The Steelers have won two games in a row, and four of their last five. They have a nine-game winning streak in December that dates back to 2013, and since the Mike Tomlin era began in 2007, they are 24-12 (.667) in the month many in the NFL see as the most critical of the NFL calendar.
That run of success has been born from the most basic of approaches, one that even rivals "one game at a time." Call it, "working to get better, one day at a time."
"We're excited about the process of readying ourselves for this game. Can't wait to get the guys back in here and continue to work to get better," said Coach Mike Tomlin during his news conference today at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. "We acknowledge we're in the middle of that process. It is December. We understand that, but we also understand we better be a group that's continually arrow-pointed-up in spite of what time of year it is, because the challenges are going to get stiffer. We've got a stiff one this week."
The Steelers are 8-5 in an AFC where this season it seems as though the teams competing for the playoffs all are on winning streaks, or versions of winning streaks. The Kansas City Chiefs have won seven in a row after losing five of their first six; the New York Jets have won three in a row, and four of their last six. Typically, NFL teams seem to gravitate toward 8-8 records as parity and injuries exact their influence, but this year – in the AFC at least – there are teams separating themselves from the pack down the homestretch of the regular season.
The Steelers' most recent outing came last Sunday in Cincinnati against a Bengals team that began the day as the AFC's No. 1 seed in the playoff chase, a Bengals team that was the No. 1 seed over the more established New England Patriots and Denver Broncos. In that game, which was a chippy and physical affair throughout, the Steelers were better on third downs, more efficient in the red zone, and plus-2 in turnover ratio while hanging a 33-20 defeat on a team whose two previous losses had come by a combined seven points.
"A lot of positive things to build off," admitted Tomlin in assessing the Steelers' most recent outing, "but as we face this week's challenge you don't need a lot to inspire you. Just the challenges that the NFL provides to you at this time of the year is enough for us."
The challenge the NFL provides to the Steelers at the end of this week is the Denver Broncos, a 10-3 team that's 6-1 on the road and will roll into Heinz Field with a defense that ranks No. 1 in the NFL in seven different categories, including points allowed per game, and is No. 2 in red zone efficiency, and No. 3 in third down conversions allowed.
"We have to minimize negativity," said Tomlin about the approach to the Broncos defense. "Before we talk about any of the positive things we're capable of doing, or the ways we choose to attack them, we just need to acknowledge how dangerous this (defense) is, and for us to have a winning performance we have to minimize negativity, and the type of negativity their defense is capable of creating."
One way a team can create negativity for itself is with penalties, and the Steelers have had 73 penalties accepted by their opponents through 13 games, which is the fewest of any team in the league in 2015. Tomlin's approach to that facet of the game falls in line with his stated goal of having the Steelers be "a group that's continually arrow-pointed-up in spite of what time of year it is."
"We try to attack it on several fronts," said Tomlin. "We try to be very fundamental in our techniques, and we continue to teach and preach that daily, even at this time of the year. We've got a young group in a lot of ways, and we're never going to turn the page from that in terms of growing and developing from a technical standpoint – hand usage, etc. Then also we highlight that with our utilization of officials in a practice setting. That has aided us in terms of practicing with good habits and the right way that will allow us to keep the penalties down. We're not perfect. We're going to be penalized, We have been penalized. But largely, I would like us to be less penalized than those we compete against."
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE
"Mike Mitchell sustained a shoulder injury. We'll monitor him throughout the week and let his availability from a practice participation standpoint be our guide. We anticipate it's just going to be uncomfortable in that framework. Other bumps and bruises associated with playing, there were a few guys who came back from injury (to play against the Bengals): Heath Miller, no ill effects of his rib injury; Ryan Shazier, Matt Spaeth, no ill effects outside the norm for the knee injuries they're playing through."