By BOB LABRIOLA
Every NFL team is given one weekend off during the course of a 16-game regular season schedule, and regardless of where that weekend falls on the calendar it's only natural to take stock of things during it.
For the second straight season, the Steelers' off weekend has come after just three of the 16 games, and while this makes the process of identifying trends a bit more difficult, well, it's going to happen anyway.
As the Steelers boarded their charter for the flight back from Jacksonville in the wee hours of Sept. 19, it seemed reasonable to have some concerns about the offensive line. The Jaguars have a solid defense, and the strength of that unit is its front four, but physical football is supposed to be the Steelers' game, and during those three hours at Alltel Stadium their offense had been handled physically.
The proof could be found in the statistics – Willie Parker was held to 20 yards on 11 carries, and the Steelers offense managed just 26 yards rushing in a game in which they didn't trail by more than one score until the final few minutes of the fourth quarter.
Yes, the Jaguars employ a pair of Pro Bowl defensive tackles in Marcus Stroud and John Henderson, but the Steelers' mind-set is that they should be able to gain more than 26 yards rushing even if the game was against a reincarnation of The Steel Curtain in its prime.
Coach Bill Cowher has said often that he believes it takes about four games at the start of each season for that particular team to find its identity, and after the loss to the Jaguars there were questions about whether the Steelers of 2006 would be able to execute the power offense that had helped them win Super Bowl XL.
Coming up next, and on a short week at that, was a game against the defending division champion Cincinnati Bengals, and the Steelers' ability to run the football was going to be extremely important to the outcome.
By definition, a cliché is a trite _expression that conveys a common idea, and one of the all-time football clichés is that games are won and lost at the line of scrimmage.
That cliché applied in the run-up to Steelers-Bengals I because the loss to the Jaguars six days previous had shown what happens when their offensive line gets handled physically.
When that happens, there is no running game, which means there's no time for Ben Roethlisberger to throw, which means there's no offensive continuity, which means the defense ends up being on the field for 37 minutes. And allowing an offense as balanced and potent as Cincinnati's to be on the field for 37 minutes seemed to be a recipe for disaster.
In the three games these teams had played in 2005, the outcome was tied pretty directly to how well the Steelers ran the football. In the only game in which they were held under 100 yards rushing, they lost. In the first meeting, they had rushed for 221 yards and won by two touchdowns; in the AFC Wild Card game they rushed for 144 and won by two touchdowns.