A Team in Transition as Postseason Looms

Mike Prisuta points out that the Steelers are a team in transition, but that's not necessarily a bad thing since they've improved along the way.

Chris Hoke was in the locker room with his teammates after the Steelers had finally survived the Browns, shaking hands and smiling that "Hokie" smile and celebrating 10 wins in 13 tries this season.

The symbolism of those exchanges was as difficult to miss as Antonio Brown had been tough to tackle on that game-sealing, 79-yard catch-and-run touchdown Thursday night.

In achieving that 10-3 record the Steelers hadn't been their best. But the 14-3 victory over Cleveland had nonetheless achieved for the Steelers three scenarios in which a trip to the postseason could be clinched this weekend.

That beats having to sweat out tiebreakers in early December.

And that's a long way from Ravens 35, Steelers 7 back on Sept. 11.

The Steelers have become a different team since then, in execution and in composition.

Hoke was the latest but might not be the last to see his role reduced either by injury or by the inevitable, unbeatable double-team of time and declining performance.

Remember Jonathan Scott at left tackle?

Chris Kemoeatu at left guard?

Willie Colon at right tackle?

Hines Ward at wide receiver?

Remember Aaron Smith at defensive end, Bryant McFadden at cornerback and Hoke as the backup to Casey Hampton at nose tackle?

The Steelers have been getting better since Baltimore because they've been evolving, either by choice or by circumstances thrust upon them. And they're evolving still.

That four-cornerbacks, one-safety, nickel formation they threw out there against Cincinnati, the one where William Gay played safety and Cortez Allen replaced Ryan Clark on the field might yet make Clark something less than the three-down player he used to be each week.

We didn't see it against Cleveland because the Browns can't cobble together a four-wide receivers set. But against teams that can the Steelers may just have a counter thanks to Allen's continued development and thanks to the coaching staff's willingness to keep tinkering.

There's been a buzz about Allen and fellow rookie Curtis Brown for some time on the South Side. And now, gradually, we're seeing Allen start to become more involved. And we're starting to see the secondary consistently make plays that win games, having done so at Cincinnati, at Kansas City and against Cleveland in the wake of that agonizing collapse in the rematch against the Ravens.

For this team at this time that's the biggest change of all.

Of course, the more things change the more they remain the same.

We were reminded of that much while watching Ben Roethlisberger limp across the locker room to the shower while Hoke was in the process of slapping backs and shaking hands.

Big Ben had been battered because his insistence upon holding onto the football beyond all reasonable expectation of protection caught up to him once again against Cleveland.

The 309th time he'd been sacked in his career resulted in a high-ankle sprain.

Just days earlier Roethlisberger had assessed the first 308 and estimated that about half of them had resulted from his habit of holding onto the ball in a never-ending quest for big plays. Roethlisberger maintained he wasn't going to change that aspect of his game, that the sacks didn't matter.

OC Bruce Arians later added that Roethlisberger shouldn't change that aspect of his game, that the sacks don't matter.

There's a fine line sometimes between aggressiveness and arrogance. The Steelers will be straddling that one as long as Roethlisberger's playing the game.

That element of who they are and what they do won't be changing any time soon.


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