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Meeting the Standard

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If you’ve watched a few Steeler games this season, browsed a few articles, or sat down to listen to head coach Mike Tomlin speak at his press conference every Tuesday, you’ve probably heard his go-to phrase about injuries to his Pittsburgh Steelers.

“The standard is the standard.”

While it may be easy to dismiss it as just another catchphrase from a coach who is deliberately vague when he speaks to the media, “the standard” is much, much more.

It’s part of the belief system on which this team is built, and one that has been at the heart of the Steelers for the past decade. It’s a belief in the men currently in the locker room, veteran or rookie, and a preference for pushing on with home-grown talent as opposed to outside reinforcements.

The standard has been tested thoroughly in Pittsburgh’s 2011 campaign, with injuries ravaging key positions, sometimes to a near-extreme.

For the first seven games of the season, the Steelers started a different offensive line combination every week. By the time Pittsburgh reached its bye in Week 11, nine different linemen had taken snaps with the team.

One of those linemen, right tackle Willie Colon, couldn’t get out of the first contest before suffering a season-ending injury. He was replaced the very next week by rookie second-round pick Marcus Gilbert.

“It’s sad that we lost a really good offensive tackle, but some guy has to pick up the rifle and take it with them,” said Gilbert before his first career start.

On the other side of the ball, Pittsburgh’s high-priced linebacking corps has been shuffled and re-shuffled due to injuries. James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, and defensive captain James Farrior all missed time. Backup linebacker Jason Worilds also dealt with injuries in 2011, forcing Lawrence Timmons to kick outside from his natural inside position to cover for other injured linebackers.

When it came time to fill spots around Timmons and veteran linebacker Larry Foote, the Steelers chose to keep things in-house and made do with young ‘backers like Stevenson Sylvester and rookies Chris Carter and Mortty Ivy. There we no free agent signings, no reinforcements. The players that had been there allphoto by Chuck LeClaire season were expected to rise up and meet the standard, regardless of their experience to that point.

“Around the league, guys are always getting tried out,” said Foote, who has paired with Timmons to solidify the group during injury-ravaged weeks. “On Mondays and Tuesdays, you see a bunch of guys coming in and out. But here, the guys we got… that’s who we believe in and stick with.”

Even when the Steelers have looked for outside help, it has come from what could be described as an extended Steeler family.

When the team needed a starter at left tackle, they plucked Max Starks out of free agency. He slid right in without missing a beat, probably because he had filled the same role for the team the past few seasons.

When punter Daniel Sepulveda injured his plant leg, resulting in another year on injured reserve, Pittsburgh brought back Jeremy Kapinos, who had served as Sepulveda’s replacement when a similar situation occurred in 2010.

With Casey Hampton and Chris Hoke ailing around midseason, the team rolled with third-year tackle Steve McLendon at the nose with Corbin Bryant, fresh off the practice squad, as his backup.

Other than the signing of Jamon Meredith, a career backup who was with the Giants last year, Pittsburgh’s transaction sheet is almost entirely devoted to shuffling its practice squad.

It all goes back to the standard.

When a player goes out, it’s up to his backup to “pick up the rifle” as Gilbert so aptly put it and press to meet that standard, but not without help.

“We’re going to coach you and we’re going to expect you to make the same amount of plays – or even more – than the starter,” said Foote. “It’s been like that a long time. [Tomlin] really emphasizes it. If we didn’t believe in you in this room, you wouldn’t be here.”

That sentiment is echoed by Sylvester, a fifth-round pick in 2010 who plied his trade on special teams before getting a chance to start in place of Farrior around mid-season.

“What’s good about this veteran-led team, they teach us: make sure you’re ready. Even in training camp, they’re helping us learn the playbook for when that time comes. They’ve been around for awhile, so they know that injuries happen. They love this team and they want to win. So when they get in there and when we get in there, we don’t want to hurt our chances of winning the game.”

When Sylvester received his chance to shine, he was coached up by players like Foote and Farrior.

“We’re going to do whatever it takes to win,” said Foote. “If that’s coaching and giving a guy assistance – shoot, when [James] Farrior was down, it was like having another linebackers coach on the field and in the meeting room.”

Holding the team to the standard and keeping things in-house also has another effect: it helps to prepare Pittsburgh’s young talent for future starting roles.

Sylvester had been learning Farrior’s “buck” linebacker position, the man in charge of defensive adjustments before the play, in August’s training camp. While he lined up at the “mack” position in his lone start this season (Foote took over Farrior’s role), the experience he gained by getting involved in live defensive play is invaluable for his development.

If Sylvester is the man primed to replace Farrior when the time comes, he’ll be able to jump into the lineup with his first career start (and all the anxiousness that entails) already out of the way.

By drawing his reinforcements from the depths of his 53-man roster and his eight-man practice squad, Mike Tomlin is taking care of the team’s future as well as its present.

Why sign a stop-gap linebacker when you can shuffle the unit around, granting valuable snaps to players like Sylvester, Carter, and Worilds – players who could end up as important cogs for the defense a few years from now.

What’s the point in combing the free agent market for a fill-in on the offensive line, when it might make more sense to give the opportunity to an up-and-comer like Doug photo by Chuck LeClaireLegursky or Ramon Foster, two guys who could end up as Pittsburgh’s two starting guards a year or two from now?

While rolling with young talent over veteran pickups can be risky at times, Foote agrees that it’s a better long-term option, even though the short-term view could be negative.

“It’s good after you get out of the storm. Before it happens, there’s a lot of anxiety - not in this locker room, but definitely outside with the fans and media and stuff like that. Hey, another guy has to step up. It’s another opportunity for somebody.”

It’s another chance for a young Steeler to rise up and meet that standard and to reward the belief that Tomlin has in his players, something Sylvester is more than willing to do.

“He believes in the guys that he put this team together with. I take that to heart and appreciate that he doesn’t want to sign outside guys. He just believes in us that much.”

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