PITTSBURGH (AP) - Coach Mike Tomlin seems driven to prevent the Pittsburgh Steelers from taking any week off as they play what may be one of the most challenging schedules in their history.
For a few days, he's making an exception.
With Pro Bowl players Willie Parker (knee) and Casey Hampton (groin) healing from significant injuries, Ben Roethlisberger going game to game with a slight shoulder separation and the Steelers (4-1) sore from three consecutive physical games, this weekend's bye affords a welcomed break.
"It's coming at the right time," Roethlisberger said. "It's time for people that have bumps and bruises to really get healed up, and we'll come back next week really feeling good about ourselves and where we're at."
Wide receiver Hines Ward is thankful for the time off, saying, "It comes at the perfect time."
The Steelers may need the layoff, given they still must play the Titans (5-0), Giants (4-0), Redskins (4-1), Cowboys (4-1), Patriots (3-1), Colts (2-2), Ravens (2-2) and Chargers (2-3) during their final 11 games - arguably the NFL's toughest closing stretch.
They play the Patriots, Cowboys, Ravens and Titans in succession beginning Nov. 30, with only the Dallas game in Pittsburgh.
"When we come back, it's nonstop," Ward said. "We've got a bunch of big games together so we have to continue to go out there and get it done."
The Steelers managed to put aside problems that might wreck a less resilient club's season to win the kind of close games that good teams must win in September and October to assure themselves of playing in January.
They've already beaten Cleveland 10-6 and Jacksonville 26-21 on the road, and Baltimore 23-20 in overtime at home, three important wins by a combined margin of 12 points.
How they've reached this 4-1 record is a surprise, given their many injuries - first-round draft pick Rashard Mendenhall (shoulder) and right guard Kendall Simmons (Achilles) are out for the season - and many sacks. Roethlisberger has been dumped 18 times, the second most sacks in the league, yet has been one of the NFL's most efficient quarterbacks.
And who could have guessed the Steelers, down to one healthy back after an injury-filled Monday night win over Baltimore, would end a four-game losing streak against Jacksonville six days later partly because situational back Mewelde Moore ran for 99 yards?
Or that Moore would do so running behind a line that included Darnell Stapleton at guard for the entire game and Trai Essex at tackle for part of it?
"They have done what they were called to do and I think that's the standard this football team has," Tomlin said. "The guys delivered for us in a big way."
To keep this going, the Steelers probably must:
-Prevent the late-season letdown of last year, when they were 9-3 but lost three of their final four and lost again in a wild-card playoff game to Jacksonville.
-Avoid more debilitating injuries. They are testing their depth, especially along the offensive line, and Pittsburgh can't afford many more given the difficulty of its schedule.
The Steelers expect to welcome back Parker and defensive end Brett Keisel, who has missed three games with a calf injury, when they play at Cincinnati on Oct. 19.
-Improve their pass protection. There aren't likely to be many more eight-sack games like the Steelers' 15-6 loss at Philadelphia on Sept. 21, but few quarterbacks can withstand the game-to-game punishment Roethlisberger is absorbing and play a full season.
-Prevent letdowns. The Steelers still must play the Bengals twice and the Browns at home, and anything less than a 3-0 mark in those games would be a setback.
-Keep being resilient and versatile. Tomlin constantly reminds his players, "The more you can do" - as in, the more that any player can do, the better.
-Make certain Troy Polamalu remains unpredictable and hard to find on defense. Healthy again, the safety is having an excellent season - he had an interception in each of his first three games - following a major falloff in production last season (no sacks, no interceptions).