Has the Steelers offensive line lost its edge? Does it no longer strike fear into the opposition?
Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Marcellus Wiley offered two answers, based on what he saw Sunday at Heinz Field: Maybe. And yes.
"They always have that swagger; that's what their teams have been about for years," he said in the wake of Jacksonville's 23-17 overtime victory against the Steelers. "Bill Cowher has brought his teams up that way. And the thing is, if you're going to beat these guys, you'd better bring your lunch pail with you. We brought our lunch pails with us, and we beat them."
At their own game -- which is power football.
"We knew they were going to try to run the football on us," Wiley said, emphasizing the word "try." "But we weren't going to let them. We were going to take the run away from them -- and we did. We just went head-to-head with those guys and stopped them from doing what they wanted to do."
Mind you, Wiley was talking about a front five that features three 2004 Pro Bowlers in left tackle Marvel Smith, left guard Alan Faneca and center Jeff Hartings, along with a former first-round pick in right guard Kendall Simmons and a former third-round pick in Max Starks.
But that quintet was out of synch Sunday. The Steelers rushed for 73 yards on 30 carries against the 29th-ranked run defense in the NFL. They averaged only 2.4 yards per attempt. Eighteen of those runs went for two yards or less. Five went for negative yardage. Three went for zero.
Moreover, they were flagged for three pre-snap penalties, all in the first half, yielded two sacks and lost the time-of-possession battle (27:07 to 36:09) for the second time in three games.
"The execution wasn't there," Faneca said. "For whatever reason, I don't know. We kept putting ourselves in bad situations -- second-and-long, second-and-14 -- and it was just killing drives. It's tough to come back after you're losing yards on first and second down. All of a sudden, you're looking at second-and-long, third-and-long and you just can't overcome that all day."
In the past three games (a win and two losses), the Steelers are averaging 85.3 rushing yards, including 3.0 per attempt. For the season, they average 119.4 rushing yards at 3.8 yards per carry.
Not coincidentally, both of their losses have come when they've failed to eclipse 100 rushing yards, which included 79 in a 23-20 setback to the Patriots. They're 3-0 when eclipsing 100.
The right side of the line features new starters in Starks, who replaced Oliver Ross, and Simmons, who replaced Keydrick Vincent. Ross and Vincent were part of a unit that started 18 consecutive games and paved the way for the second-ranked running game in the NFL.
They jelled flawlessly with Hartings, Faneca and Smith, something Starks and Simmons are attempting to do now. Starks is in his first season as a starter, and Simmons is coming off major knee surgery.
"Pittsburgh likes to out-physical people," said Wiley. "But we wouldn't let them do it to us."
The Jaguars easily put the brakes on Willie Parker, which has become a growing trend. Parker opened the season with 161 yards against the Titans and added 111 vs. the Texans. Since then, he's managed 55 against the Patriots, 26 vs. the Chargers and 55 (on 21 carries) on Sunday.
His shrinking statistics can be attributed to better competition, but he also seems to lack the burst that made him so dangerous in Weeks 1 and 2.
Despite his struggles, he remained the starter against the Jaguars, while Jerome Bettis (who rushed for 54 yards on 17 carries against the Chargers) was limited to 4 yards on four carries. Meantime, Duce Staley has carried the ball and has been activated just once this season.
Perhaps one of those backs can re-invigorate the running game Sunday against a Cincinnati defense that ranks 21st against the run. The line certainly will attempt to do its part.
"It's one game. It's over," Faneca said. "There's a lot of football left to be played. You can't dwell on one game. You make the corrections and you get better for the next time."