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12-29-2006, 11:16 PM
Steelers, Bengals suffer through similar season
Saturday, December 30, 2006

By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Their quarterback had health issues in the offseason, prompting concerns about his effectiveness despite his intention to be ready for the start of the regular season. But the rest of the team largely was intact from the previous season, when they finished 11-5 and tied for the top spot in the AFC North. That includes the star running back, receiver and safety, as well as the entire coaching staff.

Then, after turnovers and losses to teams they should have defeated left them on the precipice of playoff extinction, the left tackle -- a player given to insight and introspection -- labeled them underachievers.

Gross underachievers, if you will.

Quick now, the above describes which team, the Steelers or the Cincinnati Bengals?

The team in question is the Bengals, who are clinging to faint playoff hopes. And the proclamation was delivered this week by tackle Willie Anderson, who took a look around the locker room and concluded there is no way the Bengals should be 8-7 heading into the 1 p.m. game tomorrow against the Steelers in Paul Brown Stadium.

No way they should be on the verge of joining the Steelers as a non-playoff team in 2006, not after what happened last season.

"We have grossly underachieved," Anderson said. "The main thing is to go 9-7 and learn to grow. Whether it means new players, new whatever, we have to find some answers to some problems. The first thing we have to do is beat Pittsburgh. Then we'll feel better about ourselves. If we don't do that, we have an even bigger problem."

Of course, if Anderson considers the Bengals a bunch of underachievers, what must he think of the Steelers?

Like the Bengals, they were 11-5 last season, too. But they went on to win the Super Bowl and had 19 of their 22 starters returning, as well as the entire coaching staff.

Heading to the scene of where they ended the Bengals' 2005 season, the Steelers are 7-8 and trying to conjure enough incentive to finish the season at .500. They have been reduced to looking back and playing Bill Cowher's dreaded "what-if" game, haunted by turnovers that cost them victories against the Bengals, Atlanta and Oakland yet tortured by two lopsided defeats to the Baltimore Ravens.

Did they underachieve?

"I'm not going to say we didn't underachieve, but we had to overcome so much," receiver Hines Ward said.

"Of course, we're unhappy with the way things unfolded or have gone with the players we have in here," defensive end Brett Keisel said. "You don't want to be where you're at."

"I think our expectations were high, and we didn't achieve them," Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca said. "Our expectations were high from last year. We overachieved last year. We overcame what we didn't overcome this year and played as a team. If you want to say anything, we were overachievers last year."

OK, not exactly the same missile issued by Anderson. But, underscoring their sentiments are the facts:

Not many Steelers players performed to the level of last season, statistically or otherwise. That certainly was not the case with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has ranked near the bottom of the league's passer ratings after hovering near the top in 2005. Interceptions (22) and sacks (45) have plagued him nearly as much as his physical setbacks, though it is difficult for anyone except Roethlisberger to quantify the impact his June 12 motorcycle accident had on his performance.

And it certainly was not the case with linebacker Joey Porter, who is not the dominant pass-rusher he was at the end of last season; or even Ike Taylor, who went from being the team's top cover cornerback in 2005 to a player who hasn't started the past five games because of poor play.

About the only player who raised his level from last season was running back Willie Parker, who has a career-high 1,360 yards rushing and 14 touchdowns and was named to the Pro Bowl.

"We just had so much stuff that happened," Ward said. "You take our quarterback, what he's been through the whole year, no quarterback has been through that. I know Carson [Palmer] had the knee injury, but almost losing your life, the appendectomy; Troy [Polamalu] missed a couple games, Casey [Hampton] missed one game, Joey missed two, I missed a couple. Those are all our key starters, and you have to deal with that.

"That's kind of hard. Your team is like going up and down, up and down, trying to handle a lot of adversity. What we did, the Super Bowl champ, to come back and not make playoffs at all, through all what we had to overcome, I don't know you can say we were underachievers."

http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/06364/750078-66.stm