The Pittsburgh Steelers have come out of the bye ready to tackle the homestretch

Mike Tomlin has his healthy Steelers focused to take on the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday.


The bye week has been very good to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Not only have the Steelers come out of their bye week "as healthy a group as we've been since this thing started," according to Mike Tomlin, they've moved within another game of the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North race and hold the top spot in the AFC wild-card race, all without having played a game.

Of course, Tomlin stressed throughout yesterday's press conference he'll only look at the upcoming game and not the entire six-game homestretch which begins Sunday in Seattle.

"I meant what I said," Tomlin responded when asked about the playoff chase. "Regardless of what perspective you take on the race, whether it's you chasing somebody or somebody nipping at our heels, it's irrelevant to me. That's a waste of time. Your focus needs to be on the challenges that lie in front of you because that's what you can control. That's what's important. If we handle that business, our position's going to be no worse seven days from today. If we do that repeatedly over the course of five or six weeks, I imagine we'll be in pretty good position."

The 6-4 Steelers are two games behind the Bengals in the race for the AFC North Division and one game ahead of four 5-5 teams in the race for two wild-card spots.


As for the health of the team, Tomlin chuckled when asked if quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is "completely over" his knee and foot injuries.

"Completely?" Tomlin responded. "That's a slippery slope. Uh, I don't know. I imagine 'completely' is a term that's used in March when you're talking about professional football."

Roethlisberger, though, is preparing to play Sunday. Tomlin mentioned tight end Matt Spaeth as the only injury question this week, but Spaeth practiced Monday.

LEGION OF BOOM

At 5-5, the Seahawks may not seem like the same team that's gone 1-1 in the last two Super Bowls, but their defense remains up to that championship standard.

The NFL's top-ranked defense the last two years, the Seahawks are currently ranked second behind the Denver Broncos.

"Coach (Pete) Carroll prides himself on playing great defense," said Tomlin. "They've got a talented young coordinator, Kris Richard, who played for and worked with Coach Carroll over the years. Both men have experience in the secondary and I think that highlights the strength of what they're able to do defensively."

The Seahawks have been the NFL's top-ranked pass defense the last two seasons and are second now. Tomlin touched on their primary defensive backs yesterday:

* CB Richard Sherman -- "He's good on the line of scrimmage, he's long, he's combative, but I think that's just a portion of his game. I've been really impressed as I studied him in preparation for this game, his above-the-neck game, the things that he sees, the things that he understands about route combinations, the things that he understands about formations and splits. All of that is very evident in his production. It comes out in his play. He's good below the neck but he's also good above the neck. That's what makes him one of the best in the business."

* SS Kam Chancellor -- "A big, rangy, combative strong safety who can take on people and play like a linebacker in the running game, but also adept enough to match up against people in the passing game. I thought it was really impressive the way he was able to match up against (Jason) Whitten."

* FS Earl Thomas -- "A great center fielder who's physical and rangy."

The Seahawks lost their other starting cornerback, Byron Maxwell, to the Philadelphia Eagles in free agency last offseason. They replaced him with former Baltimore Raven Cary Williams, but Williams was benched in the second half Sunday after allowing a 36-yard catch by a San Francisco 49ers tight end. He was replaced by DeShawn Shead, a third-year player out of Portland State. Carroll has said the competition for the spot will remain open this week, with nickel back Jeremy Lane also a possibility.

ANOTHER 'SPECIAL TIGHT END'

Tomlin mused about the practice competition in Seattle between the 6-3 Chancellor and 6-7 tight end Jimmy Graham, and added that "Graham is the latest special tight end with vertical threat capabilities that we have to work to minimize."

Graham, who turned 29 on Tuesday, is down in production this season after leading the New Orleans Saints in receiving each of the last four seasons. He's caught 44 passes in 10 games this season after averaging twice that the last four years.

Against the Steelers last year, Graham started but didn't catch a pass for the Saints in their 35-32 win.

"We came in with a schematic plan to minimize his impact on the game," Tomlin said. "But it didn't help us win the game because Kenny Stills killed us. So when you're doing the necessary things to minimize these impact guys, there are consequences of all actions. That's something you have to weigh."

Stills caught five passes for 162 yards and a 69-yard touchdown in the game.


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