Smizik: Steelers situation is not as dire as everyone would have you believe

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Alarmed like just about everyone by the Steelers' 1-3 start, we've pored over the stats, reviewed game tape, interviewed the players, listened to the coach, heard the fans, surveyed the Internet, took note of the experts' analysis and even listened to talk radio.

We spent the better part of the week sifting through this mountain of evidence and came up with this dead-on explanation that perfectly nails this unexpected start.

The guys, uh, aren't playing real well.

Combine this poor player performance with a treacherous schedule and 1-3 isn't all that out of order.

Let's not forget that of the three teams that have defeated the Steelers, two, Jacksonville and Cincinnati, beat them last year and the third, San Diego, almost beat them.

No one had a right to expect the Steelers, who play the Kansas City Chiefs this afternoon at Heinz Field, to pick up where they left off last season. They were on the kind of roll that teams rarely achieve.

The biggest stunner of the three losses was to Jacksonville, a team whose 12-4 record last season was attributed by many to its light schedule. But the game was on the road and it was Ben Roethlisberger's first start after an appendectomy. As for the other two losses, in any preview of the season, had the Bengals, the reigning North Division champion, or the Chargers, a formidable opponent, been predicted to defeat the Steelers no one should have been astonished.

There has been an abundance of out-of-kilter analysis including this gem from a talk-show caller: "Why don't they get taller cornerbacks?''

Some of the analysis, even from astute observers, is off the mark.

For example, the notion that the "real'' Steelers defense doesn't give up the kind of long drives it allowed to Cincinnati and San Diego simply is not so. Consider the first four games of last season:

In the first possession of the 2005 season, the Steelers allowed Tennessee to move 61 yards in 11 plays for a touchdown. A week later, Houston moved 78 yards in 14 plays for a touchdown. In Game 3, Cincinnati went 86 yards in seven plays and the following week San Diego had two 62-yard drives. Even when they were on their great end-of-season roll, the Steelers gave up touchdown drives of 80 and 85 yards to Denver in the AFC title game.

The Steelers also have been accused of not being able to "finish,'' as if Bill Cowher devotes a specific segment of practice to "finishing.'' There is no art or science to finishing. A team finishes by playing well. The Steelers have not played well, particularly on offense.

Many have suggested the obvious, as if the coaching staff hasn't considered such tactics.

It has been said, for example, that Roethlisberger needs to get outside the pocket where he's often at his most dangerous with the option to run or find an open receiver.

Oh, that it were so easy.

"Teams are trying to keep Ben in the pocket,'' wide receiver Hines Ward said. "They want to take away the things he does well.''

Others have suggested the passing game would be more effective if Roethlisberger forgot the conventional seven-step drop and threw more quickly.

"We did that,'' said Ward, "because [the Chargers] were getting a rush on our quarterback. It was kind of hard to drop a full seven [steps].''

Although the team has not played up to expectations, it has not played far off of them either. If Ricardo Colclough and Verron Haynes hadn't fumbled in the fourth quarter against the Bengals, the Steelers would have won that game. If Roethlisberger had played anywhere near his norm, the Steelers might have beaten San Diego.

The defense of the Super Bowl championship is in grave jeopardy but it is not over. In the league where on any given Sunday anything is supposed to be capable of happening (like the Super Bowl champs opening 1-3), it is hardly out of the question that the Steelers can make the playoffs.

Suppose the Steelers win nine of their final 12, a daunting challenge but not out of the question. That would leave them with six losses, which would require the Bengals and Ravens, both with one loss, to lose five more times for the Steelers to be in consideration for the North Division title.

The Steelers will have to beat Baltimore twice and hope for help elsewhere, although the Ravens' schedule is not particularly difficult. They'll also need to win their second matchup with the Bengals, who have a considerably more difficult schedule. If that doesn't play out for them, they still could qualify for a wild-card spot with a 10-6 record.

The rest of the season begins this afternoon against the Chiefs. The Steelers can afford another loss, just not today.

Bob Smizik can be reached at .


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