More than just the night was chilly
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The Steelers came out of their game against the Cincinnati Bengals last night with their eighth win and still in undisputed possession of first place in the AFC North Division. But there were as many questions as there was jubilation surrounding this 27-10 victory. It was not a performance befitting a team with Super Bowl ambitions.
If this is how they're going to play in their remaining five games, four of which are against teams with winning records, it's going to be a short postseason -- if there is one at all.
If the Steelers are having trouble separating from the 1-9-1 Bengals, what are they going to do against the New England Patriots, Dallas Cowboys, Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans -- their next four opponents -- that are a combined 28-12?
"We were by no means perfect," said coach Mike Tomlin. "We stumbled out of the gate both offensively and defensively."
With occasional snow flurries and a wind-chill factor of 23 at kickoff at Heinz Field, this was supposed to be Steelers kind of weather. This is a franchise that traditionally has been built for the days of late November and December, when the cold and the snow make it tough to pass and teams that aspire to championships must run the ball. Except the Steelers couldn't against the Bengals, who came into the game with the 23rd-ranked rushing defense in the NFL.
The Bengals lost to the Steelers by 28 points a month ago and in their next game lost to Houston by 29. They are not the kind of team that should be able to keep the game close on the road against an opponent that considers itself a Super Bowl contender. But that's what the Bengals did, trailing 10-7 at the half and 13-7 in the final minute of the third quarter.
This was a victory achieved on the quality of Ben Roethlisberger's arm and another excellent performance by what is becoming known as the best defense in the NFL. From this defense, excellence is expected. From Roethlisberger, no one was sure what to expect.
He wasn't the Roethlisberger of old last night, the one who had gained entrance into the elite level of NFL quarterbacks. But he is showing signs of that form. That was the good news, perhaps even the great news, to come out of the game.
He completed 17 of 30 passes for 243 yards and a touchdown. Most noteworthy is that he went his second consecutive game without an interception after throwing eight in the three games before that. What's more, he was throwing the ball down the field more than he had in recent games. In the first half alone, he had passes of 37 yards to Hines Ward and 27 and 22 yards to Santonio Holmes.
Tomlin had suggested Roethlisberger's penchant for short passes in games against Indianapolis and San Diego was predicated by the opposing defense. That might have been part of it -- maybe even most of it -- but the suspicion lingered, and understandably so, that Roethlisberger was dinking and dunking because he was hampered by the shoulder injury that had bothered him since the first game of the season.
The injury is not fully healed and might not be so until next season.
But Roethlisberger is clearly making strides. The calls for Tomlin to bench Roethlisberger in favor of backup Byron Leftwich after the loss to Indianapolis seems pretty ridiculous today.
The Steelers had no such success in the running game, after they came in with high expectations. Not only had the Bengals been weak in stopping the run, Willie Parker returned to the lineup last week with a strong performance -- 115 yards on 25 carries. More of the same was expected.
It never materialized.
On the Steelers' first possession, Parker carried twice for 1 yard. The next time they had the ball, he carried once for 1 yard. That was followed by 2 yards on two carries and 1 yard on two carries.
For the half, Parker carried 11 times for 14 yards. He finished the game with 37 yards on 14 carries, going out early with a minor knee injury.
Mewelde Moore replaced Parker and had more success, running 15 times for 56 yards.
Tomlin maintained he was not disappointed with the running game. "I think we ended up with 120 yards. I'm disappointed that we started slowly as a football team. The run game was just a portion of it."
But against a defensive line that was ravaged by injury -- one starter missed the game and two more went down during it -- the Steelers should have been dominant from the start.
That they were not is enough to make the next four games look like a steep challenge.
First Published November 21, 2008 12:06 am