Steelers Excited, Focused and Wary

It's a raucous atmosphere in Pittsburgh but the Steelers remain focused on stopping two Kansas City game-wreckers.

PITTSBURGH -- Ross Cockrell finished with a mob of reporters and exhaled with a sense of satisfaction.

"Man, I really love the atmosphere around here," he said. "I can't imagine being anywhere else."

Marcus Gilbert was just plain thrilled.

"This is the most fun I've ever had," said the big man with the low, booming voice. "I feel we finally have a chance as a team, with the health and how we've been playing so well and how hot we've been. We just have to keep the foot on the pedal.

"Just to buy another week with these guys," he added. "I love it, man. After all this is said and done, what the hell are we gonna do? Sit on the couch and watch another team win a championship? That's not what I want to be doing."

The atmosphere was raucous, yet the mood was serious. Maurkice Pouncey stepped off the sideline to snare a punt and return it behind the skilled blocking of Antonio Brown.

"Just the way Coach Tomlin likes it: straight up the field!" Pouncey said afterward. "But, hey, man, I gotta get to a meeting."

The Pittsburgh Steelers have that rare combination of excited focus as they prepare to play the Kansas City Chiefs in the Divisional Round of the AFC Playoffs on Sunday. And they know there are two Chiefs who can cause it all to come crashing down: Tyreek Hill and Justin Houston.

With all due respect to Travis Kelce, Hill and Houston are the game-wreckers the Pittsburgh heartbreakers.

Houston once crashed his helmet so hard into Ben Ben Roethlisberger's ribs that Roethlisberger sprained the ligament connecting the sternum to the clavicle. It sent him to the sideline and knocked him out of the next three games of the 2012 season.

That kind of activity from Houston, a 6-3, 256-pound season-wrecker, has been a bit lacking this season. With 60 sacks since coming into the league in 2011, Houston had off-season knee surgery and missed the first nine games. He returned and had three sacks against Denver in Game 11, and a sack the following week, but was sidelined for the final two games when the knee swelled.

He's back at practice this week and was pronounced ready to go. Even though he trails team sacks leader Dee Ford, 10-4, Houston is still the greatest worry of the Steelers offense.

"He's one of those guys who can completely change the game," said Gilbert. "He's one of the best pass-rushers I've ever been up against."

Gilbert wasn't on the job during the infamous 2012 game that caused Roethlisberger to worry about internal organs for a month. Gilbert was out and replaced by Mike Adams. But Gilbert has gone up against Houston several times, dating back to to the famed Outdoor Cocktail Parties between Georgia and Florida before both came out of college in 2011.

Gilbert, unlike Houston, has been playing his best ball this season. Not that he wanted to talk about it.

"That's for somebody else to say," he said.

And his buddy did.

"I don't know how the hell he's not making the Pro Bowl," said Pouncey. "I watch right tackles all the time and no one's out there blocking like him."

But Gilbert has a challenge this week.

"We all do," Pouncey said. "We all do, bro."

That applies to the defense and special teams when it comes to stopping Hill, the other top K.C. threat.

Merely a rookie -- a fifth-round rookie at that -- Hill is a 4.29 burner who lasted in the draft after being kicked off the Oklahoma State football and track teams following his guilty plea for domestic assault and battery by strangulation in an incident inolving his pregnant girlfriend.

Hill played for a year at West Alabama, wowed the scouts at pro day with his 40 time, his 6.53 3-cone time and his 40 1/2-inch vertical jump, but wasn't expected to be drafted until Kansas City Coach Andy Reid - who said he thoroughly vetted Hill's character - took the 5-foot-8, 185-pounder with the 165th pick.

Hill didn't play much early in the season. In Week 4, against the Steelers, he scored his second touchdown on a 10-yard pass to cut the Steelers' lead to 36-7. Since that game Hill has been on fire. 

A running back/receiver/return specialist, Hill has scored 10 more touchdowns in the last 12 games. For the season he's averaging 11.1 per his 24 carries, 9.7 per his 61 catches, 27.4 per his 14 kickoff returns and 15.5 per his 39 punt returns. The latter number would be better had his 78-yard return for a touchdown against the Steelers not been called back because of an illegal block.

"He's on a different level. He fast," said cornerback Artie Burns. "He's not just fast, he's quick, he's agile. Most fast guys can't really control their speed while they're running but he does all that at the same time. That's what makes him so great."

Can the Steelers kick away from him?

"He's going to return balls," kicker Chris Boswell said while shaking his head. "It’s just a matter of covering and tackling."

The Steelers have done a poor job of that this season. They finished 24th in punt coverage (9.6 avg.) and 29th in kickoff coverage (24.7), and last week in the playoff win allowed 29.8 per four kickoff returns.

The weather should help Boswell get the ball into the end zone more often this week. While rain is expected in Kansas City on Sunday, the forecasted temperature is 36 degrees.

It was 17 in Pittsburgh last Sunday with a wind-chill factor of 2 degrees.

"You could feel it," Boswell said of kicking the frozen ball. "It was like kicking the wall over there all game."

"He's fast and he's fearless," special-teamer Tyler Matakevich said of Hill. "I watched the one he returned against San Diego. There was a guy in front of him and behind him and he just took off. He's definitely talented and we have our hands full. But as long as all 11 guys out there do their job, we'll be fine."

And then the fun could continue.

NOTES -- Roethlisberger missed practice with his sore foot but walked around the locker room without a sign of a limp. He's expected to practice tomorrow along with Le'Veon Bell, who was also given Wednesday off. ... Others missing practice were OLB Anthony Chickillo (ankle), TE Ladarius Green (concussion), DE Ricardo Mathews (ankle), RB Fitzgerald Toussaint (concussion) and ILB Vince Williams (shoulder). ... Limited were SS Sean Davis (shoulder) and DE Stephon Tuitt (ankle). ... Special teams captain Rob Golden returned to practice after missing the last two games with an ankle injury. ... According Justin Gilbert, the Steelers will work on kick returns Thursday. If Toussaint remains sidelined, he could be replaced by Gilbert.


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