Steelers' schedule was supposed to get tougher after off week, but that doesn't appear to be the case
Tuesday, October 16, 2007
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Charlie Riedel/Associated Press
Receiver Chad Johnson and the Bengals are off to a disappointing 1-4 start after winning the first game of the season against Baltimore.
The off week was supposed to be a high-water mark for the Steelers, a weekend that would separate their schedule from its soft underbelly into hardened reality.
Instead, it's more of the same.
For the only time between now and the last two games of the season, the Steelers play consecutive away games at Denver and at Cincinnati. Both were supposed to be playoff contenders this season, and neither has lived up to those expectations.
The Broncos lost their third in a row Sunday, 41-3, to San Diego. They have been outscored, 102-37, in those three games. Their only victories came in their first two games, by one point against Buffalo and in overtime against Oakland after the famous Mike Shanahan field-goal timeout negated what would have been Sebastian Janikowski's winner for the Raiders.
Nfl Week 7
But the Broncos look good compared to the Bengals, an odds-on pick to join Baltimore in finishing ahead of the Steelers in the AFC North when the season began.
Cincinnati is 1-4 after losing its fourth consecutive game Sunday, 27-20, to Kansas City. The Bengals' only victory came in their opener when the Ravens committed six turnovers and lost at Cincinnati, 27-20.
Not only that, the matchups for the Steelers the next two games seem to play right into their hands, or at least Willie Parker's feet.
The Steelers have the No. 2 rushing offense in the NFL behind Minnesota. They average 167 yards a game and 4.8 yards a carry. The Broncos are the worst in the league at stopping the run -- they allow 187.6 yards rushing a game. And Cincinnati's defense is not much better. The Bengals rank 29th at stopping the run, yielding 145.8 yards a game.
On paper, it looks like a mismatch where once the game in Denver seemed so enticing it prompted the NFL to make it the prime feature of the week by placing it on the Sunday night schedule on NBC-TV.
The Steelers, who returned for meetings yesterday after three days off, expect all of their injured starters to be ready, too. They include wide receivers Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes, and Pro Bowl defenders strong safety Troy Polamalu and nose tackle Casey Hampton.
"I would assume everyone's coming back," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "It's a good time because we have a tough stretch coming up. ... Denver is obviously a tough place to play, a tough team, a very good defense. It's going to be a challenge for us."
Only three of the Steelers' next nine opponents own records above .500 through the first six weeks of the season:
Perhaps players must talk that way about their next opponent. The Broncos are ranked No. 1 in the NFL on pass defense, but that may be because opponents find it so easy to run against them. Denver is No. 1 in total passing yards allowed but only No. 19 in net passing yards per play.
Roethlisberger enters the game with 13 consecutive pass completions; three more and he will break Bubby Brister's 18-year-old record of 15. He also has thrown just three interceptions, on pace for his fewest as a pro. He threw only nine as a rookie in 2004 in 13 1/2 games. He led the NFL with 23 last season.
The Steelers, though, are more likely to try to do what everyone else has been able to against Denver's defense -- run the football. Willie Parker has 507 yards and a 4.2-yard average. Najeh Davenport has 209 yards and a 7.5-yard average backing up Parker and playing on third downs.
"Najeh is a situational spark plug for us," coach Mike Tomlin said. "He does a lot of things well. He's sneaky fast, he's a big guy, he can catch the ball, he's good on blitz pickup. The roles are starting to define themselves. But again, we're just kind of letting it happen naturally. We're doing what we need to do to win ball games. Willie Parker is our primary ballcarrier and Naj is a legitimate threat when we put him in there."
If all goes right, the Steelers should steam toward a Monday night meeting at home Nov. 5 against Baltimore, which seems to be their only threat in the AFC North. The Ravens are 4-2.
After that, the Steelers play Cleveland, and then against three teams that right now have two wins among them -- at the Jets (1-5), Miami (0-6) and Cincinnati (1-4).
"It's still early in the season, a lot of things can shape up a lot of different ways," Roethlisberger said.