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STEELERS Backups have been key to success



Published: Tue, January 4, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Pittsburgh compiled a franchise-best 15-1 record this season.

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- The Pittsburgh Steelers' players had the day off Monday, and perhaps the only surprise was some backups didn't offer to help the staff wash the jerseys or clean up the locker room.

After all, the Steelers' backups proved all season that every play, every possession, every practice, every game -- even a seemingly meaningless game Sunday in Buffalo -- is important to them. Sometimes just getting onto the field was their biggest challenge, so no opportunity could be squandered.

That's why the Steelers took satisfaction from their 29-24 victory in Buffalo, and not just because they completed the first 15-1 season in team history or established themselves as the team to beat in the playoffs.

Rather, they took pride in the fact that on a weekend when some elite teams -- namely, the Eagles and Colts -- were being smacked around in meaningless games they may have approached casually, the Steelers had no letdown against a desperate opponent.

It all counts

Meaningless? These Steelers don't seem to know the meaning of the word.

"We came out to win the game, we didn't come here to lay down and let those guys run over us," wide receiver Antwaan Randle El said. "We came in to get a win."

The Steelers' mindset was established weeks ago, when key starters such as defensive lineman Casey Hampton, cornerback Chad Scott and, yes, quarterback Tommy Maddox went down with injuries. Even when players with no NFL experience such as defensive lineman Chris Hoke, linebacker James Harrison and a rookie quarterback named Ben Roethlisberger stepped in, their coach and their teammates made it clear no letdown was expected.

So far, there hasn't been. The Steelers' 14-game winning streak matches that of the 1972 Dolphins for the longest in any NFL regular season, and they are only the fourth NFL team to go 15-1 since the 16-game schedule was adopted in 1976. No team has gone 16-0.

Coach Bill Cowher preached all last week that, even with home-field advantage and a first-round bye clinched, he expected to win in Buffalo.

Message received

His players quickly picked up on the message and, unlike letdowns that occurred in similar situations late in the Steelers' 1994, 1996, 1997 and 2001 seasons, played as if it were any other game.

Even if it wasn't their regular lineup; they ended the game with only two starters on defense and a couple of starting linemen on offense.

"It says a lot about the backups and the character of this team," said Harrison, who filled in for the injured Clark Haggans.

"It's not really that much of a dropoff when we have other guys step in, and we didn't want to see a dropoff in production."

The players got Monday and today off, then will concentrate on one of their three possible opponents -- the Jets (10-6), Chargers (12-4) or Broncos (10-6) -- each of the next three days. The Broncos play in Pittsburgh if they upset the Colts (12-4); otherwise, the Steelers will play the Jets-Chargers winner.

"We recognize now the real journey begins for those rings," Cowher said.




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