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Steady Steelers back in AFC North mix after bumpy start

(AP Photo/Don Wright)

By WILL GRAVES

AP Sports Writer

PITTSBURGH (AP) Joe Haden knows from distractions and disappointment. Call it the byproduct of spending the first seven seasons of your career in Cleveland.

So the Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback always kind of wondered about the level of concern and borderline panic - outside the locker room anyway - that accompanied his team's bumpy start. Yes, ending the first quarter of the season with a losing record isn't exactly what the Steelers envisioned. Yet Haden checked the roster, the pedigree and the history, and couldn't quite wrap his head around "the sky is falling" narrative.

"I think just we have so many good players here, so many different personalities," Haden said. "At the end of the day, everybody just wants to win. Winning cures everything. The questions go away when we win."

Or at the very least, they quiet down. A dominant performance against Atlanta and the latest in a series of seemingly never-ending escapes in Cincinnati and the Steelers (3-2-1) entered their bye week just where they thought they'd be all along: right in the mix in the competitive AFC North.

"This is the second quarter (of the season)," defensive end Stephon Tuitt said. "That's when you want to find the identity of your team. You get out the rust in the first quarter. About this time is when everybody gets it together, starts performing at the highest level."

Tuitt isn't wrong. Pittsburgh's run of four straight playoff appearances has included its fair share of early head scratchers.

In 2014 it was a home loss to a Tampa Bay team that ended up 2-14. In 2015 it was a Thursday night loss to Baltimore in which a 13-point second-half lead vanished. In 2016 it was a 34-3 pounding on the road to a Philadelphia team led by rookie quarterback Carson Wentz. Last season it was an overtime setback to Chicago on an afternoon remembered far more for the stark image of the Steelers standing in the tunnel while left tackle Alejandro Villanueva saluted the national anthem by himself.

While the Steelers stressed they weren't going to rely on the past to comfort themselves in the present, there has been a sense of normalcy during their modest two-game winning streak. The defense is giving up yards at an alarming rate but is also on pace to break the franchise record of 56 sacks established a year ago. The offense has found balance behind running back James Conner, who is thriving while Le'Veon Bell waits to sign his one-year contract .

The nearly constant inquiries about Bell have slowed. So, at least for now, has the seemingly daily drama surrounding star wide receiver Antonio Brown. The chatter about the All-Pro's social media spats, lawsuits and his spotty "Wi-Fi" connection with Roethlisberger has been replaced instead with touchdown highlights, the last a 31-yard catch and run with 10 seconds to go in Cincinnati.

"I don't think anybody in this organization felt great about the way we started," Tuitt said. "Our leaders do a good job on this team. I think they do a good job communicating what they want and I think everybody focused on the task at hand."

That includes coach Mike Tomlin, who made sure to spread the level of blame and responsibility evenly during film sessions and team meetings. As ugly has it looked at times - particularly in home losses to Baltimore and Kansas City - Tomlin didn't feel the Steelers were far off.

"He doesn't ask for anything crazy or anything extra," Haden said.

Maybe, but he's not above asking certain players to take on additional responsibility. That list includes Haden, who held Atlanta's Julio Jones without a catch through three quarters during a potentially season-altering victory over the Falcons. Haden also kept Cincinnati's A.J. Green out of the end zone as the Steelers won for the 18th time in 21 visits to Paul Brown Stadium.

Asked if he believes he's getting better at age 29 - a time when many defensive backs start to see a noticeable dip in things like closing speed - and Haden nods.

"I really do," Haden said. "It sounds crazy because that's how the league goes. You're only supposed to be in the league three years. Once you start getting older, cornerbacks start getting slower. You can't roll with guys."

That isn't a problem for Haden, at least at the moment. The Steelers have needed Haden to return to the form that made him a two-time Pro Bowler for the Browns to give their shaky secondary some semblance of normalcy. Cornerback Artie Burns is struggling and his potential replacements - Coty Sensabaugh and Cam Sutton - haven't quite done enough to unseat him.

So while Tomlin experiments with personnel, Haden quietly goes about his job. He'd never been on an NFL team that was above .500 six games into a season until 2017, his first in Pittsburgh. What the Steelers endured during September wasn't fun, but it wasn't exactly anything he worried about.

There is work to be done to be sure, particularly on defense. Yet one look across the locker room - Brown at one end and Roethlisberger at the other - and Haden understands why Pittsburgh is so adept at overcoming whatever adversity pops up.

"We just don't need to be to be giving up 40 points or 30 points," Haden said. "We just need to keep them to 20 or 17 or 14. We do that, we're balling."

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Updated October 18, 2018

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