Down The Stretch They Come

The Steelers are coming out of their bye week in good health, like all of their other Super Bowl teams. Jim Wexell has the research.

It was a few years ago. Or maybe it was 10, I don't know. They're flying by so fast anymore. But anyway, someone once asked Troy Polamalu what he expected of his team for that upcoming season.

Troy just shook his head.

"How do I know?" he asked.

And then he asked the reporters another question.

"How do you guys do that? How do you make predictions before the season starts when you have no idea how healthy any team's going to be down the stretch?"

As usual, Polamalu had a great point.

Of course, it's remembered today because the Steelers are getting so very healthy at the start of their stretch run.

And don't worry; I knocked on my wooden desk as I wrote that.

Not that the Pittsburgh Steelers will be back to absolute full strength this Sunday, but they do have that capability. It's up to Mike Tomlin whether he wants to play guys like Ryan Shazier or when he wants to activate guys like Jarvis Jones.

The Steelers, if they prefer, could trot out their opening-day lineup Sunday against the New Orleans Saints. But they've actually developed better players since opening day: James Harrison and Brett Keisel are back and in playing shape; Martavis Bryant is pushing Markus Wheaton; Vince Williams and Sean Spence understand the defense better than does Shazier; William Gay is a better cornerback than Cortez Allen.

All that's missing is the short-yardage guy, and the last time I watched LeGarrette Blount carry the ball he was running backward from the one.

So the Steelers are better, and teams that get better and stay healthy are teams that play in Super Bowls -- at least that's been the case throughout Steelers history.

Let's take a look at their past Super Bowl teams:

1974 -- The only injured player from opening day to miss the Super Bowl was left guard Sam Davis, and he saw duty in the title game as a reserve. Davis was replaced in the starting lineup by veteran reserve Jim Clack and the Steelers beat the Minnesota Vikings for their first title.

1975 -- No one from the 22-man lineup that opened the season missed the Super Bowl with an injury. The only lineup change was Lynn Swann replacing Frank Lewis, who was still around as the No. 3 WR for the second ring. Swann, of course, was the Super Bowl MVP.

1978 -- It must be noted that cornerback J.T. Thomas had been ruled out for the season with a blood disorder and was replaced on opening day by first-round pick Ron Johnson. But this team did lose two opening-day starters to injuries: RT Larry Brown and TE Bennie Cunningham. Their replacements were Ray Pinney and Randy Grossman and the Steelers won their third championship.

1979 -- As the team aged, Chuck Noll was more cautious early in the year and he eased Brown, Cunningham, Joe Greene, Rocky Bleier and Gerry Mullins into the season. They were all healthy by the end of the season, but again the Steelers were without two key starters in the Super Bowl: Jack Ham and Mike Wagner. They were replaced by Dirt Winston and Thomas in the Super Bowl.

1995 -- Only one injury, but it was a big one: Rod Woodson tore an ACL in the opener. While he did return to play in the Super Bowl, he was a reserve and not the in-his-prime difference-maker he had been as a playmaking cornerback and return specialist. Woodson was replaced at his position by Carnell Lake and in the lineup by Myron Bell and the Steelers lost a Super Bowl for the first time.

2005 -- The Steelers struggled in the middle of the season with injuries to Ben Roethlisberger, James Farrior and Marvel Smith, but they came back in time to win the franchise's fifth Lombardi Trophy. The opening-day lineup was healthy and started in the Super Bowl.

2008 -- As with the 1978 and 1979 champions, this Steelers team played the Super Bowl without two injured opening-day starters. One of them, Marvel Smith, was a question mark from the start. He was replaced at left tackle by former championship right tackle Max Starks. The other injured starter was right guard Kendall Simmons, who was replaced early in the season by Darnell Stapleton.

2010 -- Up until this point, no Steelers Super Bowl team had lost more than two opening-day starters to injury. But this team played the Super Bowl without LT Starks, C Maurkice Pouncey and DE Aaron Smith. They lost the title game with Jonathan Scott, Doug Legursky and Ziggy Hood as replacements.

So research shows that Polamalu was right, that health down the stretch and into the playoffs is an important -- maybe THE most important -- component to success. And that makes this current edition a championship candidate.

Unless, of course, someone does something stupid like write a column about perfect health with five games to play.

Good thing we've already knocked on wood.


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