Some coaches can watch a game tape and find plenty to be encouraged about. Not this time. There may be plenty right with a Steelers defense and a special teams unit that have combined for five touchdowns in three exhibition games, but there's been much wrong with the offense.
Ben Roethlisberger has looked like a rookie, not the quarterback who has yet to lose an NFL regular season game. Running backs Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis are hurt and are likely to miss the Sept. 11 opener against Tennessee. The wide receivers are missing nearly everything going their way _ at least when Roethlisberger isn't throwing too high or too long.
With the opener less than two weeks away, there's not much time to turn around a starting offense that hasn't scored a touchdown since the AFC championship game in January. Still, despite their myriad problems, the starters will play only the first quarter Thursday night against Carolina.
To Cowher, taking an inefficient offense into the season apparently doesn't worry him as much as playing his starters too long and getting someone hurt.
"It's a player here or a play there," Cowher said Tuesday. "We've had some good practices, but we haven't been able to transfer it consistently into games. We've done some things I feel good about, but at the same time it's not up to the standard this football team has set for itself."
Or, as he suggested, the standard Roethlisberger set during a rookie season nonpareil that saw him win his first 14 starts, counting one playoff game.
"We've done some good things throwing and catching in practice, but we're still trying to develop that timing, that rapport, that consistency," Cowher said. "Things need to get better and I think they will."
One problem is that wide receiver Hines Ward's two-week holdout forced Antwaan Randle El to practice at two positions, and the receivers are only now settling into the roles they'll play during the season. Cedrick Wilson, signed to replace Plaxico Burress, is dropping passes and, not yet in sync with Roethlisberger, is running behind Randle El on the depth chart. And, since he hasn't practiced much, Ward barely played in the two games he's been available.
As a result, Roethlisberger's statistics _ 14-of-30 for 121 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions _ are what might have been expected a year ago as a rookie. He's not entirely to blame for the offense's failings, but Cowher appeared to agree with a suggestion that Roethlisberger has fallen into some bad habits in practice he is carrying into games.
"You've got to make sure you pay attention to detail," Cowher said. "Sometimes you can get away with your own physical abilities and be successful, but at this level and in this league, you've got to be consistent. Ben's still a young quarterback. Last year when everything happened, we went week to week flying by the seat of our pants and just trying to get by. Now, there's no question his comfort level is there and he probably has more information than he had last year.
"He's going to be held to a very high standard, so you want to make sure he doesn't put any undue pressure on himself, just continue to grow as a quarterback and grow as a player," Cowher said.
Meanwhile, Bettis is holding out hope he can play next week, though that seems unlikely because of his strained right calf. If he can't play, former undrafted free agent Willie Parker will become the Steelers' fourth starting running back in as many season openers, following Bettis in 2002, Amos Zereoue in 2003 and Staley last year.
Bettis was hurt carrying out a fake on a play Friday in Washington, and he didn't know what to think initially.
"When I went down, I thought it could be pretty serious because I felt some pain in there," he said. "As the days have gone by, it's gotten better, so that's a good sign. ... But it's the type of injury that doesn't allow you to come back if it's not ready."