Steelers - Bengals Game To Be Barometer For Season

Pittsburgh has matched its three-game start of last season with a 2-1 record, and now hopes to avoid duplicating anything else from that 2003 season. As they are now after three games, the Steelers had two games at home last year and were crushed by Tennessee and Cleveland that started a five-game skid on way to a 6-10 record.

This time, the Steelers play four out of their next five at home, a stretch they have not experienced in eight years. They play Cincinnati and Cleveland, go to Dallas, have off and then play Philadelphia and New England in Heinz Field.

If they are going to make a run at the division title, they must make their bid now. Anything less than 3-2 in those five games won't be good enough.

"I am not into comparing this year's team with last year's team," Coach Bill Cowher said. "I think it is way too early to do that. It is a different team."

But this year's version is better than the one from last year because they've improved in all areas. They have a better secondary with two young players at safety, Chris Hope and Troy Polamalu. They are better at left outside linebacker with Clark Haggans than with Jason Gildon in his final stages. Linebacker Joey Porter is healthier a year after he was shot. The offensive line is healthier and more stable. Duce Staley gives them more at running back.

The jury's still out on rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and that's still the one area that could hurt the offense. Roethlisberger may have more talent than Tommy Maddox, but he does not have the experience. And if Roethlisberger goes down, there's not a quarterback behind him who can perform well enough to make the Steelers a playoff team.

They absolutely must sweep their home games against the Bengals and Browns, who are each 1-2 and AFC North opponents.

"We look at this one game and focus on this one game and not get caught up into trying to look at any big picture," Cowher said. I think where we are as a team right now, I think it is important to do that because every week brings upon a defining moment of its own."

Since 1980, the Bengals game in Pittsburgh has been a barometer of sorts for the season's outcome. The Steelers lost 11 times to Cincinnati at home during that span and they reached the playoffs only three times when that's happened.

In the meantime, Pittsburgh is still searching for an identity, what with a rookie quarterback and an emerging ground game with Staley.

"Teams are having a hard time trying to figure us out because we are trying to figure ourselves out," Cowher said. "If they look at us with an identity, they are creating their own. We are still trying to establish one ourselves."

The Steelers ran the ball 38 times against Miami and they will continue to take a more conservative approach in their two AFC North games against Cincinnati and Cleveland the next two weeks in Heinz Field.

Series History: 68th meeting. Pittsburgh leads the series 39-28 and is 23-11 at home. Bill Cowher is 17-7 against the Bengals, including 8-4 at home. Cowher has more wins against Cincinnati than any other team. Cincinnati beat the Steelers in their last game in Heinz Field, 24-20, Nov. 30. Pittsburgh has won the first meeting of the season against Cincinnati 10 of the past 12 years.

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