Pittsburgh Steelers turn back the clock

Bill Cowher named Jerome Bettis as the starting running back for the 1000th game in the history of pro football in the city of Pittsburgh. With the many of the Steelers greats on-hand, Cowher thought he'd return to the tradition of running the football.

Unfortunately, at least for the faithful fans, the Pittsburgh Steelers looked like the organization that struggled through decades of futility until the championship years of the 1970s. The St. Louis Rams rained on the parade and their quarterback, Marc Bulger, enjoyed his homecoming with a convincing 33-21 victory over the last place Steelers.

If Bill Cowher and his patchwork offensive line had any hope in the game they would need the defense to rein in the Rams aerial attack. Bulger, along with Torry Holt and a cast of other receivers, exploited the middle of the field all day long to the tune of 352 yards against no turnovers.

Holt was more physical than anyone in the Steelers secondary, often out-muscling CB DeWayne Washington with swim moves more reminiscent of a defensive lineman rushing the quarterback. The Steelers simply failed to make any big plays defending the pass.

Perhaps most indicative of Pittsburgh's inept secondary was rookie safety Troy Polamalu in coverage on Rams WR Dane Looker. Troy flew in front of Looker in what should have been a sure interception only to have it glance of his left bicep for a completion to Looker. The Rams scored on the very next play.

To the Steelers credit, they did not quit and stayed with the Rams for the better part of three quarters. An electrifying 84-yard punt return by Antwaan Randle El helped compensate for an anemic offensive attack and the defense twice held the Rams to field goals inside the Steelers 10-yard line, something that has been quite rare in Pittsburgh over the past few seasons.

But what few plays the Steelers could come up with only kept the Rams from blowing the Steelers out of their own stadium. The Rams held onto the ball for 40 minutes of the game and out-gained the Steelers 448 yards to 245.

Thanks to Randle El, the first half was a seesaw affair with the Steelers within striking distance at halftime, down just 17-14. Still, the statistics through 2-quarters were unsettling. Holt already had 136 yards receiving on just four receptions and Bulger looked like he was on his way to passing for over 500 yards. The game was only close on the scoreboard.

Luckily for the Steelers, the scoreboard matters.

The Steelers defense would once again bend but not break early in the third quarter. QB Tommy Maddox had a pass tipped by CB Jerametrius Butler and then intercepted by LB Jamie Duncan, giving Bulger and the Rams offense the ball on the Steelers 30-yard line. St. Louis began moving the ball well again and threatened to unleash a deluge of scoring.

But the Steelers defense held tough, holding the Rams to just 3 points after 1st and goal on the Steelers 4-yard line. Mike Mularkey responded by throwing open his bag of tricks on the next drive with big plays by Randle El, Dan Kreider and Hines Ward. Maddox found Ward in the end zone to cap a 72-yard drive in just 4 plays.

At this point, the momentum appeared to be with Pittsburgh, leading the Rams 21-20 over 8 minutes into the third quarter.

Bulger did not seem to notice and returned the favor going 70 yards in 7 plays. Holt was open over the middle once again and a tired Steelers defense now overly concerned with the pass could no longer keep rookie RB Arlen Harris in check, who finished the day 81 yards and 3 touchdowns.

At that point, the outcome of the game was relatively clear. Bulger and the Rams offense were unstoppable. The Steelers defense came up with a few big plays, but ultimately could not generate a turnover.

What slim hope the Steelers might have harbored slipped away in the fourth quarter after another successful drive by the Rams that stalled after another good stand by the Steelers inside the red zone. However, a holding call on Jason Gildon during a successful field goal kick by PK Jeff Wilkins gave the Rams a first down.

Instead of getting the ball back down by nine, it was all Harris and the Rams were up 33-21 with just under 8 minutes left in the game.

At this point, the Steelers imploded and the Rams defense took over. They intercepted an overwhelmed Maddox twice more just to give the fans in Pittsburgh their usual scapegoat for a loss.

The topped ranked pass defense in the NFL was a mirage, something a rainy day in Pittsburgh can easily melt away. The Steelers now sit in the basement of the AFC North, mired in a 4-game losing streak. Even the Cincinnati Bengals are playing better, leaving the Steelers all alone in their misery.

The Rams, however, are flying high once again. While the Steelers pass defense was horrible, the difference between these two teams is clear. The game is still won and lost in the trenches and St. Louis now sports an offensive line worthy of the playoffs. The Steelers will be hoping for high draft picks.

Seems like old times…

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