PITTSBURGH - Mike Tomlin doesn't listen to "elevator music," the moniker the Pittsburgh Steelers coach has given to steady stream of outside chatter about his team. Tomlin would prefer his players walk to their own beat, one that is unaffected by the weekly ups and downs of an NFL season.
It's why Tomlin took special care to tout rookie Le'veon Bell's season-high 93-yard performance in a 19-16 victory against Baltimore last week.
"I felt the need to assure him that he's doing the right things," Tomlin said, later adding "I want him to listen to what matters."
It's a message that resonates through Pittsburgh's locker room. Even as the team stumbled to its worst start in more than four decades, the confidence level in the locker room never wavered.
If anything, it's on the rise.
Pittsburgh's narrow escape against the Ravens gave the Steelers (2-4) a boost heading into a Sunday's game in Oakland (2-4). After a lifeless and lethargic September when Pittsburgh looked like a team in significant decline, things have perked up in October thanks to a refresher course on what it takes to win the NFL.
The defense is preventing touchdowns. The offense is moving the ball and perhaps more importantly, holding onto it. The kicker has been lights out and the sense all is not lost has grown from a notion into something more substantial.
"We believed from the start," linebacker LaMarr Woodley said. "Even when we were 0-4, we still believed we had the opportunity to turn this thing around."
Even if the process is proving to be painful.
Woodley, who collected his fifth sack of the season against Baltimore, will be limited in practice this week after injuring his right knee. The same goes for left tackle Kelvin Beachum and defensive end Brett Keisel, both of whom are dealing with rib problems.
Coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday all three players could be available for Sunday's game in Oakland (2-4). The same goes for linebacker Lawrence Timmons, who broke a bone in his left hand late in the third quarter against Baltimore but stayed on the field and ended up tying a career-high with 17 tackles.
Timmons had a cast placed on the busted hand Monday and has the use of his fingers and his presence on the field will be crucial if the Steelers want to keep free-wheeling Raiders quarterback Tyrelle Pryor from getting loose.
After a subpar opening month, at least by its own considerably lofty standards, Pittsburgh's defense has looked a bit more like its usual stingy self in beating the Ravens and the New York Jets. The Steelers have as many sacks in their last two games (four) as they did in their first four games combined. And they've found a way to keep the opposition under defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's magic number of 17 points.
A tweak in their approach has helped. Pittsburgh regularly sent five or six defensive backs onto the field in the last two weeks, throwing sure tackling Cortez Allen and rookie safety Shamarko Thomas into the mix to help cut off the middle of the field. Tomlin called the scheme a necessity, adding Allen and Thomas are "capable guys."
Allen began the camp as a starter at cornerback but underwent a minor knee procedure in late July and took more time than expected to recover. He struggled early in the season and was effectively benched in favor of William Gay.
If Allen is pouting, it doesn't show. He and Thomas recorded six tackles each against the Ravens, more than any other member of the Pittsburgh secondary outside of Troy Polamalu.
Gay's daring play made sure Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco remained in check. Gay swatted away two passes, including a textbook knockdown in the end zone early in the third quarter. Ravens wide receiver Jacoby Jones appeared to have Gay beaten by a step but Flacco's floating toss from midfield gave Gay plenty of time to close the gap and tip the ball out of harm's way. Baltimore ended up punting and Pittsburgh kicked a field goal on its ensuing possession to take a 13-6 lead.
It's the kind play the Steelers weren't making a month ago. They're making them now, and a win over the perennially erratic Raiders would move Pittsburgh one step closer to stepping out of the massive hole it created.
NOTES: Tomlin said WR Jerricho Cotchery (abdominal strain), DE Cam Heyward (illness) and RT Marcus Gilbert (quad) could also be limited early in the week ... Rookie LB Jarvis Jones, who did not play against Baltimore due to a concussion, will be evaluated again on Wednesday before his status is determined ... WR Markus Wheaton (finger) is out.