Pittsburgh Strong: Inside a tumultuous week with the Steelers

DRESSED IN A BLACK Pittsburgh Steelers shirt, the woman sniffed back tears as she made her way through the still-crowded memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill, gently, unconsciously rolling a small stone in her right palm. I never intended to start this “week with the Steelers” diary with a visit to Squirrel Hill, but you realize quickly that, in this town, there’s no way to separate the two: 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 United States history, were brothers of Michele Rosenthal, the team’s former community relations manager; head coach Mike Tomlin lives a block from the synagogue, near Art Rooney II, as well; two buses of Steelers players, along with Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris, attended the victims’ funerals last week. In Baltimore, eight days after the attack, Ben Roethlisberger sported cleats with the now ubiquitous “Stronger Than Hate” logo featuring the star of David as part of the Steelers logo.

That logo is everywhere at this memorial, held this week at Tree of Life — still framed by yellow police tape and bursting with flowers, candles, rain-soaked signs and heart-breaking personal notes. It’s painted onto the stones that mourners have left behind for the dead, following Jewish custom. There are thousands of stones here now, some precariously stacked four, five high, on top of the nameplates, and when you begin to contemplate the massive, collective tapestry of grief they form, it’s instantly overwhelming. The rest of the world may have moved on already to the next mass shooting — another 13 dead just 12 days later, in Thousand Oaks, California — but the sorrow in Squirrel Hill lingers.

Even here, the Steelers mean something. Along with the stones, which feature the team logo, there is a man in a wheelchair paying his respects while wearing a throwback Troy Polamalu jersey. A woman stands at a steel barricade, bowed in prayer, holding up a giant poster asking people to put a Steel Curtain of love around the Tree of Life. “Obviously, everyone is still really feeling the pain, but the Steelers have been instrumental in uniting this community and supporting these poor families,” says Dr. Stanley Marks, a lifelong Pittsburgh resident, Pitt grad and the chairman of the nearby UPMC Hillman Cancer Center. “Forget sports — this team is an important fabric of the community.”

After leaving Tree of Life, I walked up a small hill to the Commonplace Coffeehouse on Forbes Avenue, which had recently received a $650 donation — free coffee for all on Saturday, Nov. 3 — from citizens in Newtown, Connecticut, who experienced the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. Just a few months ago, I was in Jacksonville, working on a story about a shooting at a Madden tournament. The killer walked right by a giant poster of the latest Madden NFL cover, featuring Steelers wideout Antonio Brown. Sports used to be our escape, but the Steelers represent the new normal now: Each of us connected, sometimes in multiple ways, to a mass shooting.

As I walked back to my car, a strange thumping noise stopped me in my tracks at the foot of the Jewish Community Center on the west side of Squirrel Hill, where the clock tower is in Hebrew, the flag is at half-mast and the steps remain covered in flowers. Eventually I traced the sound to a large bay window at the front of the building where toddlers in the center’s day care had crowded onto the windowsill and were pounding on the glass until each passerby stopped what they were doing to smile and wave back at them.

Even the bus drivers were pulling up short of their stop to open their doors to wave to the kids. As they did, the info screens on the sides of the buses flashed the words: Pittsburgh Strong.

SQUIRREL HILL IS 3.6 miles from the Steelers’ practice facility south of downtown on the banks of the Monongahela River. It’s a unique, picturesque setting here where old and new Pittsburgh mix and young employees headed into the nearby American Eagle headquarters stroll past massive pieces salvaged from old steel mills that dot the riverbank like modern art sculptures. After the Steelers’ late return from Baltimore on Sunday, the most action at the facility on Monday morning is on the river next-door, where a Murray American tugboat is churning the water, struggling to push a rusty chain of coal barges several hundred feet long.

