NFL Teams
Dan Graziano, ESPN Staff Writer 359d

3-1 Steelers haven't peaked: Why not Pittsburgh in Super Bowl LII?

BALTIMORE -- Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Baltimore Ravens turned out to be something of a drab undercard Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium. The real fight was Antonio Brown vs. the Gatorade cooler.

Yes, the most memorable moment of Pittsburgh’s 26-9 victory over the offensively challenged Ravens came in the second quarter, with the Steelers leading 3-0 and after an incomplete Ben Roethlisberger pass to Le’Veon Bell on third-and-4. Brown, the Steelers’ brilliant No. 1 wideout, had abused his man on a double move and was wide open for what would have been a 64-yard touchdown catch if Roethlisberger had so much as looked his way.

Brown did not take it well.

He stomped. He flailed his arms. He shook his head in disbelief. When he got back to the sideline, he took his frustrations out on that poor Gatorade cooler and shooed away offensive coordinator Todd Haley when Haley came over to settle him down.

"It's like a kid being excited on Christmas," Brown explained later. "You're expecting that play on that day. Sometimes, it doesn't work out. We won the game today."

Brown's was the kind of behavior that, had it come from someone like the Giants' Odell Beckham Jr., would have launched a week's worth of hand-wringing hot takes about maturity and sideline decorum. Had it come in a Steelers loss, it might have risen to the level of a problem. It didn't, in part because they won but also because this is a Steelers team that sees a bigger picture. They're 3-1 now, with a head-to-head road victory in their pockets over their closest competitor. They were well aware, following the game, that the Patriots had lost at home. These Steelers know who they are, what they expect of themselves and what they want to accomplish together. So what happened with Brown is a blip on a radar screen in which the outer edge stretches to Minnesota and Super Bowl LII.

"Hey, we've just got to keep climbing that ladder, keep checking those boxes, so in November, December, January, February, we are where we want to be," Steelers guard Ramon Foster said. "If we're right-minded, we can be a team that can take off."

It wasn't an easy week in Pittsburgh, where the Steelers were coming off not only a tough loss in Chicago but also dealing with the fallout from last Sunday's much-publicized national anthem demonstration. Discussions raged in the locker room about what needed to be done to play better and what were the right and wrong things to do about the anthem this week and going forward. Players described the week as intense and emotional, and some admitted they didn't know how it would affect them once the game began.

"That type of stuff will break you or it will bring you together," Foster said. "And I think for us, the evidence was out there on that scoreboard today."

Stinging from that loss to the Bears, and struggling to figure out why their offense had yet to click, the Steelers this week resolved to run the heck out of the ball. They knew Baltimore would be without run-stuffing defensive tackle Brandon Williams for the second week in a row. Moreover, they knew Bell, their star running back, had more to offer than he showed in the first three games. So the message all week and the game plan they installed were run-focused.

"Stick to things we do well, stick to it 'til they stop it," receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey said. "Let's not make up anything just because we have all this talent."

Pittsburgh's first drive of the day started at its own 3-yard line. Six of the Steelers' first eight plays were runs, and another was a shovel pass to Bell. The drive would consume 84 yards and 10:23 on 16 plays and result in a field goal. The tone was set. Bell ended the day with 144 yards and two touchdowns on 35 carries.

"Got a lot of totes in," a grinning Bell said afterward.

So that's one box checked. The other had to do with the off-field emotions that came out of last Sunday's demonstration. The Steelers decided as a team not to take the field for the anthem in Chicago, but left tackle Alejandro Villanueva mistakenly did, creating a public mess and a lot of private discussions. Some who'd disagreed with the decision wished they'd pushed harder. Some who agreed with it wished it had hung together.

"Definitely a challenging week for everybody around the league and around the country, really," Heyward-Bey said. "I think we have a special team where guys don't mind having those conversations. But we're also a team that's focused on the goal."

The Steelers have the highest of NFL goals. They expect to contend for -- and ideally win -- the Super Bowl. They believe they have an offense dynamic enough to outscore the Patriots in January. They believe in their young defensive players. They spend half their time trying to convince each other how good they are. Heyward-Bey says he's chirping at receiver Martavis Bryant every time Bryant catches a 10-yard out, trying to keep his energy and confidence high. He's doing that for both sides of the ball.

"Bud Dupree, I keep telling him every week, he's Khalil Mack. We're just waiting for him to believe it," Heyward-Bey said.

(Dupree assisted on one of the Steelers' four sacks Sunday.)

"Today, it was Le'Veon, but now you know Jacksonville's going to come in next week and want to shut that down," Foster said. "So hopefully Ben has a big game. 'Seven,' when he's on, he's the best in the world. Le'Veon, when he's on, he's one of the best in the world. That's the encouraging thing about it. We ran it great today. Ben might come out and throw for 500 next week."

That is the kind of team the Steelers appear to have, and the AFC appears to be offering them an opportunity to prove it. With the Browns 0-4 and the Bengals 1-3 (after eating the Browns), the Ravens are the second-best team in the AFC North, and they've been outscored 70-16 the past two weeks. The AFC South is its usual jumble; the West is full of teams that beat each other up. The Patriots appear to have major defensive problems to fix, and they sit at 2-2, a game behind the Steelers.

If you think that doesn't matter, realize that Roethlisberger has thrown 61 touchdown passes and 16 interceptions at home the past four years and has 26 touchdowns and 23 picks in road games over that same time. Where would the Steelers prefer to play their playoff games? Pittsburgh, or anywhere else?

So, long way to go, but the Steelers have a favorable schedule, a ton of talent and a 3-1 record compiled while they're still finding themselves. That's a pretty good perch from which to view your circumstances. From a place like that, it's pretty easy to laugh at your star wideout beating up a cooler because the quarterback didn't see that he was open for a touchdown.

"AB, he's passionate about the game," Bell said. "I'm the same way. I know how he's feeling there. But he's never trying to be a distraction, and obviously people know he's not out there being selfish. He just wanted to make a play to help us win."

He couldn't, but they won anyway. And when your sights are set where the Steelers' sights are set, that's all that matters right now.

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