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Week 18 holds promise and pitfalls

He was talking about what had happened to facilitate the team's victory over the Ravens that put them in a situation where the playoffs remain a possibility heading into Week 18. But he just as easily could have been delivering a message about what needs to happen this week in the run-up to Sunday's date with the Browns to put themselves in position to take advantage of that opportunity.

"I think we all had an understanding of what type of game we were going into, the gravity of it, the style of play that was going to transpire," said Coach Mike Tomlin during his Tuesday news conference at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. "I just appreciate the guys' ability to absorb that, to understand that, to prepare accordingly to put a plan into action, whether schematics or fundamentals relative to the challenge … I just thought our guys did a really good job of embracing that component of it."

As a result of their 16-13 victory in Baltimore, coupled with New England defeating Miami, the Steelers have the opportunity to prepare for a meaningful regular season finale against the Browns, and they will do so knowing nothing short of another victory will further their case for a spot in the postseason.

Unlike most of the other professional sports that conduct playoffs under a system where a single loss isn't necessarily fatal, professional football's postseason road is one containing a succession of win-or-go-home obstacles. Because the Steelers dug themselves a 2-6 hole to begin this regular season, their margin for error essentially has been non-existent for the last month, and they haven't even qualified yet.

But this week, the culmination of which will be Sunday's do-or-die engagement with the Browns, "essentially" will be removed from the equation for the number of young players who will be experiencing this for the first time as professionals, or for the first time in a Steelers uniform.

"I haven't really paid a lot of attention to it, to be quite honest with you," said Tomlin when asked about the players' readiness to handle the uptick in intensity. "I'm more concerned with how I display how I handle it. A lot of young players don't have a mode. They come into work trying to figure out what the mode is. And so those of us who are experienced, those of us who lead, we better focus on displaying what it is we want from the young people as opposed to just trying to ascertain where they are."

The Steelers and the Browns will commence hostilities at 1 p.m. on Sunday, the same scheduled kickoff time for the other contingencies that have to fall in their favor for the lights to remain on when it comes to their season. Tomlin was clear when asked about the free flow of out-of-town scores during that time period.

"That happens every weekend," said Tomlin. "It's just less relevant to us in Week 1 and Week 2, but every week when you kick off at 1 p.m., there's another game going on, and the outcome of that game could affect your positioning. I'm one to usually carry urgency from Week 1 through the end so that I'm not living in that world. I just think it's the scarcity in our game, in football. You get 17 opportunities to state a case for yourself, and it's my job to continually educate our guys on the significance of that, not only now, but continually. And we have. So, we acknowledge where we are, we acknowledge we had a lot to do with it, we're willing to lay in the bed that we've made. But more importantly than that, we're going to stay focused on the work that we have an opportunity to affect. And that's the world that we live in this week."

This weekend will determine four of the 14 participants in the upcoming playoffs – two in each conference – but that means 10 teams already have clinched their spots. And the coaches of those teams might flirt with the opportunity to rest some sore bodies, while the Steelers have to face a week of focused preparation and cap it with a winning performance. Is a re-charged battery preferable to the muscle memory associated with lather-rinse-repeat?

"Does it matter? Really? Does it matter?" said Tomlin. "If there's a preference as it pertains to the playoffs, I'd simply prefer to be a team on the rise. And I just think a team that's playing better ball increasingly is a team that you want to be. All that other stuff, you just want in."

Sharing his emotions: Coach Mike Tomlin spoke from the heart during his press conference on Tuesday, talking about Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin, who according to a statement from the Bills suffered a cardiac arrest after making a tackle in Monday night's game against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Tomlin and Hamlin have a relationship that goes back to when Hamlin was just a 12-year-old playing sports in the Pittsburgh and McKees Rocks areas and continued when he played at the University of Pittsburgh.

"Man, it's a really personal thing for me being a Pittsburgher and that young man being a Pittsburgher," said Tomlin. "I've known that guy, probably since he was about 12. I just got a lot of respect and love for him as a human being, his commitment to the pursuit of his goals and dreams of doing what it is he's doing right now which is playing in the NFL. To watch him make personal decisions and make that a realization. It's just an honor to get to know young people like that. I had an opportunity to express that to him whenever I see him. We've played Buffalo each of the last two seasons and he and I get to have a moment.

"It's just cool to not only appreciate these guys in terms of where they are now, but to know them since they were younger people and to watch their maturation, their development. To watch them earn what they've been chasing. It's just really a cool thing. He's an example of that.

"I got a lot of love for that young man. We lift him and that organization up in prayer."

Tomlin, who said he hasn't had any discussions with his players regarding it yet as Tuesday is their day off, has reached out to Bills Coach Sean McDermott to offer him support.

"I've reached out to Sean McDermott to lend whatever assistance I could," said Tomlin. "I respect the fact that you guys appreciate how personal it is for me, not only for me, but for all of us. As people that thrive in this space, that's not obviously something that you ever want to see."

Stopping the run: The Steelers harped on stopping the Ravens rushing attack last week, and this week the topic is the same as stopping the Cleveland Browns run game is a must if the black and gold want to come out on top this week.

In their first meeting this season, a Week 3 loss to Cleveland, the Browns rushed for 171 yards, with Nick Chubb rushing for 113 yards on 23 carries and Kareem Hunt adding 47 yards on 12 carries.

Stopping the two is going to be a must this week and it's not an easy task.

"When you're getting ready for Cleveland, you got to respect their run game and specifically, Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt," said Tomlin. "They got to be a top tandem in football, and they need no endorsement from me. Their tape and their resume speak to that. We got to do a good job there. They won the attrition game last time we played. Fatigue became a factor as the game wore on. You can just look at the number of short yardage opportunities they had in the second half. I think they went third and one five times in the second half. And that just kind of speaks to how the game is going."

Tomlin said it wasn't just about converting the third-and-one situations, but rather how effective the Browns ground game was to put them in those situations.

"It speaks to efficient run game that puts you in manageable third downs," said Tomlin. "Somebody's got five third and ones in a half, you're not going to have a good half of play. You're not going to have a good half of play from a getting off the field perspective, time of possession perspective, any of those discussions because again, every time they get that yard, they get a new set of downs and so third down is a component of it.

"What tees up those third downs, that attrition component in the game, is going to be a big component. It always is when you play the Cleveland Browns, and they have Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. When they get in third one and two, man you're dead. They can run it, they can throw it, they can do whatever it is they want to do under those circumstances and so that has our attention."

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