Nine months after winning the Super Bowl, the Steelers are 2-5 and tied for last place

Not enough mettle

November 05, 2006|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun reporter

Pittsburgh Steelers fans gathered at the Purple Goose Saloon on Washington Boulevard - a Hail Mary pass or two from M&T Bank Stadium - last Sunday to savor the anticipated rout of the Oakland Raiders on TV.

What they got instead was smoked Steeler, done well enough to plant a fork.

Pittsburgh's fall from Super Bowl grace, stunning and swift, sent tremors all the way to Baltimore. Dejection, anger and shock wafted through the crowd at the Purple Goose.

"It was all of that," said Chris Binaut, president of the Pittsburgh Steelers Fan Club of Baltimore, describing the mood. "Personally, I wasn't angry. I was more or less shocked at the way [the Raiders] had a 100-yard [interception] return for a touchdown. A lot of people were angry."

The upshot is that last week a Steelers Nation in mourning criticized its favorite son, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, for throwing four interceptions, as well as its jut-jawed coach, Bill Cowher, for playing him one week after he was knocked unconscious.

Nine months after winning the Super Bowl, the Steelers are 2-5 and effectively tied for last place in the AFC North. It might be another month before they get back to .500 and next season before they get back to the playoffs. They'll attempt to begin an unlikely turnaround today in Pittsburgh against the Denver Broncos.

The Steelers are tied with two teams (1982 San Francisco 49ers and 1999 Broncos) for the second-worst start after seven games by a defending Super Bowl champion. The only champ that got off to a worse beginning - the 1987 New York Giants - used replacement players in a 1-6, strike-impaired start.

Tough times, indeed.

Injury, insult, injury ...

No one from the Steelers' title team has endured more agony in the past nine months than Roethlisberger, the youngest Super Bowl-winning quarterback ever. He had a near-fatal motorcycle accident June 12, for which he needed reconstructive facial surgery. He had an emergency appendectomy Sept. 3 that caused him to miss the season opener four days later.

Then, on Oct. 22, while giving his second straight superior performance after three turkeys, he suffered a concussion against the Atlanta Falcons.

Last Sunday, Roethlisberger played the worst game of his three-year NFL career. Two of his four interceptions were returned for touchdowns and the Raiders, with 98 total yards of offense, won, 20-13.

Two unscientific polls conducted in Pittsburgh last week produced markedly different results. A poll on a television Web site indicated 65 percent of voters favored a switch from Roethlisberger to backup Charlie Batch. A newspaper poll showed 54 percent still favored Roethlisberger.

Roethlisberger has thrown 11 interceptions and six touchdown passes in his six starts, only one of them a victory. But neither Merril Hoge nor Cris Collinsworth, two TV analysts and former players, believes the problem starts and ends with Roethlisberger.

"To say the things he's been through have not affected him is ridiculous," said Hoge, a Steeler from 1987 to 1993 who now works for ESPN. "I think the concussions affected him more from the standpoint of being hesitant. What I saw Sunday was a guy more hesitant, thinking about not getting hit.

"Unless you had your face thrown into a windshield and concussed four months later, you don't know what he's going through."

Collinsworth, co-host of NBC's Football Night in America, said that without the retired Jerome Bettis, the Steelers have lost their power running game and rely too much on Roethlisberger.

"Ben's never been put in the position where he had to be Joe Montana," Collinsworth said. "Now he is. I don't care which quarterback it is, you take away the running game and unless it's [Peyton] Manning or [Tom] Brady, it's going to affect them."

At his weekly news conference last week, Cowher said that Roethlisberger was trying to do too much.

"He's a good quarterback and he will learn," Cowher said. "The greatest thing is that he recognizes that and he's accountable. He's a stand-up guy. Those things will make him a stronger player and a stronger person through the course of time."

Uncertainty on Cowher

Cowher, in his 15th season as Steelers coach, was in the eye of the storm earlier in the year. He has another season left on his contract. Because his wife and youngest daughter moved into a $2.5 million home near Raleigh, N.C., this year, and because Cowher and the team broke off negotiations for an extension last summer, there is speculation that he will leave the Steelers after this season.

Cowher won't discuss it, but Hoge, who played for Cowher, doesn't think it is an issue in the locker room.

"Players don't care about that," Hoge said. "Bill was always good at addressing stuff like that. I'm sure he's addressed it with them."

The bigger issues are the absence of a running game, an inconsistent offensive line, poor special teams and turnovers (18).

Collinsworth said the Steelers need to get back to what they traditionally do best: run the ball.

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