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Tim Benz: Steelers finally play like ‘pros’ in victory

October 12, 2018

Sunday’s game against the Atlanta Falcons was another one of those “games the Steelers always win.”

Pittsburgh was hosting a struggling NFC team in a game the Steelers needed to win before falling way behind in the playoff race.

The Steelers entered the game 27-6-1 against NFC foes at Heinz Field. They haven’t been 0-3 at home since 1986.

But the Steelers had lost these games already this year. The Kansas City game was one of them. They usually beat the Chiefs. It was the home opener. And the Steelers were coming off that dud of a tie in Cleveland.

The Ravens game qualified as one of those “games they always win,” too. The Steelers are usually great in primetime. They usually beat the Ravens in those situations at Heinz Field. They usually don’t get behind like this in the division.

But the 2018 Steelers hadn’t won the “games they always win.” The gut-check games at home at Heinz Field. The momentum-shifters that get them back on track.

This time they did.

The Steelers blew out the visiting Falcons, 41-17, to get their record back to 2-2-1 and avoid falling into desperation mode.

Actually, they might have been in desperation mode already. They should have been.

“That’s ‘desperately’ trying to find a story, isn’t it?” center Maurkice Pouncey quipped when I asked him if the Steelers played with a sense of desperation this week.

I don’t know? Is it? Going 0-3 at home, with just one win through five games could’ve been an early death sentence for a supposed Super Bowl contender.

“I’m going to give you what you want, man,” Pouncey said with a relenting sigh. “It was desperate. We needed that.”

Defensive end Cameron Heyward wanted to parse the language. But he seemed to agree with the sentiment.

“I don’t like to use desperation,” Heyward said. “But I liked the urgency.”

According to Heyward, that urgency manifested in practice as much as it did Sunday.

“We had a good week of practice,” Heyward said. “Every week is different. But the level of detail really picked up this week.

“Our practice habits were very good this week. A sense of execution.”

We haven’t heard that kind of characterization much this year. Tackle Marcus Gilbert said he sensed a high level of “buy-in” to the coaches’ message heading into the Atlanta game.

Players try to live the “one game at time” cliche. But my guess is the reality of their situation must have been sinking in.

“It’s just a sense of being a damned pro, honestly,” guard Ramon Foster said. “Our coaches put in a lot of time with game plans and practices. And we’ve got to be professional about our approach to it. We’ve got to be professional in how we play. How we practice. The penalties. The execution.

“And this week, in particular, it was like ‘Be who we are.’ It’s not just going to happen. We have to make it happen.”

That might be how the sense of desper ... OK, sorry fellas ... sense of “urgency” coalesced in terms of attitude and execution from the players. That appeared to occur with the coaches, as well.

Mike Tomlin and his assistants didn’t stubbornly try to keep with what wasn’t working. They have been inclined to get away from James Conner in close games after halftime. On Sunday, though, he got 13 touches in the second half.

Joe Haden normally doesn’t follow receivers around the field. In this case, he did against Julio Jones. Atlanta’s star wideout had just five catches for 62 yards. Most of those numbers came after the game was decided.

The Steelers attacked the line of scrimmage more often than they did in the last few weeks. Mike Hilton and Sean Davis blitzed a lot, even occasionally on run downs. T.J. Watt appeared to rush the quarterback instead of being dropped into coverage often. As a result, Watt had three sacks.

Athletes hate it when you suggest desperation comes into play. It connotes failure occurred somewhere along the way to set up do-or-die circumstances.

Sometimes, though, being desperate isn’t bad.

Ask the 2002 Steelers, who made a quarterback change two-and-a-half games into a season that followed a 13-3 campaign. They won a division crown.

Ask the 2005 Super Bowl Steelers. They won four in a row at the end of the regular season just to qualify for the playoffs.

Ask the 2016 club that won seven in a row to close the regular season after starting 4-5. They went to the AFC championship game.

When things are going right for the Steelers, they have the look of a team that always plays desperate, even if it doesn’t have to.

Maybe that’s why they finally won one of these games “they always do” even though they hadn’t in their first two tries this season.

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