PITTSBURGH -- Le'Veon Bell is approaching the 2018 season like he approaches a developing hole at the line of scrimmage -- with extreme patience. The running back defined by hesitation has made big news by hesitating to join his team, and his absence has inspired a season-on-the-brink vibe in Pittsburgh that cannot be expunged by one sunshiny day on the banks of the Allegheny.
The 2-2-1 Steelers did not solve all their internal problems by thrashing the 1-4 Falcons, a shell of the doomed Super Bowl team that held a 25-point lead on the Patriots two seasons ago. Bell remains a nowhere man for now, and Antonio Brown has added lawsuits alleging destructive frat-house behavior in a South Florida condo (the receiver denied the allegations) to his apparent bid to become the high-maintenance heavyweight champion of the NFL. Beyond that, as they prepare for a road game against 4-1 Cincinnati that could shape their season, the Steelers have yet to prove that they can consistently play high-level defense in a division that no longer offers a two-game sabbatical in the form of the Browns.
The AFC North looks like it belongs in an octagon, and traditional Steelers-Bengals physicality could set a record for penalties in a sport trending toward safety after a wave of serious injuries -- such as the one suffered by Ryan Shazier the last time these teams clashed in December -- badly damaged it. This improved division has suddenly become a free-for-all, with the Bengals and Ravens holding the early advantage. But as longstanding partnerships in Marvin Lewis/Andy Dalton and John Harbaugh/Joe Flacco race against their closing windows of opportunity, and as the fledgling tandem of Hue Jackson/Baker Mayfield tries to fast-forward its way through a rebuild, the best bet to emerge in the North might yet be Mike Tomlin/Ben Roethlisberger.
The Steelers still have a functioning Hall of Fame quarterback and the AFC's leading passer (by yards) in Big Ben. They also have arguably the NFL's best receiver in Brown, a No. 2 receiver who can play like a No. 1 in JuJu Smith-Schuster, and the prospect of adding to the backfield -- ahead of the emerging James Conner -- one of the league's most dangerous players in Bell, with fresh legs, for the Week 8 game against the Browns. Assuming he isn't traded, of course.
A number of Steelers players, including center Maurkice Pouncey, were furious last month when it became clear Bell was carrying his standoff with the front office into the regular season. The tone of that sentiment has softened with the passage of time. "We're going to accept him with open arms," Pouncey said. "We did a lot of great things with Le'Veon. He's our brother. We love him to death. Trust me, we want the best for Le'Veon. ... It can only be a plus for us, man, because it's adding another weapon. Obviously teams have to game plan with that type of player and the things he can do outside in the passing game and in the running game. Whenever he comes back, everyone will be happy."
His head coach will be happier than most. Though Terry Bradshaw is hardly his only critic, Tomlin is a Super Bowl winner who has advanced to the playoffs eight times in 11 years, including the past four, and who has claimed the same number of division titles (six) as Lewis and Harbaugh combined. Tomlin is actually on pace to go down among the sport's most prolific winners. His 118 regular-season victories through five games beyond his 46th birthday put him 39 victories ahead of Chuck Noll's total at the same point (Noll was limited a bit by 14-game schedules), 48 victories ahead of Tom Landry's pace (ditto), and 82 victories ahead of Bill Belichick's pace. Tomlin and Roethlisberger just passed Noll and Bradshaw with their 108th victory as a partnership, and if it feels like not enough of a national fuss was made about that, here's a pretty good reason why:
The NFL as we know it today began in the 2001 season, when Belichick and Tom Brady claimed their first of 199 regular-season victories and their first of five Super Bowl rings. Over that period, Pittsburgh has won more division titles (9) than Baltimore (4), Cincinnati (4), and Cleveland (0) combined, and has made a dozen postseason appearances. And yet it seems the Steelers have been swallowed whole in the conference by the Patriots' machine, which has gone 3-0 against Pittsburgh in AFC Championship Games in the Belichick/Brady era.
But the current Pittsburgh coach and quarterback did set the NFL standard with the franchise's sixth Super Bowl title in the 2008 season, and do represent the most formidable pairing in the AFC North. In fact, Roethlisberger's staying power compelled Harbaugh to call him the toughest player his Ravens have ever faced.
