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Old 12-07-2006, 07:08 PM   #1
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Default MSNBC/Borges: Plenty of Blame to Go Around for Steelers

Super Bowl glow fades as 5-7 Pittsburgh confronts harsh reality
By Ron Borges
Updated: 4:34 p.m. ET Dec 7, 2006

The Pittsburgh Steelers still have something to play for. It's just not what the defending Super Bowl champions thought they'd be playing for this time of year. They're playing not to embarrass themselves any more than they already have.

The Steelers must win at least two more games in the season's final month to avoid posting the worst record by a championship team the year after winning the Super Bowl in NFL history, a demise so swift and so sudden that it has shocked the Steelers organization and confused its players.

Their collapse from world champions to 5-7 also-rans has been precipitous although not without precedent and, frankly, not really as shocking as it might seem on the surface to anyone who watched closely last year. The Steelers were struggling at 7-5 this time a year ago before going on an incredible run, winning eight straight games. Yet despite that warning, Pittsburgh returned 19 of 22 starters, making only minor adjustments to a team that, had it not gotten hot at the last moment, might well have missed the postseason a year ago as well.

Of course, when you win, nobody really cares where you were after 12 weeks. The NFL is a bottom line place and last season the bottom line was that the Steelers ended up as the best team in the NFL. This year they're headed to something far worse, although head coach Bill Cowher insists maybe they're not as bad as people think.

"You're never as good as you think you are or as bad as they say you are,'' Cowher said of his slumping team, which two weeks ago was destroyed 27-0 by the Ravens on a day when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was sacked nine times.

Right now they're saying a lot of things that aren't too positive.

"It does become difficult," Cowher said. "Certainly for our football team and the expectations that we had, it becomes trying. It tests you. I think it becomes very revealing as well. You find out about yourself and the people around you as well. It has a way of separating the conditional friends from the unconditional. It reveals a lot about yourself.''

One thing it revealed is it probably doesn't help to have your head coach vacillating about what his future will be since last spring, when Cowher rejected a contract extension and said he'd go year-to-year for now. When his wife and daughter then moved to the family's new home in North Carolina and stayed there during the season, it didn't bode well for his future in Pittsburgh, where Cowher has been the head coach for the past 15 years.

Add to that troubling situation Roethlisberger's offseason motorcycle crash that nearly took his life and the string of injuries he's suffered since his return, and you can see the foundation of the Steelers' struggles. Players have been wondering how long the boss intends to stay around, especially with his name being mentioned for every coaching job in the state of North Carolina. And Roethlisberger is no longer the picture of reliability he had been ever since he took over as the team's starter early in his rookie year, when he won 15 straight before losing in the playoffs.

This year, Roethlisberger has seldom looked comfortable or confident -- and with good reason. Physically he's been hurt several times and has probably never been 100 percent. Mentally, he has not been sharp, which is one of the reasons he leads the league in interceptions with 20 and has a quarterback rating of 59.6 in the fourth quarter, also the worst in the league.

Yet just as he never deserved all the credit for the Steelers' rise, he doesn't deserve all the blame for their demise. Roethlisberger has now been sacked 37 times in 11 games, an average of over three sacks a game and a pace that could easily break the team's all-time sack record of 41 by the end of Thursday night's encounter with the Cleveland Browns.

Compare those numbers with the fact he's already been sacked six more times than a year ago and 13 more times than in 2004 and you begin to see that the Steelers' woeful defense of the Super Bowl title is not the result of simply one thing gone awry, but of an entire offense that has gone awry.

The retirement of Jerome Bettis could not be avoided, but his absence has caused more problems than Cowher ever anticipated in a running game that has long been the staple of the Steelers. On the surface, that might seem ill-founded since running back Willie Parker is third in the AFC in rushing with 915 yards, but as a team the Steelers rank only 17th in rushing with an average of 107.6 yards a game and Parker has carried 232 times already, meaning he's handling 77.5 percent of the team's rushing load. There are only three backs in the league with a higher percentage of his team's carries than Parker has shouldered, and it has begun to take a toll on him.

At 209 pounds, Parker is undersized to absorb that kind of pounding, especially with the Steelers pounding inside game, and it has shown of late. Parker has not rushed for 100 yards in a month, last hitting that number on Nov. 12, and the result of that is the Steelers are now rushing the ball only 40.8 percent of the time, a career low for a Cowher-coached team. Running less means passing more and this season that has meant more interceptions, more turnovers, more sacks and more problems for a defense that remains stout but has been called upon to play in bad field position far too often.

On Thursday night things may not improve even though the Browns have a worse record than the Steelers. Both starting wide receivers, Hines Ward and Cedric Wilson, and both starting safeties, Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark, are out with injuries. As pro Bowl linebacker Joey Porter put it recently, "Guys know it's a state of emergency.''

Through it all the Steelers have tried to hang together, convincing themselves that because they are not yet mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, they're still alive. Well, they're not quite dead, but the Steelers are on life support with only one realistic goal left ? ''Win two or bust.'' If they do, they at least won't join the 1999 Denver Broncos, who went from 14-2 Super Bowl champions to 6-10, as the worst defender of a Super Bowl championship in NFL history.

As rallying cries it's not "Remember the Alamo,'' but in this season of their discontent it's going to have to do.

? 2006 MSNBC InteractiveRon Borge is a contributor to MSNBC.com and covers the NFL for the Boston Globe.
URL: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/16082811/
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Old 12-07-2006, 09:27 PM   #2
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Default Re: MSNBC/Borges: Plenty of Blame to Go Around for Steelers

Borges day job is writing for The Boston Globe; MSNBC is a secondary source of income for him.

He makes some good points, but I give as much credence to his analysis of the Steelers as I would to a Fox News story about Hillary Clinton.
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