Back in first place, Steelers look to avoid bye week hangover
A day after the Pittsburgh Steelers jumped to the top of the AFC North without playing a game, coach Mike Tomlin gathered his players to remind them not to take such good fortune for granted.
The bye week is over, and so are the luxuries that accompanied it -- rest, relaxation and losses by the Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals. That was the message after the Steelers returned from their four-day break Monday.
“You can get out of the flow, but coach Tomlin gave us a great speech at the end of practice,” center Maurkice Pouncey said. “You have to come in here ready to go, working your butt off and locked all the way in. You can’t ease into things.”
When the Steelers departed the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex last week, their 3-2-1 record was third in the AFC North, and they were just a game ahead of the last-place Browns. When they returned, they were leading the division with a .583 winning percentage.
Thanks to Ravens kicker Justin Tucker’s last-second missed extra point and the Kansas City Chiefs’ dismantling of the Bengals, the co-leaders entering the weekend now have 4-3 records for a .571 winning percentage. The Browns’ loss to Tampa Bay on a 59-yard field goal in overtime dropped them to 2-4-1.
“I’ll just say I don’t feel bad for them,” cornerback Joe Haden said with a smile.
“It feels good, but we didn’t do anything to get it,” Pouncey added. “Other teams put us in this position, so we have to go out there and keep working and prove our right to it.”
Winners of two in a row before the break, the Steelers play the second of three consecutive games against AFC North competition Sunday when they face the Browns at Heinz Field. It will be a rematch from the season opener, when the Steelers blew a 14-point fourth-quarter lead and played the Browns to a 21-21 tie.
The stretch ends Nov. 4 at Baltimore, which defeated the Steelers, 26-14, in Week 4 at Heinz Field.
In Tomlin’s tenure, the Steelers are 7-4 in the game immediately following their bye week, and they snapped a three-game losing streak in such situations last season when they overcame a 14-point second-half deficit to beat the Indianapolis Colts, 20-17, on a last-second field goal.
Does it help to have a pair of division opponents on the schedule to sharpen the focus?
“It does, but we have to win those, too,” guard Ramon Foster said. “We can’t be sluggish coming out of this bye week. We have to be a team that is red hot, especially these later months.”
The upcoming two weeks also are heightened because the Steelers don’t play another division opponent until Week 17, when the Bengals end the regular season with a visit to Heinz Field.
“There’s no reason to look around and ask any team to do anything for us,” defensive tackle Cameron Heyward said. “We have to handle our business.”
Since the AFC North was formed in 2002, no team has won three consecutive division titles. The Steelers are trying to become the first after finishing 11-5 in 2016 and 13-3 last year. In each season, the Steelers used a strong second-half kick to reach the postseason, winning their final seven regular-season games in 2016 and 10 of 11 last year.
“We’ve got a lot of season left to play,” Foster said. “We are in first place because other teams lost. Our job right now is to continue to win. We’ve got a lot of games coming up that are very important to our season. It’s just a start. We’re in a good spot. We have to control the rest of it.”
Which was the theme of Tomlin’s message after practice.
“You look at every week and treat it the same, put your best foot forward and try to get some Ws and start stacking them,” guard David DeCastro said. “That’s the key. Stack them and create a lead so at the end of the season you can have some comfort in it.”
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