Steelers Soaring In North

The Sports Xchange delves into the Steelers' lead in the AFC North and its ramifications, the red-zone problems, and several other news items and notes.

Even after Baltimore pulled out an overtime victory in Houston Monday night to remain one game behind Pittsburgh, the Steelers are sitting pretty entering the final three games of the season.

The Steelers play the New York Jets Sunday in what will be billed as one of the biggest late-season games, but the real issue for the Steelers is not the Jets. They can lose to the Jets and still win the AFC North Division and earn the conference's No. 2 seed if they beat Carolina and Cleveland.

Depending on what Baltimore does in that same stretch, the Steelers may or may not need to even care about the Browns once that game rolls around on Jan. 2. As it stands, even if the Ravens sweep their final three, the Steelers can lose one more provided it's not in Cleveland.

"We're in a good position," Hines Ward said. "We control our own destiny. To be 4-1 in the AFC North feels good right now."

That 4-1 record gives them the tiebreaker edge over Baltimore, which has two losses in the division. Should they wind up tied, strength of schedule could determine the division winner.

Clearly, the Steelers have the road paved for them to the No. 2 seed and a bye week, no matter what happens when they play the Jets on Sunday.

"I think we're in the driver's seat in the AFC North," linebacker James Farrior said. "And that's the key, win the North and getting a ticket to the dance."

The Steelers have not lost a division lead this late in the season in 20 years.

They've blown a late lead just once, and that occurred on the final weekend of the 1990 season when they lost to Houston to wind up in a three-way tie for the division and miss the playoffs.

--Ten years after the Ravens showed it could be done, the Steelers are mapping plans for a trip to the Super Bowl based mostly on their dominating defensive play.

They have gotten little help from their offense, especially over the past three games.

Pittsburgh's offense ranks 20th in the NFL and has scored just two touchdowns in the past three games -- one a 9-yard drive after Troy Polamalu forced a fumble in Baltimore. The offense managed only three field goals Sunday, as the defense provided the victory with two touchdowns on interception returns.

"We started out pretty slow, but we were getting some big plays," receiver Mike Wallace said. "We just weren't scoring touchdowns. We were getting down there. We just have to finish drives. That's our biggest problem. We don't really ever have a problem moving the ball. It's just finishing drives. We have to score when we get to the red zone."

The Steelers' 290 points rank 14th in the NFL. They have scored 27 touchdowns on offense, four via returns.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and his offense moved the ball well at times against Cincinnati, reaching inside the 10 twice and the red zone three times, but Pittsburgh could not finish a drive with a touchdown.

"It's not good enough because we have to score points," Roethlisberger said. "Field goals aren't good enough. Luckily our defense bailed us out and played such a great game."

The running game has not improved much from last season even though team president Art Rooney proclaimed in January a need for that to get better. And the passing game is not nearly what it was in 2010, when Roethlisberger set a team record with 4,328 passing yards. The Steelers have just 2,758 passing yards with three games left.

But the defense has been dominant. It leads the league by far on the ground, allowing a mere 60.1 yards per game, and the Steelers rank fourth overall.

"We know we need to score more points," safety Ryan Clark said. "Those guys are working on it. It's crazy because we moved the ball. We move the ball on people. We clearly have the talent, and I think they'll get it going."

NOTES, QUOTES

--The Steelers are up in arms over the number of hits on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger that draw no penalties. The only penalty called against a defender for hitting Roethlisberger this season came after the play when Oakland's Richard Seymour sucker-punched him. On Sunday, Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson clubbed Roethlisberger in the head while sacking him, and nothing was called.

"It's terrible, man," linebacker James Farrior said. "I think they protect all of the quarterbacks but ours. But we're going to keep on fighting, we're going to keep on going. Hopefully they'll catch it one day."

--The Steelers committed another nine penalties for 89 yards Sunday, bringing their total over the past four games to 420 yards on 42 penalties.

"When you are looking at first-and-30, it's tough," coach Mike Tomlin said. "Somehow we overcame that. For the most part, we have all year when we get behind the chains with the penalties. We find ways to overcome them."

--Troy Polamalu and LaMarr Woodley returned interceptions for touchdowns, the first time that has happened for the Pittsburgh defense in 12 years.

"You win games when you do that," safety Ryan Clark said. "Coach (Dick) LeBeau puts up all these stats. I believe it's in the 90th percentile that if you score two touchdowns on defense you'll win the football game. Those were big. Troy right now is playing like the MVP of the league on defense."

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

PLAYER NOTES

--QB Ben Roethlisberger is 3-1 at Heinz Field this season with a passer rating of 104.6, which includes nine touchdowns and only two interceptions. He is 37-11 in his career at home -- a .771 winning percentage.

--RB Mewelde Moore had his busiest day of the season, tying his season high with four carries for 18 yards, his second-highest output of the season. He has 87 yards on 25 carries as the sometimes-No. 2 back.

--RB Isaac Redman was not used as often last Sunday despite his tackle-breaking 9-yard TD the previous week that beat Baltimore. Redman touched the ball just twice, a carry and a reception.

--TE Heath Miller cleared his concussion tests on Tuesday and will go through a full practice on Wednesday, coach Mike Tomlin said. Miller did not play last week after suffering a concussion against Baltimore Dec. 5.

--TE Matt Spaeth was not productive in Miller's absence against the Bengals Sunday. He caught one pass for four yards and dropped another.

--WR Mike Wallace needs 54 yards receiving to reach 1,000 yards in his second season, first as a starter. His 20.6 yards per catch ranks second in the NFL.

--WR Hines Ward has reclaimed the team lead in receptions with 49. Ward has led the Steelers in receptions the previous 11 seasons, falling short only as a rookie in 1998.

--Polamalu aggravated his ankle injury on Sunday but continued to play. Tomlin said he will follow the same routine this week as he has the past month, not practicing on Wednesday or Thursday.

--CB Bryant McFadden continues to have a problem with a hamstring injury but has not missed any playing time because of it.

--OT Flozell Adams still has a problem with a sprained ankle, although he played the whole game last Sunday. Tomlin said he did not play up to par because of it.

--CB Anthony Madison, one of the Steelers top special teams players who leads them with 16 tackles (13 of them solo), has a bruised knee. Tomlin said he will be "fine."

--WR Emmanuel Sanders limped off the field Sunday but returned later. He was not listed on the injury report. Sanders has taken over as the No. 3 receiver, unseating veteran Antwaan Randle El.

--K Shaun Suisham is a perfect 9 for 9 on field goal tries since joining the Steelers the past four games, six of them beyond 40.


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