize it at the time. Troy Polamalu turns in a spectacular pick-six in the second quarter, but the stress the play puts on his sore Achilles will hamper him the rest of the season.
Dec. 16: With the Jets set to blow-hard their way into Heinz Field, it becomes apparent that Polamalu won't play.
Dec. 19: Without Polamalu, and without Heath Miller as well, the Steelers lose to the Jets, 22-17, and there is a sense of an opportunity missed. Brad Smith returns the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown, but the Steelers still are in a situation where they have the ball at the Jets 9-yard line for the last two plays of the game. "This win may have surprised a lot of people but it never surprised us," says Jets coach Rex Ryan. "Same old Jets came down to Pittsburgh, got a win."
Dec. 20: A bad Carolina team is coming to Pittsburgh for a Thursday night game, and even though there are a lot of sore players trying to get their bodies for a quick turnaround, Tomlin is keeping his team's eye on the prize – a division title and a bye in the playoffs. "All of the goals we set for ourselves are still attainable, but we've got to play ball this week."
Dec. 23: This is what good teams do against inferior competition. The Steelers move out to a 27-0 lead on the way to a 27-3 win over the Panthers that doesn't put any unnecessary physical stress on them. After the weekend's games end and the Ravens win, the Steelers know they will have to go to Cleveland and win in order to clinch the AFC North and that first-round bye.
Dec. 30: The Steelers vote Troy Polamalu their 2010 MVP, and the only dissenter is … Polamalu. "If I was ever a coach, I would probably never have an award like this just because it's such a team sport. I think people just vote because they have to vote."
Jan. 2: After a week in which there was much opinionating about the importance of the game vis-à-vis Polamalu's health for the run through the playoffs, Tomlin sends another message to his team. All doubt is removed about the way Tomlin sees the Browns game when he starts Troy Polamalu. But the Steelers quickly let everyone watching that they are on the same page as their head coach. It's 31-3 at halftime, and the Steelers roll to the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs with a 41-9 win. Happy New Year.
NEXT: PART VI – The playoffs and Super Bowl XLV