The locker room is so deserted, in fact, that when backup tackle Zach Banner enters, he yells at the assembled media, “Guys, we’re not here, why are you here?” Backup QB Josh Dobbs comes in wearing Apple earbuds, plastic bracelets that say “Humble over Hype” and a backpack covered in Marvel characters. (Rookie quarterback Mason Rudolph’s styling isn’t much better — his Christmas sweater is a collage of Seinfeld’s George Costanza. They’re clearly taking cues from Roethlisberger, who occasionally shuffles through the locker room in ratty old UGGs slippers. Although, for the record, I own a pair as well, and they are ridiculously comfy.) Dobbs, on the other hand, looks like, well, a rocket scientist — which he is, having earned an aerospace engineering degree from Tennessee in 2017. He stays just long enough to calculate that his stellar backup appearance against the Ravens after Roethlisberger was shaken up — one (critical!) pass for 22 yards — earned him a career QB rating of 118.8.

Upstairs, after watching film on Carolina for most of the night — the four-day turnaround before Thursday Night Football is brutal — Tomlin addresses a packed media room. After addressing Le’Veon Bell’s extended holdout on Sunday — “We want volunteers not hostages” — he doesn’t say a word about his missing All-Pro back today. Instead, he raves about Panthers linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, going so far as to compare them to the Chicago Bears’ iconic duo of Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. Hanging around Tomlin’s neck are two chains: One holds a cross, the other a whistle. An Army-green hat hides his exhausted eyes. At one point, Tomlin misspeaks, and instead of complimenting the Panthers on being “fundamental,” he calls them a “fundamentalist group.” When asked about the ridiculous, and dangerous, idea of recovering and preparing to play such a brutal, demanding game in less than four days, Tomlin says with a shrug that speaks volumes, “This is what you sign up for.”

Tomlin does manage to say one interesting, notable thing when speaking about the Steelers’ myriad personnel rotations on defense. By one count, the Steelers used their base defense in just 13 percent of the plays against the Ravens. It’s no longer strange to see the Steelers defense use seven defensive backs while rotating players into the action more often than the Penguins. It’s genius, really. To try to make up for the loss of defensive leader Ryan Shazier, who suffered a spinal injury in 2017, and the regression of former first-round pick, corner Artie Burns, Tomlin turned the Steel Curtain into the Steel Quilt in order to get the most out of his roster from top to bottom. (BTW: Although he’s not talking to the media, Shazier continues to recover and is acting as a de-facto coach this season. We exchanged a quick greeting in a doorway near the team cafeteria where Shazier was carrying a large cardboard box and looked to be hurrying to a meeting.)

With guys hurt and so many misses on draft picks in the secondary, Tomlin had no choice but to stop running so much static, zone base coverage (the kind that Patrick Mahomes easily exploited for six TD passes in Week 2) and try a concept I never thought I’d see in Pittsburgh: Embrace the Chaos. And there’s been plenty to embrace here: horrific injuries, blowout losses, unprecedented holdouts, ridiculous off-the-field issues — and that’s just in the last month. Defensively, though, embracing the chaos works for this team, and it means trying stuff like six defensive backs, sometimes seven, and asking 5-foot-9 slot corner Mike Hilton to blitz more often. What the Steelers really excel in, though, according to ESPN’s Matt Bowen, is “Big” dime, where instead of using the traditional four corners and two safeties, Pittsburgh uses three corners and three safeties. That extra “joker” safety is stronger against the run and better at covering a tight end, which tips the all-important matchup advantage to the Steelers.

All the moving pieces of this complicated scheme, like the second sugar huddle the Steelers defensive backs use after the initial defensive huddle and the myriad hand signals they employee to communicate before the snap, is remarkable to watch. In the 100-year-old chess match between offense and defense, this is the next move.

As Tomlin put it: “Sub is base in today’s NFL.”

To pull it off, Tomlin has to rely on next-level communication on the field (that’s taken time), guys making smarter and quicker pre-snap reads, and the accelerated development of young, explosive players like rookie safety Terrell Edmunds, who came in for a long soak on Monday to expedite his recovery after playing in all 61 snaps in Baltimore. He blamed the Steelers’ slow start on “bad communication” but says “we’re becoming the defense we wanted to be.” That’s in part because of Edmunds and his freakish athletic skills, which include a 41.5-inch vertical. Standing in a towel and Nike golf flip-flops, Edmunds glances up at the tile ceiling in the Steelers locker room. It’s at least 12 feet high, maybe more, but to mere mortals, honestly, it might as well be 50 feet. Edmunds can touch it, flat-footed.

