NFL Football

First-place Steelers know there's work to do in second half

(AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)

By WILL GRAVES

AP Sports Writer

PITTSBURGH (AP) The man in charge of managing the combustible mix of talent and egos on the Pittsburgh Steelers' offense likes to choose his words carefully. Still, Todd Haley couldn't help but take a not-so- thinly veiled shot at the outside noise that surrounded his group after a lifeless loss to Jacksonville a month ago.

"The world was coming to an end," the offensive coordinator said sarcastically.

Not quite. The Steelers responded with three consecutive wins to reach the midpoint at 6-2, tied for the best record in the AFC, with a user-friendly second-half schedule that includes five of their final seven games at Heinz Field.

Pittsburgh has done it while weathering a fair amount of self-inflicted drama, from a "botched" attempt to sidestep the national anthem controversy to Martavis Bryant's pouting to Ben Roethlisberger's facetious questioning on whether he still had "it" after throwing a pair of pick-6s against the Jaguars.

The reality is maybe the 35-year-old Roethlisberger doesn't, at least not like he used to. His current quarterback rating (82.0) is his lowest since 2008. He's thrown just one more touchdown (10) than interceptions (nine), and yet the Steelers are firmly atop the AFC North. It's a trade-off Roethlisberger can more than live with considering he's well aware he and the rest of the offense can play better.

So what if his downfield accuracy is a bit off? So what if Pittsburgh has gone over 30 points once in its last 14 games Roethlisberger has started? So what if the Steelers are 20th in points scored? He doesn't particularly care. Neither do his teammates.

Roethlisberger's favorite sequence last Sunday night against Detroit wasn't his floater to JuJu Smith-Schuster that ended with the rookie sprinting 97 yards to give the Steelers all the breathing room they needed. It came with the ball in his hands, the clock ticking toward zero and victory in hand .

"That's the greatest play in football, when you can take a knee to seal it," Roethlisberger said. "When we can find ways to win football games, our defense is stepping up huge. We need them to keep playing like that because the offense is going to come around."

If what the Steelers have done each of the last three falls is any indication, he's right. Pittsburgh is a combined 19-5 over the second half of a schedule since 2014. The late surges have propelled the Steelers increasingly closer to the Super Bowl. They believe another one is at hand if they stay the course.

"The No. 1 thing is winning," Haley said. "I don't think we've played our best ball offensively, but we're in good position."

Making sure Bryant, who Pittsburgh decided to hold on to at the trade deadline despite his obvious unhappiness about a lack of touches, is involved would likely help. The Steelers deactivated him in Detroit as punishment for taking to social media to air his grievances. They're also well aware they'll need him to get it going if they want to finally leapfrog New England.

"I'm just looking for continued growth (from Bryant)," Haley said. "It's just the whole group working together, Martavis included, and continue to evolve and find our rhythm as an offense, because it is a process and you have to respect that it's a process. You're not a finished product and I think our guys understand that."

The Steelers have been able to survive anyway thanks to the typical brilliance from Antonio Brown, who leads the league in receptions and yards receiving; running back Le'Veon Bell; and the precocious play of Smith-Schuster. The 20-year-old already has four touchdown receptions, the most by an NFL player before his 21st birthday. Smith-Schuster has also provided a needed dose of youthful energy, from his viral touchdown celebrations to his love for his (briefly) stolen bicycle.

Smith-Schuster's presence both on the field and off has provided an antidote and a dash of perspective. The player who spent high school sleeping in a garage is simply happy to be here. He's just as happy blocking as he is racing to the end zone, a selflessness that has quickly endeared him to guys nearly a full generation older.

"He really does not like to make mistakes," wide receivers coach Richard Mann said. "It kills him. Therefore, he really works hard at not making mistakes, and I think that's what we see on the field."

That's an attitude shared by a defense that has grown up quickly. Pittsburgh is tied for second in points allowed and is third in sacks. Rookie linebacker T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree have helped restore the menace to the pass rush. Joe Haden's arrival gave the secondary a proven cornerback to lead a young group that includes budding second-year stars Artie Burns and Sean Davis.

Yet the real test lies ahead. The Patriots visit Heinz Field in December in what could be a battle for home-field advantage in the playoffs. Don't expect the Steelers to go into cruise control until then. Even at 6-2, there's much work to be done.

"We still can go back, look at the film and, `Oh look, we can clean this up. We can do this,'" Bell said. "We know we haven't played our best football yet and we're just glad that we're able to get the wins where we're getting them, whether they're pretty or not."

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Updated November 2, 2017

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