Just how good are Steelers?



PITTSBURGH -- With the halfway point of the NFL season approaching, just how good are the Pittsburgh Steelers?
Are they one of the AFC's top three teams and a contender for one of the conference's two playoff byes? They sure looked that way 10 days ago when they pummeled the AFC North Division leading Bengals, 27-13, in Cincinnati.
Are they as resilient as they showed Monday night when they engineered an eight-play, 60-yard drive that produced Jeff Reed's 37-yard game-winning field goal over the Baltimore Ravens (2-5 and going nowhere fast)?
Or are they a confounding team that has been dominant on the road but has struggled in their past three games at Heinz Field?
Closeness commonthread in losses
The Steelers are 5-2, but their two losses came on a game-winning field goal by the Patriots' Adam Vinatieri in the final seconds (23-20) and an overtime interception returned for a touchdown by the Jaguars (23-17). That pass was thrown by Tommy Maddox, who had replaced injured starter Ben Roethlisberger for one game.
Those defeats have the Steelers a half-game behind the Bengals (6-2) in the AFC North. A win Sunday in Green Bay against the 1-6 Packers would keep Pittsburgh right behind the Bengals, who haven't had their open week yet. And the Steelers own the tiebreaker because of their win in Cincinnati.
Yes, there's a long way to go before we really start worrying about playoff seeding and division winners, but it's hard for Steelers fans to not look ahead. Except for their Nov. 28 road trip to Indianapolis to play the Colts (7-0 and easily the AFC's top team), a schedule that once looked daunting no longer does.
On Nov. 13, the Browns (2-5) will play at Heinz Field, perhaps with rookie Charlie Frye at quarterback. The Steelers then travel to Baltimore for a rematch with the Ravens. Baltimore is the site of Pittsburgh's last road loss which came in September 2004.
December gamesappear manageable
Pittsburgh's December road trips are to Minnesota (2-5) and Cleveland. Their final three home games are against Cincinnati, Chicago (4-3) and Detroit (3-4).
Of course, the team's success depends on Roethlisberger's health. Monday, the quarterback with the 18-1 regular season record took a hit on his right knee in the first quarter. He finished the game playing with some pain.
Tuesday, he had an MRI taken and the extent of any damage has not yet been revealed. If he misses substantial time and the team has to rely on Charlie Batch, struggles could follow.
With or without Roethlisberger, inconsistency has to be frustrating Bill Cowher's coaching staff. Being able to only run for 101 yards against a Ravens defense that was missing middle linebacker Ray Lewis, strong safety Ed Reed and defensive end Anthony Weaver is a problem.
"We knew there would be a lot of eight in the box situations," said Cowher on why the Steelers passed 28 times and ran just 20 before their final drive. "We wanted to try to open them up a little bit, to loosen them up.
Roethlisberger,Miller good combo
"I thought the first drive was pretty good," said Cowher referring to a 15-play, 79 scoring march capped by rookie tight end Heath Miller's 4-yard touchdown reception. "Ben took a hit and got his knee twisted -- he had a gutsy effort finishing the game."
Miller also caught and 8-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter.
"He's doing a tremendous job -- I don't know why they aren't doubling him more," wide receiver Hines Ward said of Miller. "He's a great complement to our passing game, especially with the loss of Plaxico [Burress].
"It's all about opportunities and right now we're finding ways to get him in the passing game, especially in the red zone," Ward said. "He's got size and hands like glue."
Another area of concern for Cowher has to be how the Ravens, led by journeyman quarterback Anthony Wright were able to convert 9-of-18 third-down opportunities. Wright passed for 252 yards by completing 25-of-44 attempts.
"They hit a couple of passes, but we were holding them to field goals," Cowher countered.
After the Ravens marched 73 yards on nine plays to score a touchdown on their opening possession, they settled for four Matt Stover field goals.
Cowher makes effortto accent positives
Another Stover attempt -- a 43-yard try in the second quarter -- bounced off the right upright.
Cowher, who has a reputation for harping on the bad in a blowout win, chose to reflect on the positives after a narrow victory against an inferior team.
"This football team has been a responsive team," Cowher said. "A lot of things were good tonight. Special teams, we had great coverage and a couple of big returns."
Quincy Morgan returned a first-quarter kickoff 59 yards to set up Reed's 42-yard field goal.
"Offensively, we responded in having to score in the final two minutes of the game," Cowher said. "Defensively, we came up with a big stop."
Defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen agreed, saying the close call was "disappointing, not discouraging. The game should not have been that close and it was because of us. They made some really good plays, but we'll get better."
Time will tell, but the upcoming schedule shows a lot of weak teams on the horizon.
XTom Williams is a sportswriter for The Vindicator. Write to him at williams@vindy.com.

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