DRESSED IN A BLACK Pittsburgh Steeler's shirt, the woman sniffed back tears as she cleared her way through the still busy monument to the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill, gently and unconsciously rolling a little stone into her right palm. I never planned to start the Steelers diary this week with a visit to Squirrel Hill, but you soon realize that there is no way to separate the two in this city: on this Monday morning, the two items above the fold in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette are James Conner and the Squirrel Hill Massacre. There are more parallels: David and Cecil Rosenthal, two of the 11 victims in the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the history of the United States, were brothers of Michele Rosenthal, the former manager of the community relations of the team; head coach Mike Tomlin also lives a block from the synagogue, near Art Rooney II; two coaches Steelers players, along with the Hall of Fame at the back of Franco Harris, attended the funeral of the victims last week. In Baltimore, eight days after the attack, Ben Roethlisberger wore clogs with the now ubiquitous logo & Stronger Than Hate & # 39; with the star of David as part of the Steelers logo.
That logo can be found everywhere at this monument, this week held in Tree of Life – still framed by yellow police band and full of flowers, candles, rain-soaked plates and heartbreaking personal notes. It is painted on the stones that grieving people have left behind for the dead, according to Jewish customs. There are thousands of stones here now, some sitting dangerously four, five high on top of the nameplates and when you start thinking about the huge, collective carpet of grief they form, it is immediately overwhelming. The rest of the world may have gone on to the next mass shooting – another 13 deaths just 12 days later, in Thousand Oaks, California – but the suffering in Squirrel Hill lingers.
Even here, the Steelers mean something. Along with the stones, which contain the team logo, there is a man in a wheelchair who expresses his respect while wearing a Troy Polamalu sweater with throwback. A woman is standing by a steel barricade, bent in prayer, holding up a giant poster and asking people to put a steel curtain of love around the tree of life. "It is clear that everyone still feels the pain, but the Steelers have helped to unite this community and support these poor families," says Dr. Stanley Marks, a lifetime Pittsburgh resident, Pitt grad and the president of the nearby UPMC Hillman Cancer Center. "Forget about sports – this team is an important part of the community."
After leaving Tree of Life, I walked up a hill to the Commonplace Coffeehouse on Forbes Avenue, which had recently received a $ 650 donation – free coffee for everyone on Saturday, November 3 – of citizens in Newtown, Connecticut, who had witnessed the massive shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. Only a few months ago I was working in Jacksonville on a story about a shooting at a Madden tournament. The killer walked right past a giant poster of the latest Madden NFL cover, with Steelers all over Antonio Brown. Sports used to be our escape, but the Steelers now represent the new normal: each of us connected, sometimes in multiple ways, with mass shooting.
As I walked back to my car, a strange thumping sound struck me in my tracks at the foot of the Jewish community center on the west side of Squirrel Hill, where the bell tower is in Hebrew, the flag half-mast and the steps remain covered with flowers. Eventually I followed the sound to a large bay window in front of the building where toddlers had been sitting on the windowsill in the shelter of the center and struck the glass until each passerby stopped what they were doing to smile and wave back to them. .
Even the bus drivers stopped at their stops to open their doors to wave to the children. As they did, the information screens flashed on the sides of the buses with the words Pittsburgh Strong.
SQUIRREL HILL IS 3.6 miles from the practice of the Steelers south of the center on the banks of the River Monongahela. It is a unique, picturesque setting where old and new Pittsburgh mixes and young workers enter the headquarters of American Eagle, strolling along gigantic pieces of old steel mills that stick like modern art sculptures along the banks of the river. After the late Steelers return from Baltimore on Sunday, most of the action at the factory on Monday morning on the adjacent river where a Murray-American tugboat churns the water struggles to push a rusty chain of coal barrels a few hundred feet long.
