By WILL GRAVES
The Associated Press
PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin likens the season to a moving train that stops for no one. Not even his talented if enigmatic team.
After a month teetering on the brink of getting left behind, the Steelers appear to be primed for another late playoff push. Their clinical 28-7 victory over Indianapolis on Thanksgiving night vaulted Pittsburgh (6-5) back over .500 and at least briefly atop the AFC North.
“It lets us set the stage of what we know we can do,” said running back Le’Veon Bell.
Particularly when Bell, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver Antonio Brown are working in rhythm and the defense is freed to be aggressive. Bell ran for 120 yards and a touchdown, while Roethlisberger and Brown hooked up for three scores against the undermanned Colts. The defense picked up three sacks to give the Steelers 11 in a span of five days after getting just 13 over the first nine weeks. It added a pair of goal-line stands to avoid the kind of road meltdown that’s plagued them far too often in recent years.
“Guys are definitely trying to make plays,” linebacker Ryan Shazier said. “Trying to be around the ball a lot more. Trying to be more physical and force the people to do what we want them to do.”
Those were things Pittsburgh failed to do during a four-game losing streak that sapped the Steelers of the swagger that carried them to a 4-1 start. They weren’t quite as flashy while stopping Cleveland and methodically dismantling Andrew Luck-less Indianapolis, but that might not necessarily be a bad thing.
Three early scores Thursday night gave them plenty of breathing room, and while they didn’t quite overwhelm backup Scott Tolzien, the Colts never really threatened the rest of the way.
Yet the typically brash Brown isn’t quite ready to say his team’s midseason swoon is firmly in the rearview mirror. Asked after the first three-touchdown game of his career if the Steelers have finally found their identity, he shrugged his shoulders and said simply it’s “to be determined.”
Maybe, but the blueprint might have been laid over eight quarters spanning barely over 100 hours. With defensive end Cam Heyward out for the season with a torn pectoral muscle, Pittsburgh has ditched the no-huddle offense and relied heavily on Bell to carry the load and run the clock to keep the defense off the field.
Bell touched the ball 63 times (51 carries, 12 receptions) for 345 total yards against the Browns and Colts. The Steelers are 9-2 in Bell’s career when he goes over 100 yards rushing, including 3-0 this season.
Center Maurkice Pouncey said earlier in the week any offensive linemen needs to do some serious self-examination every game its running back fails to reach the century mark on the ground. Pouncey, guards Ramon Foster and David DeCastro and tackles Marcus Gilbert and Alejandro Villaneuva then went out and backed it up, giving Bell plenty of room to do his thing while keep Roethlisberger from being sacked for the second straight game.
“I don’t think Ben was really under duress too much, and I wasn’t hit in the backfield too many times,” Bell said. “So those guys did a great job. They were hungry. They love running the ball. They love hitting people.”
Something the Steelers will need to continue to do as they gird for a three-game stretch that includes a visit from the streaking New York Giants on Dec. 4. Then come trips to Buffalo and Cincinnati, places where the weather can be a factor as the calendar creeps toward Christmas.
Pittsburgh heads in that direction with something akin to momentum.
“We know it’s time,” Brown said. “It’s time for us to roll our sleeves up, show our identity, put our will on display and find a way to do what we desire to do.”