'Steelers left soul-searching after 0-3 start to season'
'Steelers margin for error vanishes during 0-3 start'
'Steelers fall to 0-3 behind struggling offense'
Those were the headlines after Week 3 of the 2019 season.
And those were some of the nicer ones.
The comments from the fans, let's just say in the interest of people of all ages reading this, we'll steer clear of those. But to say they were less than complimentary would flat out be the understatement of the year.
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Fast forward a few months.
'How the Steelers can make the playoffs'
'Don't look now, but the Steelers are right back in it'
'Steelers ride ball-hawking defense into playoff position.'
Those are the headlines as of late. And they are the more subdued ones, the ones not over-touting the Steelers.
And that fan reaction, it's safe to say the tone has changed considerably. And that is no understatement.
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After starting the season 0-3, and 1-4 after five games, many had lost faith in the Steelers 2019 season. From media to fans, from talk shows to social media, everyone was on the hot seat, everyone was being criticized and there was little belief.
But inside the walls of the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, from the players to the coaches to the front office, it was the one place where hope was never lost. There were no panic buttons being pushed, no reason for despair. And it's paid off. Today the team is 8-5 and in the AFC wild card playoff race, with a playoff spot held if the season were to end today as show below.
|AFC Division Leaders||Record|
|New England Patriots||10-3|
|Kansas City Chiefs||9-4|
|AFC Wild Card||Record|
|AFC Teams In The Hunt||Record|
And it's all because the one thing the team had, the organization had, was faith and a belief in each other while those on the outside doubted.
"Nothing ever changed inside this locker room," said Bud Dupree. "Like Coach (Mike) Tomlin said, we never blinked. We kept going the whole time. There are a lot of tight knit guys, guys that care about each other, guys that care about each other's family, not just as a football player, but a person on and off the field. We are friends on this team. It's the whole locker room.
"It's a lot of different stuff we had to fix. We went out and fixed it. As a defensive unit we took it upon ourselves to go out and help the offense as much as we could. We knew what they were going through on that side of the ball. We all came together. Became more of a unit. We are just trying to make sure our arrow keeps pointing up right now."
It would have been easy to throw in the towel, because, hey many outside the walls of the facility threw in their Terrible Towels. But if anyone in the locker room did that, they would be letting each other down. And that is something they would never do.
"Talk about overcoming adversity. That is a prime example of it," said James Washington. "We have been through a lot this year with injuries and guys getting hurt. It's like a blessing for us to be where we are. We worked hard. Blood sweat and tears have got us to where we are.
"It was about the camaraderie. We are all brothers. Everyone on this team is close. Everyone is confident. We all have a feel for each other, I can attest to that."
That camaraderie, that brotherhood is something that shouldn't be underestimated. It goes a long way and the players in the locker room have a tight bond that is a family. And it played a huge role when players started to be lost to injuries, from Ben Roethlisberger, to Stephon Tuitt, and even JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner for a while, just to name a few. Plus the change at quarterback from Mason Rudolph to Devlin Hodges. It could all have made for the perfect recipe for disaster that a lesser group of individuals could have fallen prey to. But not this team. No way. No how.
"Everybody believes in each other," said Jaylen Samuels. "We had a lot of tough times with injuries and guys going down, but it's always been the next man up mentality. Everybody has been responding good to it. We had a couple of games where we let down, but then we bounced back. We have to keep it going.
"You have to believe in each other. Injuries, the quarterback change, that is having trust in each other, believing in each other, going out there and making plays. You can tell. We are having fun. The defense is making turnovers. The offense is having fun. We are celebrating when the defense makes a turnover. We are all having fun out there and that is the main thing."
Having fun is something they are definitely doing.
It's the offensive linemen going to Maurkice Pouncey's house every week, with all players always invited to join in, for a night of good food and good conversation.
It's the silliness and competitiveness of players gathering around a small Binho Board, a simple soccer like game, and competing against each other in a fun way.
"It's another way to relate outside of football," said T.J. Watt, who brought the game in. "Football is an amazing game, we all come from different backgrounds. But to play a silly little game in the locker room, guys who wouldn't spend time outside of football are spending time playing Binho. It's all fun."
And it's stuff Tomlin encourages, embraces and welcomes because he knows how important that bond is among the players and it's something he fosters.
"Coach Tomlin is the major role behind all of this turnaround," said Dupree. "He kept us afloat the whole time, kept our head above water, even when we almost drown. There are so many words you can say about Coach Tomlin in this situation, making it happen the way he did."
The way he did, was with that same approach that he had from Day 1. Never blinking.
"He was staying positive, holding everybody accountable, making sure everybody is doing the right thing," said Samuels. "He has been poised and staying positive."