The dressing room is so deserted, in fact, that when backpacking Zach Banner comes in, he calls to the collected media: "Boys, we are not here, why are you here?" Backup QB Josh Dobbs comes wearing Apple earplugs, plastic bracelets that say "Humble over Hype" and a backpack covered with Marvel characters. (Rookie quarterback Mason Rudolph's styling is not much better – his Christmas sweater is a collage of Seinfeld's George Costanza, clearly taking signals from Roethlisberger, who occasionally shuffles through the locker room in old, messy UGG slippers. I also have a pair and they are ridiculously comfortable.) Dobbs, on the other hand, looks like, well, a rocket scientist – what he is, after graduating aeronautics from Tennessee in 2017. He remains just long enough to calculate that his great backup appearance against the Ravens after Roethlisberger was awakened – a (critical!) Pass for 22 yards – earned him a QB score of 118.8.
Roethlisberger was perfect against the Panthers, and the Rollende Steelers were not far away to show that their season could still turn out to be special.
Newton seemed rumbling and the 52 points allowed the Steelers to tie a record of the Panthers team. Newton & Co. play now three of the next four on the road.
Above, after spending most of the night looking at Carolina – the four-day turnaround before Thursday night's football is brutal – Tomlin addresses a packaged media room. After tackling Le'Bon Bell's extensive endurance on Sunday – "We do not want volunteers as hostages" – he says no word today about his missing All-Pro. Instead, he raves about linebackers from Panthers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, as far as comparing them to the iconic duo of Chicago Bears by Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. Around the neck of Tomlin hang two chains: one holds a cross, the other a whistle. An army green hat hides his exhausted eyes. At one point, Tomlin is missing, and instead of complimenting the Panthers with & # 39; fundamentally & # 39; to be, he calls them a "fundamentalist group." Asked about the ridiculous and dangerous idea to recover and prepare to play such a ruthless, demanding game in less than four days, Tomlin shrugs that speaks volumes: "This is what you sign up for."
Tomlin is able to say one interesting, remarkable thing when he talks about the numerous rotations of the staff in the fight against the defense. With one count, the Steelers used their basic defense in only 13 percent of the games against the Ravens. It is no longer strange to see that Steelers' defense uses seven defensive backs while players are more likely to be in the action than the penguins. It is genius. To try to compensate for the loss of defensive leader Ryan Shazier, who suffered a cross injury in 2017, and the decline of the former first round, corner Artie Burns, Tomlin turned the steel curtain in the steel quilt to get the most out of his selection from above down. (Although: he does not talk to the media, Shazier keeps recovering and is acting as a de facto coach this season, we exchanged a quick greeting in a door near the team cafeteria where Shazier carried a large cardboard box and looked at haste you go to a meeting.)
With boys injured and so many misses on the draft picks in the secondary, Tomlin had no choice but to stop with so much static zone-base coverage (the kind that Patrick Mahomes easily managed to exploit in week 2) and concept I tried never thought I would see in Pittsburgh: Embrace the Chaos. And there is plenty to embrace here: horrible injuries, blowout losses, unprecedented holdouts, ridiculous off-the-field problems – and that's just in the past month. Defensively, however, embracing the chaos works for this team, and it means trying things like six defensive backs, sometimes seven, and asking 5-foot-9 slot corner Mike Hilton to blitz more often. What Steelers truly excels in, according to Matt Bowen of ESPN, is "Big" dime, where instead of using the traditional four corners and two safeties, Pittsburgh uses three corners and three protections. This extra "joker" safety is stronger against the flight and better against a tight end, which puts the important matchup advantage for the Steelers to the test.
All moving parts of this complicated scheme, such as the second sugar crawling the Steelers use defensive ridges after the initial defensive creep and the innumerable hand signals they use to communicate for the click, is remarkable to see. In the 100-year chess game between violation and defense, this is the next move.
As Tomlin said, "Sub is the basis in today's NFL."
To get it done, Tomlin has to rely on communication at the next level in the field (which took time), boys who make pre-snap reads smarter and faster, and the accelerated development of young, explosive players like rookie- security Terrell Edmunds, who came in for a long week on Monday to speed up his recovery after playing in all 61 snaps in Baltimore. He gave the steelers the guilty start of "bad communication," but said, "we become the defense we wanted." That is partly due to Edmunds and his erratic athletic skills, including a 41.5-inch vertical. Nike is in a towel and Nike golf flip-flops and looks at the tile ceiling in the Steelers locker room. It is at least 12 feet high, maybe more, but for simple mortals, frankly, it can be as good as 50 feet. Edmunds can touch it, flat.
