Running game must support pass defense

<b>PITTSBURGH - </b> The No. 1 question mark entering the season for the Steelers was their secondary.<br><br> With three of the four starters from the previous opening day having been replaced, a team that figured it could run, pass and stop the run only needed time to come together in the secondary to complete the puzzle.

Perhaps it has happened quicker than expected. Troy Polamalu is the runaway tackles leader and picked off his first pass last week; Chris Hope hasn't blown a call at free safety and made his first big hit of the season last Sunday when he knocked Lamar Gordon out for the year; cornerback Deshea Townsend leads the team in both interceptions and sacks after three games; the other cornerback, Chad Scott, is the team's highest-paid defensive back and a personal favorite of coach Bill Cowher; reserves Ricardo Colclough, Mike Logan and Ike Taylor are either young, experienced or talented, perhaps all three.

It's added up to a No. 5 ranking in the NFL's pass defense statistics and helped the Steelers to a 2-1 record.

So why is everyone holding their breath with Chad Johnson and the 1-2 Cincinnati Bengals coming to town?

Didn't the Steelers prove themselves by limiting Miami quarterback A.J. Feeley to a 32.5 passer rating last Sunday?

"Yeah, we did," said Cowher. "But let's be honest. That was not a very good offense, with all due respect. I think that we'll get a good test this weekend. This is a good offense that's got some weapons."

The Bengals may have, in young quarterback Carson Palmer, the league's leading thrower of interceptions (5), but they also have Johnson, who's averaged 5 catches for 82 yards in six games against the Steelers.

Not counting his rookie season, Johnson averages 6 catches for 104 yards per game against the Steelers.

"He's one of the premier receivers in the NFL," Cowher said.

"I covered him last year. He's a Pro Bowler," said Townsend. "He's very good. He's a student of the game who prepares himself well. We definitely have to know where he's at all times. He's a guy that can go to the house right now."

Then again, most of the damage Johnson has inflicted upon the Steelers had been helped by quarterback Jon Kitna, who's been replaced by Palmer this season. Palmer was the No. 1 pick of the draft in 2003.

"One thing about Palmer, his arm's a lot stronger than Kitna's," Townsend said. "He can throw all the routes. He can throw the 18-yard outs; the deep comebacks, which are always tough to cover. That's what makes him so dangerous."

And the picks?

"A lot of teams apply a lot of pressure. He's a young guy who hasn't seen all the defenses he's going to see as he goes through his career."

And today at Heinz Field he'll see what Steelers coordinator Dick LeBeau has up his sleeve. The former coach of the Bengals, LeBeau, after three games, has the Steelers on pace for 43 sacks and 32 turnovers, an improvement over last season's 35 sacks and 25 turnovers.

LeBeau will concentrate on first stopping running back Rudi Johnson (68-232 yards rushing) before worrying about Palmer, Chad Johnson and the replacements for injured Peter Warrick -- T.J. Houshmandzadeh and speedster Kelley Washington. Third-down back Kenny Watson from Penn State is also a concern.

However, the Steelers can keep the potentially potent Bengals offense off the field by running the ball - at least theoretically since the Bengals are 31st in the league against the run after allowing Curtis Martin (196 yards) and Jamal Lewis (186) to run amok.

The Bengals are allowing a league-worst 5.7 yards per carry, meaning they are worse than the old Bengals run defenses that Jerome Bettis tore apart the past eight seasons. Bettis has had more success against the Bengals (1,587 yards, 99.2 per game) than any other NFL team.

"I heard. I heard," said Duce Staley, who now starts ahead of Bettis.

Staley is coming off of his first 100-yard game with the Steelers and is averaging 4.0 yards per carry (62-249). He has to be looking forward to running against the Bengals.

"I look forward to any game to be honest with you," he said. "Of course, as a running back, I'm licking my chops. I'm not going to tell you anything different. We know what happened the last couple weeks with the teams they faced. We're no different. We're definitely going to come out and run the ball."

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