On the Steelers: How low can attendance go?

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It's legendary around the NFL how Steelers fans take over many opposing stadiums when their team plays around the country. What might it be like tonight if Bengals fans take over Heinz Field?

With the two teams headed in opposite directions, the path their fans take could be headed that way too. For many years, Steelers fans hopped on Interstates 70/71 for the weekend trip to Cincinnati.

Brace for the influx the other way today, and if Bengals fans do not come, tonight's game could be smallest audience to watch the Steelers play a game that counts in Heinz Field's 12-plus-year history.

Last Sunday, they experienced their second-smallest crowd at Heinz -- 52,489 with 13,000 no-shows. That dragged down the average attendance this season to 59,376, which would be the lowest since moving to Heinz in 2001. And that game meant more to them than tonight's because a victory would have kept the Steelers in the race for a playoff spot.

Tonight's game means little to the Steelers, but possibly plenty to Cincinnati's attempt to earn the second AFC playoff seed and the bye week and home playoff games that go with it.

Steelers fans might even remember what that was like. For Bengals fans, plenty of good tickets should easily be available, even if every game there has been sold out.

"I guess they don't feel the need to come right now, that we don't deserve their support," Steelers defensive captain Ryan Clark said.

The previous low average attendance at Heinz occurred during their 6-10 season of 2003 (59,698). With two rather meaningless games left as the Steelers try to avoid their first losing record since that lowly-attended 2003 season, they could have crowds dip lower than 50,000. The last time that happened came during their 6-10 season at lower-capacity Three Rivers Stadium in 1999, when they had three games below 50,000, including one of 39,428.

Heinz Field hosted its smallest Steelers crowd just last season when they played the Browns Dec. 30 to an audience of 51,831.

"That's a product of not winning games or games not necessarily being extremely important because you aren't winning," Clark said. "What can you do? You just play, try to put the best product on the field you can."

In the meantime, fans have flocked to Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati, where capacity is the same as Heinz Field and the 9-4 Bengals have averaged 64,000 through five games. A.J. Green, Cincinnati's Pro Bowl wide receiver, said there's a good chance to see more orange and black at Heinz Field tonight.

"I hope so. We have great fans," Green said. " ... I'm pretty sure they're going to travel over there."

Every Steelers game has been sold out since 1972, but unlike Major League Baseball, the NFL uses turnstile counts and not tickets sold for the attendance figure. The Steelers lose no revenue from unused tickets but there are lost concession sales, clothing sales, etc.

Clark said the players don't pay much attention to all the no-shows.

"What we're more worried about is the people who do come out, the people who brave the weather, the people who brave the traffic to come out and support us. You don't focus on the empty seats, you focus on the seats that are filled."

Under the pile

Steelers center Cody Wallace wasn't doing anything to Miami's Randy Starks in that pile that does not go on in many scrums for the football. The only difference is Wallace's action was caught on tape.

Players will do virtually anything to come out of that pile with the ball, or at least cause the player who has it to lose it before officials sort things out. Eye-gouging, facemask twisting, punching, choking and, yes, putting hands where they should not be.

Take it from two guys who played for the Steelers in the 1980s and are now on their broadcast team: all kinds of things are being grabbed under a pileup besides the football.

"Body parts," Craig Wolfley explained, "and let's just leave it at that.

"There was a fumble on an onside kick in San Diego once. I had it ... and then it was like being a Thanksgiving turkey wishbone."

Pulling the facemask, which they call fishhooking, is a popular move.

"Not that I've ever done it," Tunch Ilkin said with a slight smile, "but from what I understand, when you pull a guy's facemask, his whole body comes out. "I got punched in the ribs. When you get punched in a pile, you get out and you're looking for the guy, it could be anybody.

"We got in a pileup in Cleveland one time. I was in a fight for the ball. I had my hands pinned to my sides and a guy blasted me in the head, and I was trying to choke this one guy and another guy spiked the ball off my head.

"We got up and got into a big fight."


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