Steelers, Packers going opposite ways
PITTSBURGH — Mike McCarthy grew up in Pittsburgh and the roots still run deep for the longtime Green Bay Packers coach.
Tonight’s visit to Heinz Field against the AFC North-leading Steelers will be a homecoming of sorts for McCarthy and several staff members, including defensive coordinator Dom Capers and special teams coordinator Ron Zook — both of whom worked for the Steelers during the early days of the Bill Cowher regime two decades ago.
“I think we should talk about the guys that are not from Pittsburgh and what the heck am I thinking hiring anybody that isn’t from Pittsburgh?” McCarthy said with a laugh.
Considering the way the Steelers (8-2) are rolling at the moment, maybe he’s on to something.
Pittsburgh has ripped off five straight victories, including a second-half demolition of Tennessee a week ago in which the Steelers finally looked like the dominant force they expected to be all along.
The surge came following an impassioned halftime pep talk from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. He responded by shredding the Titans for three touchdown passes over the final two quarters in what the Steelers hope is a sign that the early season malaise , when the Steelers won frequently if not impressively, is finally over.
As encouraged as he was by what he saw on the field, if Roethlisberger has his preference, he’s rather not have to go full hype every week.
“I’m not the savior, you don’t just give speeches and they work,” Roethlisberger said. “It doesn’t happen very often. Usually, you don’t want to have to do them. It’s like fourth-quarter comebacks, you don’t want to have them because it means you stink early.”
While the Steelers are surging, the Packers (5-5) are sliding. Green Bay is 1-3 since Aaron Rodgers went down with a broken collarbone, putting the franchise’s streak of eight straight playoff berths in serious jeopardy. That’s too big picture for them to think about it at the moment as two-touchdown underdogs on the road.
Then again, it’s not like Green Bay has to dig too far back for inspiration. The Packers were 4-6 after 10 games last season, then won eight straight to reach the NFC title game. Then again, that was with Rodgers under center and not backup Brett Hundley.
“We’re not in a position where we feel the season’s over by any means,” linebacker Clay Matthews said. “We’re right in the thick of things. Obviously not where we anticipated or sought to be at the beginning of the season. But … at 4-6 last year, we obviously overcame a lot to win eight in a row. It’s a little different this year in that respect, but at the same time, we’ve got a great opportunity in front of us.”
PICK CITY: Hundley had an awful game last week in a 23-0 loss to the Baltimore Ravens , throwing three interceptions and losing a fumble after getting sacked. It was a big step back for the third-year quarterback after making clutch throws in the 23-16 win the previous week over the Chicago Bears.
Hundley’s backup is Joe Callahan, who has spent parts of two seasons with the Packers after joining the team as an undrafted free agent, so it’s going to take a lot for Hundley to get replaced. McCarthy is steadfast in his support of Hundley, with the offense-minded McCarthy taking some of the blame for the mistakes and lack of production.
“He’s here, he’s working out, everybody respects him, so I don’t see any issue with that,” McCarthy said.“At the end of the day, and I’ll just say it again: I believe in Brett Hundley. I believe in Brett Hundley as a quarterback and I believe he will improve, and that’s where we are.”
HUBBARD IN: Chris Hubbard takes over at right tackle for the Steelers while Marcus Gilbert begins his four-game suspension for violating the league’s performance-enhancing substance policy. Hubbard filled in capably for Gilbert earlier this season while Gilbert dealt with a balky hamstring injury.
“He’s played so much, having him around helps,” Roethlisberger said of Hubbard. “He’s not a rookie. He’s not a new guy. (Right guard David DeCastro) and him have a great relationship and rapport.”
The next month could be an audition of sorts for Hubbard, who is a free agent at the end of the season and is typically a reserve on a line where all five current starters are under contract through the end of 2018.
TAKING A HIT: Lost in the Packers’ offensive struggles has been the solid performance of a defense that held the Ravens to 219 yards overall last week, including 58 on the ground on 26 carries. The unit will be tested this week by the high-scoring Steelers, especially with the status of three key starters in question at midweek because of injuries: cornerback Kevin King (shoulder), linebacker Matthews (groin) and defensive lineman Kenny Clark (ankle). Clark has been especially good against the run, coupling with fellow lineman Mike Daniels to give the Packers a stout presence up front.
PRIME TIME IS THE RIGHT TIME: The Steelers have been nearly unbeatable at Heinz Field under the lights lately thanks in large part to Roethlisberger’s spectacular play. Roethlisberger is 7-0 in his last seven home prime-time games, throwing 24 touchdowns against two interceptions. That includes four scores and no picks last week against Tennessee.