Steelers have a long way to go

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- The Pittsburgh Steelers played with the desperation of a team that felt it couldn't afford to lose. For one afternoon, it didn't.
Now that the Steelers (2-3) are playing like Super Bowl champions again, coach Bill Cowher's challenge is to keep them playing that way.
When the Steelers reached this level last season, they sustained their quality of play over the final month of the regular season and through the playoffs. Doing so this season will be more difficult, with 11 games remaining and the Steelers not yet establishing the identity that Cowher says his teams always begin to form about now.
Rout was a start
The 45-7 rout of Kansas City on Sunday was a start, but Cowher should have a better idea of what this team is all about after the Steelers play Sunday at Atlanta (3-2).
"Last week was, I thought, our most complete game of the season and certainly one that was much needed," Cowher said Tuesday. "But as we talked about, nothing has changed. We've put ourselves in the situation now to see if we can sustain that. We're going down to a tough place. Atlanta's a good team and they're coming off a tough loss."
The Falcons runs the ball better than any team in the league, by far, thanks to quarterback Michael Vick's versatility and Warrick Dunn's reliability. The Falcons already have 1,160 yards rushing, or nearly 400 yards more than any team in the league.
While the Falcons run the ball differently than any other team, with Vick often taking off on college-style option plays, the Steelers have long been the team most reliant upon the run. The Steelers outran the Chiefs 218-39 as Willie Parker had his third 100-yard game with 109 yards and two touchdowns and backup Najeh Davenport had 78 yards and a score.
Falcons on the fly
Dunn is fifth in the league with 511 yards and Vick is 16th with 401 yards -- only three yards fewer than Cincinnati running back Rudi Johnson. Parker is ninth with 434 yards and has the most rushing touchdowns (five) of any one in the top 10.
Cowher said part of the problem with defending Vick is that AFC teams like the Steelers see him only once every four years, which guarantees he will always be running against defenders who haven't seen him before.
Vick is the only NFL quarterback whose rushing stats even begin to match his passing statistics; he has thrown for 676 yards.
"You don't see the option draw that they run, where he puts the ball in the hands of Warrick Dunn and then reads things," Cowher said. "It's the kind of thing you see in college. You kind of enjoy watching it on Saturday afternoon. Then you say, 'Boy, I'm glad I don't have to defend that.' Now I'm going to have to defend that."
The Steelers have allowed an average of 78.4 yards rushing per game, while Atlanta averages 232 yards rushing -- or about 74 yards more than any other team in the league.
Pittsburgh and Atlanta played one of the oddest games in recent seasons in 2002 in Pittsburgh, a 34-all tie that is the only NFL tie game in the last nine years and one of only 16 in league history.
About the game
Tommy Maddox threw for a Steelers-record 473 yards, and Plaxico Burress had 253 yards receiving and two touchdowns, but the Falcons rallied from a 34-17 deficit as Vick passed for 294 yards and ran for 52 more.
"The players who were here then understand the speed with which this guy plays the game," Cowher said.
Pro Bowl linebacker Joey Porter (hamstring) sat out the Kansas City game and is listed as doubtful. Wide receiver Willie Reid (foot) and right guard Kendall Simmons (foot) are questionable for the first of consecutive road games.
Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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