Can he go higher?
"Maybe," he says, "if you put a dollar there or something like that."
I think the air is really the limit for this defense.
AT THE OFFICE from Steelers attacking coordinator Randy Fichtner, opposite the top of the Nerf hoop (transparent plastic board and spring loaded edge) and positioned next to a black and white photo of the late Dan Rooney on the sidelines, there is a newly framed photograph that Fichtner just added to his favorite collection has added. It is a shot from inside the Steelers locker room just before their pre-season game against the Eagles, and it shows the Roethlisberger court as a statesman alongside an enraged group of young Steelers back-up baseballs, including Dobbs and Mason Rudolph. "As soon as I saw that, I framed it and gave each person a given," says Fichtner. "You can feel respect between the old guard and the young guns, I love the way it shows intensity and mentoring."
In May, Roethlisberger 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh said he was "surprised" that the team used the 76th pick-over on Rudolph and he did not seem to be willing to accompany the rookie. Later Roethlisberger said he was only joking. But after his public battles with former offensive coordinator Todd Haley, after throwing teammates like Martavis Bryant and others who were so often on the bus, you had half expected that Roethlisberger would need a shoulder operation after supposedly (repeatedly) studying pension, after shedding blame to "the young boys" because they lost to the Patriots in the 2016 playoffs – after so many divalike faux pas, my feeling is that the photo in Fichtner's office proves that Roethlisberger, in addition to perhaps his best statistical season ever, also makes a joint effort to to relate to and manage the younger players of the team, especially in the absence of Bell. (Remember: JuJu Smith-Schuster was all 12 in 2009 when Roethlisberger Santonio hit Holmes with the touchdown to win the Super Bowl XLIII.)
"Ben has not blinked," says Fichtner. "You want your full armor Well, Bell is an All-Pro player who is not part of our group right now, but Ben has had a calming effect, he said:" Hey, he's not here, so let's go on, and when he comes here, great. "Ben not only helped with the planning of the game and football, but also, with Bell away, the idea to say to everyone:" Hey, we'll be fine, we are good. He's not here, James will come up, so just get over, let's do this. & # 39; "
The only thing that Roethlisberger has not changed? Its uber-competitiveness. He is a nut, even when it comes to things like ping pong or Nerf hoops. Every week, Steelers' quarterers set up college passers-by in their fantasy league, and they've just found out that Roethlisberger has called Kirk Herbstreit for insider info. "He competes everywhere, even in social settings," says Fichtner. "It's like:" Oh, should I puff this beer now because you're chugging it? "
ONLY FOR THE Design from 2017, Steelers owner Art Rooney II was on a charity golfing event in Pittsburgh when Stanley Marks, a relative and chairman of the Hillman Cancer Center of UPMC, who treated some of the Rooneys, offered him a design advice. & # 39; Look, I do not know anything about football talent or anything about it, & # 39; said Mark to Rooney, "but this boy, James Conner, is someone you want in your locker, someone you need in your football team. & # 39;
It was quite an approval from Marks. Finally, in December 2015, he was the one to inform Conner, followed by a Pitt who had flattened himself as ACC player of the year, that he had Hodgkin's lymphoma, stage 2b and a tumor in his chest. then six inches wide that would require 12 chemo treatments in the next six months. The mass was so great that he even pushed Conner's heart and blocked the drainage of the veins in the upper part of his body. "Oh my god, yes, I was surprised, the crowd was just huge," says Marks. "Honestly, he had waited a few more weeks, he might have had a major catastrophe in his brain or heart."
Wednesday afternoon I was about to stake out the LA Fitness on the north side of Pittsburgh, where Le & # 39; Veon Bell had played the night before, when I got a call from Marks that saved me from what could have been an all- lowlight career career. (Even lower than the time I got recorded in a goal post of Mark Wahlberg set by the film.) There seemed to be a message in the timing: as talented as Bell is, maybe it's time to chase every move and analyze his tweet and focus, instead on the Steelers' amazing offensive line – and on Conner who, in two and a half years, has gone from chemo patient to an NFL MVP candidate.
