Steelers Sink to the Bottom of the AFC
Champs 'In Shock' of Season Gone Sour Quickly
By ALAN ROBINSON
PITTSBURGH (Nov. 6) - The ring ceremonies and confident talk of winning a second Super Bowl title in as many seasons for the Pittsburgh Steelers are long gone, replaced by the harsh reality of a season fast sinking into abject failure.
The handshakes and hugging from February are a fading memory as the Steelers haul a 2-6 record into the second half of a season gone wrong. Their 31-20 loss Sunday to Denver was their third in a row and enabled them to match their worst record at this stage of a season in coach Bill Cowher 's 15 seasons.
It is the franchise's worst such record - also achieved in 2003 under Cowher and in 1988 and 1986 under Chuck Noll - since the 1969 Steelers were 1-7 during a 14-game season.
Only nine months since proudly raising their first Super Bowl trophy in 26 years, the Steelers have sunk to these depths: No AFC team has a worse record. It is a historic falloff for a franchise that averaged 11 wins over the previous five regular seasons and was 26-6 over the last two seasons
"It's shock," linebacker Larry Foote said. "We're definitely surprised like everybody else. But it's hard to win in this league, I don't care what talent you have. You have to be focused for 60 minutes."
That's where running back Willie Parker points to the biggest difference between the Steelers that went 15-1 in 2004 and 11-5 last season and this team, which must win six of its final eight merely to finish at .500.
Maybe finally winning the Super Bowl after so many runs at it took away some of the Steelers' motivation and attention to detail, he said.
"Last year we were getting the job done, we just seemed hungrier," said Parker, who scored both Steelers touchdowns Sunday in their sixth loss in seven games. "This year, it seems like we already got what we want, what's the use? What's the use of going out there and selling out?"
Parker has never been a big talker or one to criticize his teammates in his three NFL seasons, but his sharp words were the most stinging so far this season by any Steelers player.
"Right now I don't think we're believing in everybody," Parker said. "I don't think we're looking at the guy next to us and saying, `He's got my back, I trust this guy.' I don't think we trust the guy next to us right now."
Given that any teammate might be in the process of turning the ball over could be a reason for that alleged distrust.
Turnovers have repeatedly caused these Steelers to unravel, with 10 in two games against Denver (6) and Oakland (4), including seven interceptions thrown by Ben Roethlisberger
. He has 14 interceptions in seven games, or only six fewer than the 20 he had in his first two seasons combined. Last season, he had 12 interceptions in 16 games, counting the playoffs.
However, he threw a lot less last season as the Steelers repeatedly opened leads and held onto them with their strong running game. This season, Roethlisberger has had three games with 37 or more pass attempts; last year, he threw more than 30 passes only once.
And while the Steelers talked before the season of getting the ball into the hands of rookie wide receiver and kick returner Santonio Holmes, they might be afraid to do that right now. He has five fumbles in four games, including two games with multiple fumbles.
His fumbled kickoff Sunday led to Denver's second touchdown in the opening four minutes of the game, and he was pulled off the punt return unit later after another fumble.
"I'm at a loss for words," Cowher said of all the muffed kicks and picked-off passes.
(Oh sure you are, Cowher. You don't give a damn anymore enough to get the spit flying, chin pointing, and cussing your players out.)
With 24 turnovers and 13 takeaways, the Steelers are last in the NFL with a minus-11 turnover margin. Last year, they were ninth with a plus-7, with only 23 turnovers all season
Still, Cowher and Roethlisberger promised the Steelers won't quit during the second half of the season, though wide receiver Hines Ward already is talking about next season.
"This will reveal a lot," Cowher said. "I don't have any clear-cut solutions."
(This goes to show you a lot of what we all think, this guy is clearly going to walk. He doesn't seem to care. This is not the Bill Cowher we are all accustomed too knowing.)
The Steelers had a season like this three years ago, when injuries and mistakes led them to finish 6-10. They bounced back to reach the AFC title game in each of the next two seasons and win the Super Bowl last season.
"We have a special group of guys, no matter what anybody says," Roethlisberger said of giving up on the season. "Nobody in that locker room is going to let that happen. ... You never know what is going to happen in this league."