USA TODAY US Edition
Steelers believe their ‘story’s not set in stone’
PITTSBURGH – The veterans in the Steelers’ locker room aren’t used to fielding these types of questions – about being two games under .500 and trying to stop a season from slipping away. It’s a weird situation, they admit. Different.
“It just kind of is what it is,” two-time All-Pro offensive lineman David DeCastro said.
In a league that preaches parity, nobody on this Steelers’ roster has experienced a losing season in Pittsburgh – mostly because there hasn’t been one since 2003, the year before the team drafted quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
As other franchises have gone through full tear downs and rebuilds, or perhaps just varying degrees of painful mediocrity, Pittsburgh has become an outlier. In the 19-year span since 2000, the other 31 teams in the NFL have had about eight losing seasons apiece, on average. The Steelers have had one, and they’ve missed the playoffs only seven times in that span. Only New England has won with more consistency.
It’s why there’s little evidence of panic, or consternation, around the Steelers, even though Roethlisberger is out for the season with an elbow injury and they’re at 2-4 ahead of their Monday night matchup against the Dolphins.
“I don’t think it’s any different than if we were 4-2,” DeCastro said of the team’s mindset. “Yeah, it sucks. You lose a guy like Ben, who we’ve had since I’ve been here, for the season. But there’s nothing you can do about it except go to work.”
Monday’s game isn’t expected to be particularly close; the Steelers are 14point favorites at home. But it is emblematic, in a way, of the diverging routes that some teams take in an attempt to win.
The Dolphins are in the midst of what can only be described as a down-to-the-studs rebuild. They traded away several key players, including now-Steelers cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick, to stockpile draft picks. They signed a journeyman quarterback (Ryan Fitzpatrick) with the implicit hope they will have a chance to draft a potential star in the 2020 draft. And they have a new head coach, Brian Flores, trying to implement a new culture – just like Adam Gase before him, and Joe Philbin before that.
Miami’s approach stands in stark contrast to the situation in Pittsburgh, which has famously had only three head coaches since 1969. There’s consistency across the staff, in the front office, in the locker room – and, subsequently, in the expectations.
“I think if you have a winning culture as early as (the Steelers) have, it breeds over to other things,” nine-year veteran Cameron Heyward said. “As leadership continues to change and guys go from (on the team) to retirement, other guys step up. And it’s an expectation, when you put on that jersey, that you want to win.”
Defensive lineman Tyson Alualu said that culture was one of the things that drew him to Pittsburgh when he was a free agent in 2017. Over seven seasons in Jacksonville, he played for five head coaches and with seven starting quarterbacks. Then he visited Pittsburgh at the behest of his agent and met coaches who had been there for decades and players who stayed for eight to 12 years at a time. He was blown away.
“I came from a team where you see (turnover) like almost every week. When you’re losing, that kind of happens,” said Alualu, who signed a second contract with Pittsburgh last spring. “So coming here and seeing how things are run, it kind of let me know that’s how you can be successful and be contenders in this league – doing things the right way and not just kind of seeing it from a business perspective of what’s best for the organization moneywise.”
The Steelers hope that consistency, which has become a defining characteristic of the franchise, will help them climb out of the hole they’ve dug themselves approaching the midway point of the season.
After losing a 33-3 blowout to the Patriots in Week 1, they’ve dropped three close games – to Seattle, San Francisco and Baltimore – by a combined nine points. A win over Miami would bring them within a game of .500.
“We’re really starting to jell well as an offense,” said Mason Rudolph, who will be back under center Monday after missing a game with a concussion. “I think this is a special group and we’re right back in this hunt. I think we’re going to start making a run.”
It’s possible, though unlikely, that such a run could lift Pittsburgh back into playoff contention. Of the teams since the merger that started 2-4, about 9% went on to reach the playoffs.
But with a three-game homestand on the way and four division matchups left on the schedule, the Steelers are optimistic.
“The story’s not set in stone,” Heyward said. “Maybe we just got hit with our bug early. Hopefully we can turn it around.”