With or without Roethlisberger, Steelers' standard never changes
PITTSBURGH — The sight can send a tremor through an entire organization: the franchise quarterback writhing on the ground, a season full of promise suddenly clouded by doubt.
It happened in Arizona in 2014 when Carson Palmer tore his ACL and team that looked like a Super Bowl contender limped into the playoffs before making a hasty exit. It's happening in Dallas this fall, which hasn't won since Tony Romo's collarbone broke in Week 2.
Not so much in Pittsburgh.
It's not that the Steelers don't value Ben Roethlisberger. He is the unquestioned cornerstone of his team, one who will be paid handsomely through the rest of the decade to add a seventh Lombardi Trophy (or more) to an already crowded display.
In a big picture sense, Roethlisberger is irreplaceable. Yet in a game by game sense, Pittsburgh has proven it can get by without him. The Steelers are a respectable 10-9 since 2004 when Roethlisberger is out. That includes a 2-2 mark this year heading into a game Sunday against Cleveland (2-7), when Landry Jones will fill in if Roethlisberger's sprained left foot doesn't time to heal in time. Roethlisberger practiced in a limited capacity on Thursday but his status remains uncertain.
Being a tick above .500 without any player isn't exactly spectacular, but it's OK thanks in large part to a mentality preached incessantly by head coach Mike Tomlin that the goal remains the same no matter who's in uniform.
Standard never changes: "The standard is the standard," said center Cody Wallace, repeating perhaps Tomlin's favorite mantra. "We hear it all the time and it's kind of a joke but guys buy into it. Other teams they lose their quarterback and they're like 'We're screwed these next couple weeks' and here we're just like, 'OK, Landry's the guy, let's just roll with it."'
Wallace would know. He's spent the entire season filling in for All-Pro Maurkice Pouncey, who tore up his left ankle in an exhibition and is unlikely to play this season.
Yet the Steelers have been humming right along, rising to fifth in the league in rushing and remaining in the thick of the wild-card chase even with star running back Le'Veon Bell and starting left tackle Kelvin Beachum joining Pouncey on injured reserve.
In their place are 32-year-old DeAngelo Williams and Alejandro Villanueva, a former Army Ranger and converted defensive lineman who now protects the quarterback's blind side.
They might not have the talent of the players they're filling in for, but Tomlin and his coaching staff refuse to live in their fears (another favorite Tomlinism). When Jones ran on to replace Roethlisberger late in the fourth quarter last week against Oakland, offensive coordinator Todd Haley took risks. Jones threw four times on his first possession and twice more on his second, including a dart Antonio Brown turned into a 57-sprint that set up the winning field goal.
Tomlin wants it that way. When one of his starters goes down, he makes it a point to call out the replacement and tell him in no uncertain terms that exactly nothing has changed.
"There are no gray areas," linebacker Arthur Moats said. "If you set the bar different for different players, that's when you're not going to have people performing at a high level because they're going to think it's acceptable."
By sending that message in front of the entire team, it explicitly makes the other 52 players heavily invested in your replacement.
"He's very straightforward," Wallace said. "He's going to tell everybody so everybody else holds you accountable too. He's not holding private meetings off to the side to try and motivate you."
Winning is ultimate goal: Tomlin figures it isn't necessary. And to offer a bit of translation of "Tomlinese," by "standard" he isn't talking about statistics.
The Steelers adjust their offensive goals every week depending on the opponent. They don't expect Jones to go out against the Browns and impersonate Roethlisberger in any aspect other than one: that when the clock hits zero Pittsburgh will have more points than the guys on the other sideline.
Asked this week what he'd like to see from Jones and Tomlin offered a typically blunt "I want to see him win." Sorry, style points are for the College Football Playoff committee, not the NFL.
"When you make it that black and white, it makes no bones about what's expected, to allow him to have a crystal-clear focus about what it is he needs to do," Tomlin said.
It worked for Charlie Batch, who went 6-3 in nine starts subbing in for Roethlisberger. It worked for Dennis Dixon, who was 2-0 in 2010. It worked for Michael Vick, who summoned enough magic in the fourth quarter against San Diego on Oct. 12 to play a vital part of a late rally.
The Steelers remain confident it will work for Jones and Williams and Wallace and whoever else might find himself suddenly thrust into the mix. You don't go 11 seasons (and counting) without a losing record by blanching at the first bout of adversity. Or the 10th for that matter.
Wallace, perhaps more than anyone, understands he can't do what Pouncey can do. That shouldn't make a difference on Sunday.
"I get it, the guy's an All-Pro," he said. "There's going to be a little bit of a drop-off but that doesn't mean I can't play winning football."