PITTSBURGH -- They've been toiling in the shadows of the Patriots and Colts this season, a team good enough to be 7-2 but not good enough to be among the NFL's elite. When it comes to evaluating the Pittsburgh Steelers, we need to know more.
We need to know their identity.
Certainly that was the message head coach Mike Tomlin spelled out for his team at halftime Sunday after they fell behind the Cleveland Browns, 21-9.
He told his team it didn't matter how poorly they had played in the first half. He stressed they easily could rebound with better execution and sharper focus. And then he emphasized one last thing -- moments like this provide an opportunity for a team to establish its identity, to show what it is capable of achieving when faced with adverse circumstances.
Two quarters later, Tomlin, the Steelers and the rest of the NFL had the answer: Pittsburgh 31, Cleveland 28.
"We had an opportunity to do something today that we hadn't done all season," Tomlin said. "And we showed our mettle."
This was the first time this season the Steelers had won a game after trailing at halftime. The Arizona Cardinals manhandled them 21-14 on Sept. 30, and the Denver Broncos beat them 31-28 on Oct. 21. In both games, the Steelers looked as meek as they did in the first half of Sunday's win and it cost them mightily.
But this time they decided they wouldn't allow the Browns to run away from them, especially not with a disgruntled home crowd urging them on.
Here's more of what we learned about the Steelers:
They can rebound from big plays:
The Browns' Joshua Cribbs produced two huge kickoff returns, including a 100-yarder that put Cleveland ahead 28-24 with 11:14 left and the Steelers taking charge. On the next possession, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger led Pittsburgh on a 14-play, 78-yard scoring drive that chewed up just more than eight minutes. He capped the drive with a 2-yard touchdown pass to tight end Heath Miller.
Their vaunted defense can adjust:
Pittsburgh may have the NFL's stingiest defense, but Browns quarterback Derek Anderson torched it for three touchdown passes in the first half. In the second half, the Steelers stopped the Browns cold and held them to 163 yards overall -- the second straight opponent Pittsburgh has held to less than 200 yards.
Anderson faced more pressure and his passes became less accurate in the second half when the Steelers took away his favorite targets, tight end Kellen Winslow and wide receiver Braylon Edwards (four catches in the final two quarters).
The Steelers have clutch players:
Roethlisberger spread the ball to six different receivers and scored on a 30-run in the fourth quarter, and Willie Parker rushed for 105 yards.
"Nobody was yelling or complaining when we got down," said wide receiver Hines Ward, who caught seven passes for 80 yards and one touchdown. "In fact, the receivers were all excited because we're usually shutting the offense down once Willie gets to 100 yards. It's great when everybody is contributing because it's a total team effort. And we need games like these if we're going to make it to the next level."
What the Steelers also needed was a clear understanding of their weaknesses. Cribbs' ability to race through their kick coverage was the most obvious of Pittsburgh's flaws. That 100-yard return was especially puzzling because he misplayed the ball at first, then retreated to recover it at the goal line before eluding a handful of tacklers and racing up the sideline. (He also had a 90-yard return in the first quarter that set up the Browns' second touchdown.)
Tomlin said the kick-return issues would be addressed this week. He's also likely to emphasize the value of his team maintaining its focus over the next three weeks because the Steelers surely won't be tested like they were Sunday.
Pittsburgh will face three losing teams -- the New York Jets (1-8), Miami Dolphins (0-9) and Cincinnati Bengals (3-6) -- before a Dec. 9 meeting with New England, and it's safe to assume the Steelers will have a substantial lead in the AFC North at that point. With the win over Cleveland (5-4), the Steelers hold a two-game edge in their division.
That's an advantage that Tomlin's players don't underestimate.
"We really aren't concerned with how our wins look at this time of year," said left tackle Marvel Smith. "We just want to keep putting together some victories so we can have some control over our destiny later this season."
That happened to be the same sentiment that Tomlin conveyed as he spoke to reporters after the game. He said his team is always striving for perfection, but he wasn't about to apologize for a win that wasn't as pretty as some would've liked. He knows that his team just survived a scare from a vastly improved Cleveland team and that's enough to make him content with the outcome.
After all, he's only in his first season as Pittsburgh's head coach, and he's learning more about himself and his team each week.
By Jeffri Chadiha