Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley said he and Ben Roethlisberger are on the same page "as much as a quarterback and coordinator can be." Haley brushed aside the critical remarks Roethlisberger made after a loss Sunday against Dallas at Cowboys Stadium, and, later in the same 10-minute interview sessions with reporters Thursday afternoon, complemented his quarterback by referring to him as "elite."
There is no controversy from Haley's perspective after Roethlisberger questioned his play-calling and use of tight end Heath Miller in the second half of a Steelers 27-24 overtime loss.
"That was an emotional game," Haley said. "Whatever was said can't be taken too much to the heart because that's the way this game is. Guys will get into it in locker rooms, in the building, on the practice field. It's the mindset you get into when you're getting ready to compete and coach a big game. There's emotion involved. I wouldn't really pay much attention to anything that's said in an emotional state of mind."
Haley is no stranger to conflict. When he was the offensive coordinator of the Arizona Cardinals he got into a heated sideline argument with Anquan Boldin in the 2009 NFC championship. If not for a last-minute drive engineered by Roethlisberger in Super Bowl XLIII, Haley and Boldin would have won a championship together.
"I think healthy conflict, discussion, banter is good because it gets you to the right place and gets everyone on the same page and where you need to be," Haley said. "Like I've said a number of times, when I make a call into Ben's ear in the game I'm putting complete faith in him to make it the best call it can be. The same goes for him.
"When he hears my voice, he has to trust and believe that the play coming is giving us the best chance to succeed. You develop that in these Sunday battles against other teams. That's where it develops with the trust and camaraderie. That's what's occurred. There will be ups and downs because there's emotion and a lot at stake every week. We put a lot of time, effort and sacrifice into this. I think a little bit of healthy conflict is a good thing."
Roethlisberger is having one of his better statistical seasons under Haley's direction. He has thrown 22 touchdowns and only six interceptions. The touchdown total is his third highest in a season. He threw 26 in 2009 and 32 in 2007.
Roethlisberger's career-low for interceptions was five in 2010, when he was suspended for the first four games of the season. Haley was not taking any solace in those statistics.
"What we're about is win-loss," Haley said. "That's how you're measured. How many wins do you have? Are you in the playoffs? We're shooting for that game in New Orleans. That's our only goal.
"That's the great thing about here in Pittsburgh. The expectations are truly what we say they are. It's Super Bowl or bust. That's the focus. Win these big games you have to win to get into the tournament and then obviously win those. Numbers and all that stuff are not important to me. It's important what the final score says at the end of the day.
"It's not having the highest-rated quarterback or most rushing yards or the highest-rated receivers. It's to win games."
And Haley believes Roethlisberger gives the Steelers a great chance to do that the next two games and get into the playoffs.
"The great thing is whether there's a media fire storm or not, you need a really good quarterback to win in this league," he said. "We happen to have, in my opinion, an elite quarterback. You're talking about a player that is a really, really good player at his position, and he's the quarterback. That gives you a chance to win each and every week."
One of the biggest issues for the Steelers Sunday will be protecting Roethlisberger against the Cincinnati pass rush. The Bengals lead the league with 43 sacks, and their top player is defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who has 10.5 sacks.
Many NFL teams depend on edge rushers to generate their pass rush, but Atkins is adept at creating pressure from the inside. Among interior linemen, he leads the league with sacks. The next closest interior lineman is Ndamukong Suh, who has 6.5 sacks.
It will be up to center Maurkice Pouncey and rookie guard David DeCastro to keep Atkins in check. Atkins recorded one of his sacks in the Steelers' 24-17 victory in October in Cincinnati.
"He's just a really good football player," said DeCastro, a first-round draft pick who made his first start Sunday against the Cowboys. "He has good leverage, he's extremely strong and just keeps going the whole play."
Conversely, getting pressure on second-year quarterback Andy Dalton could be important for the Steelers. The Bengals offensive line has been vulnerable at times. They have allowed 38 sacks, including six Dec. 13 against Philadelphia.
"It's going to be big for us," nose tackle Casey Hampton said. "We're going to have to get pressure on him. But, at the same time, we'll have to stop the run. If we don't stop the run, and they're two-dimensional, we can't do what we want to do against the pass. I think it's more important to stop the run."
The Steelers have sacked opposing quarterbacks 27 times. Reserve linebacker Jason Worilds leads the team with five followed by LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison each with four.
Hampton said the Steelers are blitzing less in recent weeks because of injuries in the defensive backfield. They will be without starting corner Ike Taylor again this week.
"With the younger guys back there, we kind of hold off a little bit and kind of simplify it so guys can play a little faster and know what they're doing," he said. "At the same time, when it's simple, there shouldn't be any big plays. [Dick] LeBeau's thing has always been those 6- or 7-yard passes won't beat you. Just don't let them get in the end zone. That's always been our approach."
No need for speeches
The Steelers have lost four of their past five games, but Hampton does not believe the team needs motivational words from those in positions of leadership this week. In fact, he said it would be a bad sign if that happened.
"If we start doing that, it's a problem," Hampton said. "I don't feel like it's a problem. We just need to win. If we don't win, we don't get to the playoffs. And if we don't get to the playoffs, we can't compete for the Super Bowl. I think guys in this locker room understand that, and nothing needs to be said about that."
Pro Bowl for Pouncey?
Fan voting for the Pro Bowl closed Thursday, and the only Steelers player to top his position is center Maurkice Pouncey. Pro Bowl selections are decided by a consensus of fan, player and coach voting. Pouncey had 217,326 fan votes. The most votes for an offensive lineman went to Baltimore tackle Michael Oher, who received 227,240 votes.
Cornerback Keenan Lewis (hip) did not practice, but he said he will be ready to play by Sunday, ... Offensive tackle Mike Adams was limited with his ankle injury, ... Defensive end Cameron Heyward returned to practice after missing Wednesday for an unspecified reason. ... Defensive end Al Woods (illness) also returned to practice.
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter: @rayfitt1. First Published December 21, 2012 5:00 AM