PITTSBURGH — Don’t tell Atlanta’s Matt Ryan that the feuding Pittsburgh Steelers are a fractious, distracted mess on the path to their first losing season in 15 years. He won’t listen.
Minutes after the Steelers sacked Ryan six times in a 41-17 trashing on Sunday, he limped toward the small, subterranean X-ray room here at Heinz Field.
The door was locked. Ryan might have considered it a metaphor for the Steelers defensive effort, which stonewalled and harried the Falcons throughout the game.
Rolling his eyes, Ryan, whose arms and neck were scratched and red, turned around and hobbled back to the Falcons locker room. Over his shoulder, the music from a celebrating Steelers locker room throbbed through the concrete corridor separating the teams’ quarters.
Yes, it is too soon to write off the Steelers. As preoccupied, anemic and befuddled as Pittsburgh looked in the first month of this season, Sunday’s thorough rout was proof that the Steelers (2-2-1) may indeed have enough talent to keep their chase for a fifth consecutive playoff berth viable. Or at the least, the Steelers have enough high-level players to keep that run alive until holdout star running back Le’Veon Bell returns.
“Hopefully, it’s a catalyst for us as we move forward,” said Pittsburgh Coach Mike Tomlin. Ever entertaining, Tomlin added: “But we acknowledge it’s going to be quite some time I’m sure before we get that September stench off of us.”
On the N.F.L.’s first weekend of games in October, the Steelers suddenly once again looked like the team that compiled a 45-19 record in the previous four seasons. There was quarterback Ben Roethlisberger dropping back and heaving the football on a line about 55 yards in the air, a pass so perfect Atlanta’s double coverage was meaningless.
The ball settled deftly and precisely into the arms of the streaking wide receiver Antonio Brown for a 47-yard touchdown along the sideline. For weeks, the N.F.L. community has wondered if there was a disconnect brewing between Roethlisberger and Brown, a first-team All-Pro choice for the last five years.
Sunday, Roethlisberger answered by throwing two of his three touchdown passes to Brown and the first of those scores, a perfectly timed, indefensible corner route and quick pass that resulted in a 9-yard touchdown, was as exquisite as the bomb down the sideline.
“It was about me being frustrated with the way I was playing and getting the confidence to make those throws because it isn’t easy,” Roethlisberger said afterward. “So, it kind of shows that we’re still on the same page.”
If Roethlisberger and Brown were trying to make a statement so was Bell’s replacement at running back, James Conner, whose paltry 36 rushing yards in Pittsburgh’s two losses this season was a sharp source of discontent to Steelers fans.
Sunday, Conner bulled for 110 yards on 21 attempts.
“I think James was tired of hearing about Le’Veon so much, so he put on a heck of a performance today,” Roethlisberger said.
The same might be said of the entire Steelers roster – even the special teams blocked an Atlanta punt. Late Sunday afternoon, the buoyant Steelers locker room had an air of redemption. Things had been getting desperate.
“I don’t like to say it was desperate,” the defensive tackle Cameron Heyward said in disagreement. “I would say there was an urgency. In practice all week, we knew we had to win this game at home. We had to get things right.”
Or, as guard David DeCastro put it: “When you’re not winning, guys start questioning some things here and there. It can hurt the mood. So you want to stay the course and stay on track. But a win fixes a lot of that. It was well-timed.”
Rest assured, Sunday’s victory assuaged a restive Steelers following, which because of the team’s record six Super Bowl championships dating to 1974, is both massive and international in scope.
Two from that legion, Jim Petropoulos and George Provias, traveled from Montreal, skipping a weekend preceding the Canadian Thanksgiving Day, to attend Sunday’s game at Heinz Field.
Petropoulos, 48, is convinced Bell’s holdout has been a distraction to the team’s chemistry but he has faith that what has been a perennial playoff team – the Steelers have one losing season this century – will rediscover the formula that has kept them in Super Bowl contention most years.
“It’s still early in the season,” Petropoulos said. “Anything can happen still.”
Traveling almost as far to witness Sunday’s game were Brandon and Sherry Stanley from Kingsport, Tenn., two Steelers fans raised in southwestern Virginia, where the local television stations have broadcast N.F.L. games from Pittsburgh for decades.
“I told him if he hadn’t been a Steelers fan, I wouldn’t have married him,” Sherry said to Brandon with a laugh and a pat on his arm.
The Stanleys, who drove seven and one-half hours for Sunday’s game, also believe there will be a Steelers revival this season, trusting in a collective bond that has imbued many Pittsburgh championship teams.
“It’s deeper than football,” Sherry said. “It’s a team dynamic.”
In Pittsburgh and beyond, by Sunday evening, a modicum of harmony had returned to a football season that was out of kilter for a month. The Steelers no longer had a losing record.
On Pro Football
A regular analytical column looking at the National Football League.
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