Big Ben Is Back
A big game from Ben Roethlisberger helped the Steelers end a three-game losing streak and calm their angry coach
BILL COWHER is an emotional man, and his feelings of disgust and anger were readily apparent last Thursday as he called his team together midway through practice. The Steelers coach sensed a lack of intensity that simply could not be tolerated from a team that had lost three of its first four games. As the players gathered around him, Cowher talked about the importance of resilience and avoiding self-pity. He hammered home his displeasure by using a tactic he rarely employs during the regular season: He started the entire practice over again. "He said it didn't matter if we were out there for another two hours," says reserve quarterback Charlie Batch. "We couldn't believe it, because we were halfway through the day."
The defending Super Bowl champs seemed to get the point, as they reminded everyone how dominant they can be, in Sunday's 45--7 win over Kansas City. In handing the Chiefs their worst loss since 1984 (excluding '87, a strike year), Pittsburgh was nearly flawless on offense, scoring on five of its first six possessions. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger completed 16 of 19 passes for 238 yards and two touchdowns and no interceptions. (His passer rating was 153.8.) The backfield combination of Willie Parker and Najeh Davenport ran for 187 yards, while the Steelers averaged an eye-popping 7.3 yards per play.
"That win was a total team effort," Roethlisberger said after the game. "The offensive line did its job and so did the receivers, backs and myself. We just executed well, that's all it was."
Though it would be wrong to place too much significance on this victory—the Chiefs, after all, are 2--3, having beaten only San Francisco and Arizona—the win did ease the pressure on a team that is not as bad as its sluggish start suggested. Before Sunday's game the Steelers had dealt with a variety of issues that kept them stumbling through the first month of the season.
For one thing, their schedule has been brutal: After opening with a win over Miami, they lost consecutive games to Jacksonville, Cincinnati and San Diego—three teams that should contend for playoff spots this year. There's also an easy tendency to blame Roethlisberger, who missed the season opener after emergency surgery to remove his appendix and entered Sunday's game with no touchdown passes, seven interceptions and an abysmal 41.7 passer rating. But that wasn't the only thing wrong with the Pittsburgh offense. With wideout Hines Ward facing constant double coverage, no one else in Pittsburgh's receiving corps (first-round pick Santonio Holmes, Cedrick Wilson and Nate Washington) had emerged as a dangerous threat. The offensive line, a staple of the team's past success, let their pass protection slip at some key moments. The running game suffered from the loss of the recently retired Jerome Bettis. Perhaps most important, the Steelers discovered how every team gets up for the NFL champs.
Parker said he realized this two weeks after Pittsburgh's 9--0 loss at Jacksonville on Sept. 18, while watching the Jaguars lose to the Redskins during the Steelers' bye week. He noticed that Jacksonville didn't play with nearly as much fire as it had against Pittsburgh. "I realized that if we're going to be every team's homecoming game," Parker says, "we need to start hitting people in the mouth first."
The question in the coming weeks is whether the Steelers can continue what they started against Kansas City. The schedule doesn't get much easier in the next month (after visits to Atlanta and Oakland, home games await against Denver and New Orleans), but now that Roethlisberger seems to have regained the form that has made him 28--7 as a starter, the team expects to play with renewed confidence. Pittsburgh also has five AFC North games remaining, so is still very much in the hunt for the division title.
That had to be on the Steelers' minds before Sunday's game, when they watched one of their rivals, Baltimore, lose to Carolina on the locker-room TV. After taking the field for warmups, Pittsburgh learned that another AFC North team, Cincinnati, had fallen to Tampa Bay. And when his players returned inside before kickoff, Cowher announced that it was time for the Steelers to do their part in closing the gap in the division.
His team got that message as well before delivering one to the rest of the league. "The team we ran into today wasn't the one that came into the game with a 1--3 record," said Chiefs cornerback Ty Law. "That was the Pittsburgh Steelers team that won the Super Bowl."
DOUBTERS IN D.C.
The Redskins Get Run Over
Washington's defense has gone from the NFL's ninth-ranked unit in 2005 to one that can't even stop the Titans, who had averaged 12.0 points during the first five weeks of the season. Not only did the Redskins (2--4) lose at home on Sunday, 25--22, to the previously winless Titans, but they also allowed Travis Henry to run for a career-high 178 yards. The Skins have to figure out why, in slipping to No. 21 in the defensive rankings, they've given up 74 points in the last three games and 894 yards over the last nine quarters. "We're not pushing people around," says cornerback Shawn Springs. "I don't know where our swagger has gone. We're an average team. We haven't done anything to make people fear us."
The major trouble for Washington, as Tennessee discovered, is its inability to stop the run. Rookie defensive tackles Kedric Golston and Anthony Montgomery are struggling to fill the void left by injured starters Cornelius Griffin and Joe Salave'a, and defensive end Andre Carter, one of the team's high-priced free-agent additions, is known more for his pass rushing than his run stopping. As a result teams are getting into the secondary with surprising ease. In a 19--3 loss to the Giants on Oct. 8, running back Tiki Barber ran for 123 yards as the Skins gave up 411 total yards, the most in the 38-game tenure of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.
The schedule isn't doing Washington any favors in the next three weeks, with games against Indianapolis, Dallas and Philadelphia. All three have offenses that are ranked among the top five in the NFL, which means the Redskins could quickly fall to 2--7. Says defensive end Renaldo Wynn, "Sometimes you think you're better than you are, but we can't live in the past. What we've done the past two years is not going to dictate how we play now."
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Cowboys running back Julius Jones, whose durability has been questioned over his three-year career, is off to his best start as a pro, with three straight 100-yard games. Though coach Bill Parcells still wants Jones and backup Marion Barber to split the carries, Jones (right) is at last living up to the expectations Dallas had when it drafted him out of Notre Dame in the second round in 2004.... Ravens back Jamal Lewis is averaging 16.2 carries per game, the fewest in his seven-year career. He had only nine rushes for 41 yards in Sunday's loss to Carolina. Coach Brian Billick has said he'll go with the hot runner, but Lewis says, "When you hear things about who's hot and who's not, a lot of that feels like smoke is being blown."... With 526 yards through six games, Rams wideout Torry Holt is on pace for an unprecedented seventh straight season of 1,300 or more receiving yards.
ZEROED IN Cowher (inset) erupted in midweek, then Roethlisberger completed 16 of 19 on Sunday.
[See caption above]
DAVID PODWIKA/WIREIMAGE.COM (JONES)
RAFAEL SUANES/WIREIMAGE.COM (HENRY)
THIN SKINS Henry ran for a career-high 178 yards against Washington's dinged-up D.