"Hands down," Harbaugh told ESPN.com in 2016. "Oh yeah, yes, yes, his physical power, the strength, just a brutish athlete. He's incredible. The guy's a Hall of Famer, a lock. ...You look at his size, arm strength, accuracy, the fact he's at the line doing everything, calling their offense at the line. I don't think there's any other quarterback in history that you can compare Ben to. Who would you compare him to?"
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Roethlisberger still gives Pittsburgh a decisive divisional advantage at the most important position. His sustained winning in recent years also affords him the type of leverage with Brown, whose noisy season continued this week with word that he's being sued for allegedly hurling furniture and vases from the 14th-floor balcony of a South Florida apartment in April, hardening the notion that the Steelers are now dealing with the kind of disruptive internal issues that burdened fellow rock-solid organizations, the Patriots and San Antonio Spurs, last season.
Bell boycotting the first half of the year. Brown arguing with his offensive coordinator and comparing his connection with Roethlisberger to maddeningly spotty Wi-Fi. If only for one Sunday at Heinz Field, none of that much mattered as the Steelers started the process, in Tomlin's words, of getting "that September stench off of us."
It was 10:50 a.m. on a hot and sunny day in Pittsburgh, a rare day for Steelers fans to work on their tans, and here came Smith-Schuster driving down the right lane of the Heinz Field exit ramp in his three-wheel car that could pass for a modernized Batmobile. He was dancing behind the wheel to the music blaring out of his Polaris Slingshot that he whipped around a tight bend as he pulled into the stadium parking lot to begin preparing for the 1 p.m. start.
Smith would celebrate this day and his touchdown in the 41-17 blowout of Atlanta by using the football to simulate the act of childbirth. Perhaps history will show that the real 2018 Steelers were born on this day, and that their suddenly revived defense and running game were far more than the beneficiaries of an opponent suffering from a Super Bowl hangover that no aspirin can fix.
Roethlisberger and Brown teamed up on two touchdown passes, including a 47-yarder that beat double coverage down the left sideline and compelled the receiver to declare that their Wi-Fi connection was suddenly "lit." Joe Haden shut down Julio Jones, and the defensive front sacked Matt Ryan a half-dozen times and forced Dan Quinn to sub him out in the final minutes in a no-mas move. As Ryan wearily rolled his travel bag out of the stadium and toward the losers' bus, he looked like a quarterback who had just spent an afternoon in the jaws of Noll's Steel Curtain defense. T.J. Watt, responsible for three of the sacks, roared around the edge as if shot out of a cannon.
"That's part of the tradition, the Watt family," linebacker Bud Dupree said of J.J's little brother.
And part of a restored (at least temporarily) Steelers tradition too. Before Sunday, Pittsburgh had ranked 27th in the league in defensive efficiency in the eight games it had played since losing Shazier to his spinal injury. The Steelers needed to get back to what they've historically done best -- play defense, forcefully. The unit's captain, Cameron Heyward, said the breakthrough against Atlanta was all about enhanced communication in the huddle and at the line, which begged the question:
Why weren't the Steelers communicating over the first four games?
Marcus Gilbert, offensive tackle, predicted that things are about to fall into place on both sides of the ball. "We're still trying to figure out what this team's identity is," he said. "And I feel like this has been the same pattern for the last couple of years. We find our niche in September, and when October, November rolls around, we're a completely different team."
Much like Arnold Palmer's blacksmith arms and workingman's roots in Latrobe, the Steelers have always represented western Pennsylvania's blue-collar values. Stability. Reliability. Physicality. An honest day's work. They've had three head coaches over the past half-century, and Tomlin is young enough to last another couple of decades. First, he has to get through this season in an AFC North that features a good Bengals team desperate to finally win a playoff game, a good Ravens team desperate to return to the postseason for the first time since 2014, and a vastly improved Browns team desperate to return to relevance.
But only the Steelers will add a rested and healthy Le'Veon Bell much sooner rather than later, and only the Steelers will keep putting Ben Roethlisberger under center. Theirs will unquestionably be a grueling test over the next few months. And one that might still leave them as the last men standing in the AFC North.