Steelers coach Mike Tomlin knows what it's like to be a team with a target on your back after winning Super Bowl XLIII. You are the hunted, while every opponent is the hunter, bringing their "A-game" week after week, wanting to defeat the defending champion.
This week the Steelers will be hunter when they play the New York Giants, the defending Super Bowl champs, at MetLife Stadium on Sunday. The Giants have been strong in their attempt to defend their title, with a 6-2 record and balance on both sides of the ball.
"That is varsity football, as we say in our business," said Tomlin. "Looking at what they have done this year, it's equally as impressive. They are 6-2. They've won their last four games. They do things that winning teams do."
Tomlin didn't hold back when painting a picture of what the Giants do well, outlining their strengths and making it apparent the Steelers have quite the challenge ahead of them.
"They protect their quarterback," said Tomlin. "Eli Manning has been sacked six times on the season. They get after opposing quarterbacks. I think they've taken them down 21 times. They take care of the football. Their opponents have turned the ball over twice as many times as they have or more than that. I think their opponents have turned it over 24 times and they've only turned it over 11 times. That's a recipe for winning football."
While it might seem like a lot to contend with, Tomlin welcomes these types of challenges to see how his team will respond.
"They do what is required," said Tomlin. "They have a bunch of guys that have been on big stages. They know how to win. They are very well coached. They have a stable work environment.
"We are looking forward to measuring ourselves against a group like this. We need this challenge. Obviously, we won the last time we were on the road. That has been an issue for us in the past. We anticipate this environment being a hostile one, as it should be. Hopefully we are up to the task."
Antonio Brown had a 78-yard punt return nullified by an illegal block penalty, but on the play he was also flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after turning around and running backwards from the 20-yard line into the end zone.
"I not only spoke to Antonio, but I spoke to our team about it," said Tomlin. "Briefly, simply what I said is that it was not respectable. Those of us that know Antonio and watch him work on a day to day basis…if one word describes him professionally it's respectable. How he prepares, what he's willing to do, what kind of teammate he is, and that's represented in his play. That's the way we approached it.
"I thought it was an awesome learning opportunity for the entire group because, as professionals, I think that's a word everyone would want to describe their play. I think people that don't see you work on a day to day basis are capable of making judgments about you personally and professionally based on what they see, so we want to do what's respectable. That's what we talked about and kind of moved on."
The Steelers reinstated rookie nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu from the reserved/suspended list on Monday, but currently have a roster exemption for him. Tomlin said no decision has been made yet as to what the team will do once the exemption expires.
"We'll deal with that," said Tomlin. "We have a couple days exemption from the league. We're going to do what's best for us professionally here in an effort to win this game this weekend. He's still in play. We've got a decision to make and we'll make it at the appropriate time."