"I have two sons, 32 and 35, and they are great, I am blessed," says Marks. & # 39; But I tease them and tell them: & # 39; When you grow up, I want you to look like James Conner. & # 39; Everyone in Pittsburgh just fell in love with the man, he has become an icon in this city. & # 39;
This is partly thanks to Marks, who not only handled Conner, but who promised before the concept to a worried Tomlin that there was only a 10-15 percent chance of a relapse. (That number has since fallen into a few figures.) Conner trained through his chemo treatments, was declared cancer free in May 2016 and returned to Pitt for his senior season. Before the public became aware that Steelers had selected him in the third round of the 2017 draft, Marks received a message from Steelers' team doctor: He is next. "We have all just gone crazy," says Marks. Conner goes to UPMC for checks every three to four months and has become a relative of Marks, who found tears of joy after Conner's first NFL landing in week 1. "To think of where he was and what he has experienced, and to see all the success that he had, I could not help it, "says Marks. "A few weeks ago he told me that his goal was to make the Pro Bowl, and I said:" Great, I hope that happens. "Inside I was thinking, really? Now I think he could just do it. "
Conner has been on an epic tear last month and became the first player in NFL history with four races of 100 yards rushing, 50 yards received and a touchdown in the same season. No wonder when Marks ran into Rooney recently, the Steelers owner grabbed his arm and said, "Boy, oh, dear, you were right about this."
THURSDAY EVENING, A Seven weeks before Christmas, Heinz Field is already wrapped in gigantic holiday wreaths and dotted with menorahs and Christmas trees. With the 6-2 Panthers in town, it seemed rather presumptuous to party so quickly – for everything from about 10 minutes, to Smith-Schuster, the most productive slot recipient in the league (and the only big trick-of-go or -handling in his full uniform) scored on a pass of 75 yards and, in the next series, forced pressure from TJ Watt Cam Newton in giving a pick-6 lob to Vince Williams. And just like that, with 13 points in 14 seconds, what was supposed to be a kind of epic Clash of Conference Heavyweights, essentially a second day week for the Steelers. The same Steelers who started 1-2-1, with their fifth win in a row, have now established themselves as legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
Even the Steelers Twitter account was straightforward fire.
"Thank you, next," the team tweeted after the game, channeling Ariana Grande.
The scene in Steelers' locker room was just as joyful – & # 39; rockin & # 39; is as Smith-Schuster described it – as I have seen during the regular season. That might also have something to do with the five free days that Tomlin gave to the team after the game. Tomlin was crazy about how the Steelers reacted this week – when he walked past the defensive tackle Cam Heyward, the coach gave him what I would describe as a enthusiastic swat over his back. Heck, even Rooney, who quietly made his way through the chaos, thanked players personally, seemed to have a perma grin on his face. There is a sign in the dressing room, written in the Steelers font, that says "The standard is the standard", and it must be especially worthwhile for Rooney to see his team respond so powerfully after a tough September, a demanding week and the gruesome events in Squirrel Hill. Roethlisberger, who threw more touchdowns than incompletions and had a perfect passer rating, again wore his "Stronger Than Hate" shoe plates. Most of the defensive background field wore T-shirts with the same logo while warming up for the game. (The only breaker: after he scored his 10th TD, Conner was taken out of the game to be judged for a concussion.)
"It was a crazy week, a very short week", says guard David DeCastro. "There were times when we did not know what day it was." "Boys were angry, annoyed, September was a wake-up call for this team, but we are now shooting all cylinders and building trust." You can see it in our game, certainly."
Near where DeCastro was talking – he also said he just channeled his inner hockey player when he went after him Eric Reid for the main search of Roethlisberger – there is a wooden and glass cabinet in the middle of Steelers' dressing room with 18 different championships, all the way back to a vintage black-red cap that the team has earned for the 1994 AFC Central Championship. If the rest of the season is something like this week in Pittsburgh, they need a bigger business.
While the locker room was nearly empty, Smith-Schuster glided by, heading for the stadium's exit with a bright red suit, red Gucci sneakers and a green tweed tie. He perfectly matched the Christmas decorations at Heinz Field.
Only this Steelers team could transform such a sad, chaotic week into Christmas in November.