Could he go higher?

“Maybe,” he says, “if you put a dollar up there or something.”

I guess the sky really is the limit for this defense.

IN THE OFFICE of Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner, across from the top-of-the-line Nerf hoop (clear plastic backboard and spring-loaded rim) and positioned next to a black-and-white photo of the late Dan Rooney on the sidelines, there’s a newly framed photo Fichtner just added to his collection of favorites. It’s a shot from inside the Steelers locker room moments before their preseason game against the Eagles, and it shows Roethlisberger holding court like a statesman next to an enraptured group of young Steelers backup quarterbacks, including Dobbs and Mason Rudolph. “As soon as I saw that, I framed it and gave one to each guy,” Fichtner says. “You can feel the respect between the old guard and the young guns. I love the way it shows intensity and mentorship.”

In May, Roethlisberger told 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh that he was “surprised” the team used the 76th pick overall on Rudolph, and he seemed to balk at the idea of mentoring 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 under the bus so often, you half expected Roethlisberger to need shoulder surgery after supposedly (repeatedly) contemplating retirement, after seeming to blame “the young guys” for losing to the Patriots in the 2016 playoffs — after so many divalike faux pas, my sense is that the picture in Fichtner’s office is proof that on top of having perhaps his best statistical season ever, Roethlisberger is also making a concerted effort to relate to, and lead, the team’s younger players, especially in Bell’s absence. (Remember: Schuster-Smith was all of 12 when Roethlisberger, 36, hit Santonio Holmes with the toe-touch touchdown to win Super Bowl XLIII.)

“Ben hasn’t blinked,” Fichtner says. “You want your full complement of weapons. Well, Bell is an All-Pro player that’s not part of our group right now. But Ben has been a calming effect. He’s said, ‘Hey, he’s not here, so let’s move on, and when he does get here, great.’ Ben has helped not just in game planning and football things, but also, with Bell gone, the idea of saying to everyone, ‘Hey, we’re gonna be okay, we’re good. He’s not here, James will step up, so get over it, let’s do this.'”

The one thing Roethlisberger hasn’t changed? His uber-competitiveness. He’s a nut, even when it comes to stuff like ping pong or Nerf hoops. Each week, the Steelers quarterbacks draft college passers in their fantasy league, and they just now figured out that Roethlisberger has been calling Kirk Herbstreit for insider info. “He competes at everything, even in social settings,” Fichtner says. “It’s like ‘Oh, am I supposed to be chugging this beer right now because you’re chugging it?'”

JUST BEFORE THE 2017 draft, Steelers owner Art Rooney II was at a charity golf outing in Pittsburgh when Stanley Marks, a family friend and the chairman of the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center who has treated several of the Rooneys, offered him some unsolicited draft advice. “Listen, I don’t know anything about football talent or anything about drafting,” Marks told Rooney, “but this kid James Conner is someone you want in your locker room, someone you need on your football team.”

It was quite an endorsement coming from Marks. After all, in December 2015, he was the one who had to inform Conner, then a Pitt running back who had bulldozed his way to ACC Player of the Year, that he had Hodgkin lymphoma, stage 2b, and a tumor in his chest more than six inches wide that would require 12 chemo treatments over the next six months. The mass was so big, in fact, that it was pushing on Conner’s heart and blocking the drainage from the veins in the upper part of his body. “Oh my god, yes, I was taken aback, the mass was just enormous,” Marks says. “Frankly, had he waited a few more weeks, he could have had a major catastrophe in his brain or cardiac-wise.”

Wednesday afternoon, I was about to go stake out the LA Fitness on the north side of Pittsburgh, where Le’Veon Bell had played pick-up hoops the night before, when I got a call from Marks that saved me from what could have been an all-time career lowlight. (Even lower than the time I got taped to a movie-set goal post by Mark Wahlberg.) There seemed to be a message in the timing: As talented as Bell is, maybe it’s time to stop chasing his every move and analyzing his every 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’re great. I’m blessed,” Marks says. “But I tease them and tell them, ‘When you guys grow up, I want you to be like James Conner.’ Everyone in Pittsburgh has just fallen in love with the guy. He’s become an icon in this town.”

