PITTSBURGH (AP) _ Mike Tomlin doesn’t remember the exact conversation. Alejandro Villaneuva does.
The Pittsburgh Steelers were reeling in early November. Mired in a four-game slide filled with losses both heartbreaking and baffling. The talk of a seventh Super Bowl quickly took a backseat to far more pressing matters. Namely, would the Steelers get it right, and if they did, would they get it right in time to salvage a playoff berth?
Villanueva understood he was part of the problem. There were some blocking schemes the massive and massively thoughtful 6-foot-9 left tackle couldn’t seem to get right. So Tomlin and offensive line coach Mike Munchak got together and decided they’d seen enough, modifying some calls and ditching others altogether.
For Tomlin, it was just another adjustment in a series of them, the kind needed to deal with the ebb and flow of the four-month test of patience and resolve that is a typical NFL season. Not to Villanueva.
“You have to come up with a new offense,” Villanueva said. “We had to come up with different plays, see who we had on our roster, accommodate to different runners and different receives and that takes time. You can practice it all you want, but it’s on Sundays where you can really get better. For myself, some of the protections I struggled with, we stayed away from. We got better as an offense.”
One more predicated on hogging the ball and dictating the tempo with running back Le’Veon Bell than seeing if it could put the scoreboard on tilt. The result? Seven consecutive wins, an AFC North title and all the momentum it could possibly need going into a wild card game against Miami on Sunday.
Perhaps in a way it’s fitting. Pittsburgh’s malaise began on a muggy, one-sided 30-15 reality check delivered by the Dolphins on Oct. 16. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was off early, an issue that only exacerbated itself when he played on after tearing cartilage in his left knee in the first half. The running game mustered little. The run defense even less. And just like that, the swagger the Steelers played with during a breezy 4-1 start vanished.
“One of those weird days in football,” guard David DeCastro said. “Sometimes you’re going to have one of those weeks.”
One followed by three more just like it. A steady but ultimately futile effort by backup quarterback Landry Jones in a home loss to New England . A somnambulant 21-14 performance on the road in Baltimore when Roethlisberger returned. Then the potential dagger: a 35-30 setback at Heinz Field to Dallas in which Roethlisberger hit Antonio Brown on a fake spike touchdown to give Pittsburgh the lead with 42 seconds left only to see the Cowboys go right back down the field to win it.
Roethlisberger vented afterward, saying it was time for everyone to be accountable, a subtler version of the challenge Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers offered with his team floundering at 4-6 as Thanksgiving approached. While the quarterback has been better, so have the players around him, following a trend that’s become the hallmark of Tomlin’s decade-long tenure.
“We need to be a better team at the end of the thing than we are at the beginning of the thing because that’s just how it goes,” Tomlin said.
Something the Steelers have been when December rolls around. Pittsburgh is 13-1 in regular season games played in December or January during their run to three straight postseason berths, the first time the Steelers have done that since reaching the playoffs from 1992-97.
Tomlin, as is his habit, downplayed the idea that any one move produced a turnaround. It’s a season. Things evolve based on health, experience (or lack thereof) and opportunity. Over the last two months Pittsburgh’s stars have remained out of the trainer’s room. Rookie defenders Sean Davis, Artie Burns and Javon Hargrave grew up. And an unheralded offensive supporting cast began to figure things out. Ageless James Harrison and protege Bud Dupree put an end to the rotation at outside linebacker. Villanueva and the rest of the line became the cohesive, pile-pushing force Tomlin and Munchak envisioned in August.
One game, one play, one sequence didn’t get things right. The accumulation of small things over time did.
“When I say it’s business as usual, it doesn’t mean it’s without change,” Tomlin said. “It’s getting a more black-and-white personality.”
One that’s taken a cue from its coach and its quarterback. The Steelers don’t talk about averaging 30 points a game anymore like they did during the preseason. They talk about scoring one more point than the opposition. They’re heavy favorites to dispatch the injury-riddled Dolphins. Yet as distant as that forgettable afternoon in Miami seems, a glance at the tape this week is a reminder of just how quickly mojo can disappear.
“I think just the process galvanizes the group,” Tomlin said. “You learn from your failures.”
NOTES: TE Ladarius Green remains in the concussion protocol but Tomlin said Green “is progressing very well.” Green missed the last two games of the regular season after taking a helmet-to-helmet hit against Cincinnati on Dec. 18. … WR Sammie Coates (hamstring) and DE Stephon Tuitt (knee) are expected to practice this week.