Maybe doing so before a game, rather than afterward, made the difference to a team that’s convinced its season still isn’t over despite a record that suggests otherwise.
Willie Parker broke free on runs of 72 and 76 yards to set up two short scoring runs in the second half, Ben Roethlisberger threw three touchdown passes and the Steelers rallied after giving away a big lead to beat the New Orleans Saints 38-31 on Sunday.
Parker, who complained after a 31-20 loss to Denver last week that some teammates weren’t as hungry or as focused as they were in winning the Super Bowl, couldn’t be faulted for his effort. He had 213 yards on 22 carries, with scoring runs of 3 and 4 yards in the fourth quarter. He finished 5 yards short of the team-record 218 yards, set by John “Frenchy” Fuqua against Philadelphia in 1970.
Even after the teams combined for 984 yards, it was coach Bill Cowher’s pregame clubhouse forum that his players were talking about. Cowher normally does most of the talking, but instead yielded to some team leaders.
“He said stuff we normally wouldn’t say,” Parker said of Porter, who named teammates he felt were underperforming. “I think we rallied around it, and we rallied around it when he said we’ve got to win this game, we’re going to win this game.”
Smith’s emotional speech also made an impact.
“I heard every word he was saying,” Parker said. “For a grown man to get up in front of a lot of other grown men and start to cry, you got to lay it out on the field.”
The Steelers (3-6), keyed up by the meeting, quickly opened a 14-0 lead on touchdown passes to Hines Ward and Heath Miller. But the Saints (6-3) rallied to a 17-14 lead on Reggie Bush’s 15-yard touchdown run on a double reverse, with Bush tumbling over safety Ryan Clark to reach the end zone.
They led again 24-17 on Deuce McAllister’s 4-yard run, on a broken play in which the snap from center accidentally squirted to him, during a 72-yard drive that Brees needed only one minute to execute late in the first half.
Brees was 31-of-47 for 399 yards, with rookie Marques Colston making 10 catches for 169 yards, but the Saints turned over the ball three times to Pittsburgh’s none. The Steelers went into the day with an NFL-leading 24 turnovers, perhaps the major reason they were 2-6 at midseason.
“We had three turnovers, and that can’t happen,” Brees said. “The defense gave up a couple of big plays. That can’t happen. Special teams gave them good field position. That can’t happen. If eliminate one of those, we should have been able to fight back.”
The Steelers played most of the final three quarters without All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu and cornerback Deshea Townsend, who had concussions. The injuries forced Cowher to go far down the bench for backups, especially with the Steelers frequently using five defensive backs.
“We gave up too many points and too many yards (517), but we competed hard,” Porter said. “We got a win and that’s all that counts.”
After Pittsburgh’s Jeff Reed and New Orleans’ John Carney missed field goals from inside the 40 in the third quarter, Roethlisberger found Cedrick Wilson on a 38-yard touchdown pass to tie it at 24. Two Saints defenders collided to leave Wilson open. Roethlisberger was 17-of-28 for 264 yards and no interceptions after being picked off an NFL-leading 14 times in his first seven starts.
After turning the ball over 10 times in their previous two games, the Steelers started putting the ball into Parker’s hands during a 187-yard second half in which his two long runs came about eight minutes apart. The Steelers had been limited to 240 yards rushing while losing consecutive games to Atlanta, Oakland and Denver.
“These are the defending Super Bowl champions, and they know how to win,” Brees said. “They know how to go on a late-season run and I’m sure they were looking at today to do that. We knew we were going to get their best game because Joey Porter guaranteed a victory. We wanted to give them our best game, too.”
New Orleans—3-13 a season ago—got close again at 38-31 midway through the fourth quarter on McAllister’s second 4-yard touchdown run. But its last chance of tying or winning ended when Clark recovered Terrance Copper’s fumble at the Steelers 20 following a 25-yard pass play in the final minute.
“This was a game we needed to win,” the Saints’ Brian Young said. “There are a lot of people who still think this is last year’s team. We needed to make a statement.”
Despite winning for the second time since Sept. 7, the Steelers stayed four games behind AFC North leader Baltimore (7-2) with seven games to play. … Bush ran for 49 yards after being held to 82 yards on 47 carries in five games. … Pittsburgh has won 10 of 11 against the NFC since 2003.