Steelers ready for first test



PITTSBURGH -- About 75 minutes after the Steelers' 38-3 exhibition thrashing of the Houston Texans had ended Saturday night, the voice of one of the few fans still in the Heinz Field parking lot could be heard.
"I've got a feel-ing ... ," the fan bellowed.
Diehard Steelheads know the rest of the chant: "Pittsburgh's going to the Super Bowl." (Isn't it amazing the amount of optimism too many adult beverages can inspire?)
Other fans are supposed to chime in with the refrain.
No one did, but to be fair, the parking lots were mostly vacant.
Steelers coach Bill Cowher and starting quarterback Tommy Maddox offered their opinions on the easy win and it's safe to say they aren't just yet making reservations for Jacksonville in late January.
The Steelers simply bulldozed the 3-year-old Texans on offense and defense.
When it counted, the Steelers' offense was virtually unstoppable.
The rushing attack led by Jerome Bettis produced 205 yards on 49 carries even though starting right guard Kendall Simmons (Pittsburgh's top draft pick in 2002) has been lost for the season with an anterior cruciate ligament injury. The quarterbacks added 222 more by completing 13 of 23 tosses.
On the other hand, the Texans' rushing attack was limited to 54 yards on 21 carries. Their quarterbacks (including David Carr, the National Football League's top draft pick in 2002), were held to 134 yards after completing 17 of 26 passes.
It was a great night for the Steelers and the second straight preseason game that the top offensive players did well.
Not best opposition
But consider the opposition. Cowher has.
Asked to assess how the offensive line performed, Cowher responded, "They looked good. They are coming off the ball. They did a good job. I like how they are approaching it and practicing.
"Not to take anything away from Detroit or Houston, [but] we find out where we are with the next two games."
Ah, the next two preseason games, where the starters stay in longer as the Sept. 12 opener with the Raiders approaches.
The Steelers will close the preseason with games against the two best NFC teams in 2003 -- the Philadelphia Eagles (Thursday at 8 p.m. in Philly) and the Carolina Panthers (Sept. 2 at 7 p.m. at Heinz Field).
The Eagles have played (and lost) in the past three NFC Championship Games.
The Panthers defeated the Eagles in January then came within four seconds of forcing overtime against the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots.
Good test Thursday
"Thursday is going to be a good test for us on a short week," Maddox said. "Every chance we get to go out there is a chance to get better, whether it's Oakland or Thursday in Philly."
After their first drive was halted by the Texans at midfield, Maddox engineered two touchdown drives.
Rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger didn't look particularly sharp but he produced two touchdown drives and a field goal in his four series.
"Big Ben," as the T-shirts outside the stadium refer to him, also threw a third-quarter interception.
"That's two preseason games where we looked real good as far as being well-balanced," said wide receiver Hines Ward, adding that a strong ground game is important.
"Our whole theme is to take pressure off Tommy and the receivers [by] going out and establishing the running game," Ward said. "If we do that, it gives Plax [wide receiver Plaxico Burress] and I the chance to make big plays. We've got to keep this going. The sky's the limit, especially if we're balanced."
Building confidence
Maddox said the Steelers' quick scores against the Lions on Aug. 14 in Detroit and the first-half barrage against the Texans have produced confidence.
"When you get off to starts like that, you get the defense kind of on their heels a little bit and kind of guessing what we're going to do," Maddox said.
Now comes a real challenge. The Steelers-Eagles game will be televised nationally by ESPN (though most sports fans in the 49 states not named Pennsylvania probably will be watching taped highlights of the Summer Olympics on NBC).
XTom Williams is a sportswriter for The Vindicator. Write to him at williams@vindy.com.

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