Thankfully, A Big One

Who would've thought the Steelers would rebound from their dreadful start to play an important game on Thanksgiving? No one but the Ravens.

After an 0-4 start, the playoffs might've been the last thing on the minds of Steelers fans.

But conversations about whom they would take with the first pick of the draft have dissipated.

And playoffs have become something more than mockery in your best Jim Mora voice anymore.

"It's not how you drive," said rookie linebacker Jarvis Jones, "it's how you arrive."

And the Steelers will arrive in Baltimore tonight with a 5-6 record.

Of course, that's not the spectacular part. It's that the 5-6 record matches that of the reigning NFL champion Ravens. And the winner tonight jumps out to a lead on the loser and the other four 5-6 teams in the race for the last wild-card playoff berth -- if not an opportunity to overtake the 7-4 Cincinnati Bengals and win the AFC North Division.

Not that it's something the ultra-focused Steelers want to discuss.

"Honestly, we're 0-0 right now," said quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. "We don't even know what the last game was. We're looking forward to this one game because that's all that matters and that's the only thing we can control. The focus is on this. There's no hot streak. There's no win streak. There's no [losing] streak. We're looking for our first win this week."

When pressed about tonight's game having "a playoff do-or-die feel to it," Roethlisberger stood his ground.

"Every game does," he said. "I'm going to tell you guys that I'm just going to keep answering the same way. We're just trying to get one win. That's all that matters."

Roethlisberger, fresh off being named AFC Offensive Player of the Month, is obviously a big part of the turnaround from 0-4.

At that point he was a mistake-prone quarterback who had been sacked 15 times and had turned the ball over nine times, including two fumbles inside the 10-yard line going in and two turnovers that were returned for touchdowns.

The defense wasn't helping. While the Steelers had turned the ball over 11 times in the first four games, they hadn't forced any, or two less than Troy Polamalu forced last Sunday in Cleveland to win AFC Defensive Player of the Week.

That's all changed of late, as the awards would indicate. The Steelers are +8 in turnover margin in the last three games. And there are there are other reasons why they're a team on the rise:

* Coaching -- "I have been 0-4 before in my career," said new center Fernando Velasco. "This was a different kind of 0-4. 0-4 is still 0-4, but the guys, their attitudes were still positive and coming to work every day trying to get better. I just think that's a credit to the head coach and just his mentality. Also, just the talent on this team and this team knows that we're not an 0-4 team. We're capable of going out and winning ball games. I'm glad everybody just persevered and got the thing turned around. Now we've just got to keep the train going."

* Blocking -- "The guys up front are doing a great job," said offensive coordinator Todd Haley. "We've had some moving parts. There is some cohesion happening. You can see it happening across the board, starting with Fernando Velasco and some of the identification things. At the same time, I think the guys running routes are getting open. They are getting into routes fast and making it happen. Ben is obviously getting the ball out on time and to the right spots most of the time. So it's usually a pretty good recipe."

* Tackling -- "You continue to get better with repetitions through the years," said the "Law Dog," linebacker Lawrence Timmons. "We really had a lot of younger guys that played earlier. We have guys now that we know where they are going to be. Everybody is being accountable. You can see that in our play."

* Focus -- "Every play counts," said defensive end Cameron Heyward. "Every snap, we have to execute."

Those are the big-picture items, and there are some more subtle factors. The return and continuing recovery of tight end Heath Miller has given Roethlisberger a middle-of-the-field target after three tight ends were wiped out by injury early in the season. Even Matt Spaeth is recovering, although he looked painfully slow this week in practice.

Another important factor has been the return, and progression, of rookie running back Le'Veon Bell. Roethlisberger summed up Bell's improvement this way:

"I'm not having to [ask] him every time a play is called, 'Do you know what you have?'" Roethlisberger said. "I'm fully comfortable that he knows what he's got. It's even to the point where he's getting a little too comfortable at times, where he's telling me how much time is on the play clock and things like that. I have to tell him, 'I see it. Don't worry about it, bud.' But that is just the awareness that he has and you see the growth and the maturation. I think it's great."

And of course, there's the no-huddle approach that the Steelers, after years of incubation, seem to have fully embraced.

"We've been in no-huddle probably more than people think," said Haley. "We just got behind the chains early and it hasn't shown up quite that way. But now, we've had some success. Obviously, it was a big part of us winning the Detroit game. We are all excited about that. When you have different people you are plugging in that haven't been exposed to it quite as much as some of the others, that causes you some speed bumps. But Fernando has done a terrific job, along with the other guys that we've had to plug in at different times. I think that is why you are seeing a little more efficient operation, and it's obviously a weapon."

The Steelers will face a Ravens team that since last season has lost the heart and soul of its defense, watched its running game suffer behind a lackluster offensive line and an aging Ray Rice, and lost the heart of its receiving corps in Anquan Bolden.

But the Ravens are 4-1 at home, are tied for first in the league in sacks, and have the league's best red-zone defense.

"The thing that they also have is the balance on the outside," said Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. "They've got not two, but three very adept deep receivers on the outside."

While Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has the highest sack percentage (8.4) and the lowest passer rating (76.8) of his career, he has three threats -- Torrey Smith, Jacoby Jones and Tandon Doss -- who average 16.4 yards per catch.

The Steelers must stop the run and prevent the big play at the same time. It's something they've done three consecutive games, and one more would finally, thankfully, overcome the dreadful start.

"We're confident," said guard David DeCastro. "But we're not like, 'Yeah, we're doing really well,' because we're still 5-6. We've got a long ways to go."

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