That’s thanks, in part, to Marks, who not only treated Conner but who vowed to a concerned Tomlin before the draft that there was just a 10-15 percent chance of a relapse. (That number has since fallen into single digits.) Conner trained through his chemo treatments, was declared cancer-free in May 2016 and returned to play for Pitt for his senior season. Before it went public that the Steelers had selected him in the third round of the 2017 draft, Marks got a message from the Steelers’ team doctor: He’s next. “We all just went crazy,” Marks says. Conner still goes to UPMC every three to four months for checkups and has become like a family member to Marks, who found himself crying tears of joy after Conner’s first NFL touchdown in Week 1. “To think where he was and what he’s been through, and to see all the success he’s had, I couldn’t help it,” Marks says. “A few weeks ago, he told me 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 just might do it.”

Conner has been on an epic tear the last month, becoming the first player in NFL history with four games of 100 yards rushing, 50 yards receiving and a touchdown in the same season. No wonder when Marks bumped into Rooney recently the Steelers owner grabbed him by the arm and said: “Boy, oh boy, you were certainly right about this one.”

THURSDAY NIGHT, A full seven weeks before Christmas, Heinz Field is already swathed in giant holiday wreaths and dotted with menorahs and Christmas trees. With the 6-2 Panthers in town, it seemed rather presumptuous to be celebrating so soon — for all of about 10 minutes, until JuJu Smith-Schuster, the most productive slot receiver in the league (and the only wideout to go trick-or-treating in his full uniform) scored on a 75-yard pass and, on the next series, pressure from TJ Watt forced Cam Newton into gifting a pick-6 lob to Vince Williams. And just like that, with 13 points in 14 seconds, what was supposed to be some kind of epic Clash of Conference Heavyweights turned into, essentially, a second bye week for the Steelers. The same Steelers who started 1-2-1, with their fifth win in a row, have now established themselves as legit Super Bowl contenders.

Even the Steelers’ twitter account was straight fire.

“Thank u, next,” the team tweeted after the game, channeling Ariana Grande.

The scene in the Steelers locker room was as joyous — “rockin” is how Smith-Schuster described it — as I’ve ever seen one during the regular season. That also might have had something to do with the five days off Tomlin gifted the team after the game. Tomlin was tickled by the way the Steelers responded this week — as he passed defensive tackle Cam Heyward, the coach gave him what I’d describe as an enthusiastic swat across his backside. Heck, even Rooney, who quietly made his way around the chaos, thanking players personally, seemed to have a perma-grin on his face. There’s a sign just inside the locker room, written in the Steelers font, that says, “The standard is the standard,” and it must be especially rewarding for Rooney to see his team respond in such a powerful way after a rough September, a demanding week and the horrific events in Squirrel Hill. Roethlisberger, who threw more touchdowns than incompletions and turned in a perfect passer rating, wore his “Stronger Than Hate” cleats again. Most of the defensive backfield wore T-shirts with the same logo while warming up before the game. (The only bummer: After scoring his 10th TD, Conner was taken out of the game to be evaluated for a concussion.)

“It was a crazy week, a really short week,” says guard David DeCastro. “There were times we didn’t know what day it was. Guys were mad, irritable. September was a wakeup call for this team, but we’re firing on all cylinders now and building confidence. You can see it in our play, for sure.”

Near where DeCastro was talking — by the way, he said he was just channeling his inner hockey player when he went after Eric Reid for head-hunting Roethlisberger — there’s a wood and glass case in the middle of the Steelers locker room that holds 18 different championship hats, going all the way back to a vintage black-and-red cap the team earned for the 1994 AFC Central Championship. If the rest of the season is anything like this week in Pittsburgh, they’re going to need a bigger case.

With the locker room almost empty, Smith-Schuster floated past, heading toward the stadium exit wearing a bright-red tailored suit, red Gucci sneakers and a green tweed tie. He matched the holiday decorations at Heinz Field perfectly.

Only this Steelers team could transform such a sad, chaotic week into Christmas in November.

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