By Simon Evans
(Reuters) - After a crushing loss to the Baltimore Ravens on the opening day of the 2011 National Football League (NFL) season, whispers about coach Mike Tomlin's Pittsburgh Steelers began to get a little louder.
There was a particular focus on the fact that the Steelers had nine defensive starters over the age of 30 and a worry that perhaps the defending AFC champions were crossing over from being an experienced team to an aging one.
"You're making my job easy," he told reporters, insisting he was comfortable with the balance of youth and experience on the Steelers roster.
A Week Four defeat to Houston dropped the Steelers to 2-2 and prompted questions over the offensive line as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was sacked five times in the 17-10 loss and was wearing a protective boot on his left foot afterward.
Since then, the Steelers have won four straight, including Sunday's impressive 25-17 victory over a New England Patriots team that has dominated them for a decade.
Pittsburgh had struggled to contain Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in recent seasons and entered Sunday's game having lost their last four meetings, allowing an average of 34 points per game.
This time, however, the two-time NFL most valuable player had a season-low 198 yards while Roethlisberger took a page out of his opposite number's book to complete 36 of 50 passes for 365 yards and two touchdowns while eating up the clock and keeping Brady off the field.
It was a younger looking defense, with the likes of Cortez Allen (23), Chris Carter (22) and Stevenson Sylvester (23) but one that also illustrated the depth of quality that Tomlin has on his roster.
"We just tip our hats to these young men - it wasn't too big for them," said Tomlin, "They aren't perfect by any stretch, believe me, but they are playing to win and aren't playing with fear and we like that about our young guys."
Tomlin, who insists on maintaining a tight focus, will not allow any talk of that just yet but linebacker LaMarr Woodley did take the opportunity of Sunday's victory to settle a few scores regarding that 'too old' tag.
"When I was in college they said the Steelers were getting old and that the team is out of it. That's every year. When you're the dominating team in the league, everyone is always trying to find a way to talk negatively about you," he told reporters.
The Steelers have appeared in three Super Bowls since the 2005 season and while the volume and frequency of injuries this season is surely a concern, it would be foolish to rule them out of arriving at the big game again.
For now though the Steelers have revenge on their mind as they face the same Ravens team that beat them 35-7 in the season opener, prompting all the doubts and questions.
"You always remember that, seeing those guys celebrate like they won the Super Bowl," said receiver Antonio Brown.
"They were all hyped. We remember that feeling, we are up for the challenge and a big week. As the season goes on, games go on, we continue to go up and on."
(Reporting by Simon Evans in Miami; Editing by Frank Pingue)