Pittsburgh Steelers Team Report

After three seasons with a bye in the first two or three weeks, the Steelers welcome this weekend off like none other. They need a break in the worst way, because that's how they've played over the past three games, all losses.

They don't need it so much to heal the wounded as much as they do to heal their suddenly impotent offense. Their problems center around an offensive line that went from one of the strongest parts of the team the past few years to its weakest.

The situation became so dire that Bill Cowher shuffled his line around in Denver as if he were coaching a hockey team. He moved All-Pro left guard Alan Faneca to left tackle and sometimes put him back at guard. He moved center Jeff Hartings to right guard and played Chukky Okobi at center. Mathias Nkwenti played in his first game in three years and came in on obvious passing downs at left tackle.

Cowher said he would continue to use such combinations as necessary as the Steelers try to overcome a 2-4 start.

"We'll continue to do it," Cowher said. "We're going to try to find the right combination with everybody who gives us the best chance to win. That'll be done on a week-to-week basis and, if necessary, may be done on a series to series basis. We don't want to do that but certainly right now we need to get results and I think they'll understand that. Anything and everything is possible at this point."

Cowher welcomed starting left tackle Marvel Smith back after he missed the past three games except for three plays with a pinched nerve in his shoulder. Smith could be switched back to right tackle if they want to put Faneca at left tackle permanently. Smith started at right tackle for three seasons before they moved him to the left this season.

Also, Hartings could be moved to right guard, where he played in Detroit before the Steelers switched him to center in 2001. Right guard Kendall Simmons has had problems with diabetes and a bum shoulder and has not played nearly as well as he did his rookie season in 2002.

Faneca said he's more than willing to make the shift to tackle if it would help the team.

"Whatever they decide we need to do to get this offensive line to play well is fine by me," Faneca said. "If that's something they decide, I'm raring to go. I'll go give it my best shot, go out there and work hard."

At 2-4, the Steelers have underperformed for a team picked among the preseason favorites in the AFC. Strangely, it's been their offense that has not performed well. They have the 27th running game in the NFL, they cannot protect the passer and teams are playing Cover 2 defense against them to prevent Plaxico Burress and Hines Ward from going deep.

"If teams play Cover 2, we have to be able to run the ball," Ward said. "That's how they're taking Plax out of the ballgame. It's kind of hard for us to get into a rhythm when teams are playing that. I remember, when I first got here, teams were scared to play that. They were putting eight guys in a box. Now teams are playing Cover 2 and stopping the run out of Cover 2. We have to find a way to rectify that."

They haven't been able to coax that safety down by running the ball. Jerome Bettis led them in rushing at Denver with 34 yards on 14 carries. He has only 128 yards after six games, the slowest start in his career. He does, however, lead the team with three touchdowns rushing and is tied for fifth in the AFC with three touchdowns rushing. Amos Zereoue leads the Steelers for the season with 277 yards rushing and has a 3.3-yard average per carry.

The Steelers haven't ranked lower in the NFL than 18th in rushing since the league merged in 1970. They are 27th this week. Another way to break the Cover 2 is to throw short passes.

"The hard thing about playing Cover 2 is when you're down and trying to catch up," quarterback Tommy Maddox said. "But as long as you're in the game, yes, that's the secret."


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