Old questions persist for Steelers

<b>PITTSBURGH - </b> The Steelers have answered many questions during their seven-game win streak, but some of those questions persist.<p> Granted, two of the three Big Questions this morning deserve to be laughed off as the 8-1 Steelers invade the 4-5 Cincinnati Bengals today. Here's the first:

1.) After winning the NFL's two biggest games this season, back to back, and following it with a win on the road against the rival Cleveland Browns, are the Steelers due for a letdown on the road against a revenge-minded team that's won three of its last four games?

"Heh, heh," said Hines Ward. "Everybody's waiting for the letdown for us. For us, we're just taking it one game at a time and just playing it out. We're not looking forward or backwards. Cincinnati's our next opponent and we know it's going to be tough to go in Cincinnati and try to steal a win."

OK. The heart will be there. But isn't it difficult to produce extra adrenaline every week?

"No. No. It's not," Ward said. "We're having fun. The vets on this team, there's no pressure on them. We're just going out, continuing to have fun and playing loose. When you're a loose team like that, good things will happen."

Kimo von Oelhoffen played for the Bengals and understands how excited they become about the Steelers. The formerly miserable Bengals beat the Steelers at least once in five of the last seven years and six of the last nine.

Von Oelhoffen expects a competitive game from a quality team that can both pass and run. In defending Chad Johnson in the previous meeting, the Steelers allowed their only opposing 100-yard rusher of the season. Rudi Johnson rushed for 123 yards on 24 carries. Von Oelhoffen considers the Bengals to be the best run-blocking line the Steelers have faced during their win streak. Therefore …

"I don't think there'll be a letdown," he said. "If we lose, it won't be any kind of letdown. It would happen because they played a good game."

Which brings us to Big Question No. 2:

2.) Can the Steelers stop the Bengals' running game without Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton?

Again, the question was greeted with laughter.

"They ask me that every week," said Chris Hoke, who's played the last three weeks in place of Hampton, out for the year with a torn ACL.

Hoke weighs 30 pounds less than Hampton and has provided a better pass rush. Against the run, Hoke has been in the middle of a defense that's allowed only 96 yards on 37 carries in those three games. Yet, none of those three teams possessed an inside back the caliber of Johnson.

"Now, they do have an inside power game and their offensive line's great," Hoke said. "They're working well together and they've got a good center (Rich Braham) who's been around a long time. He knows a lot of tricks. It's another great opportunity for me to go out there again and try to prove to the critics I can play the run."

Are there many critics?

"No," he said. "But every week they always say 'a true test for Hoke,' you know, 'a true test for Hoke.' Every week it's like that. So I'll just go out there and try to do my job. I can't worry about what other people are saying. I just have to worry about playing my techniques and getting the job done."

Getting the job done is a term Jerome Bettis understands. As a replacement for Duce Staley, Bettis comes to Cincinnati riding back-to-back 100-yard games.

3.) Can Bettis keep it up?

No laughter here. After all, Bettis is 32 years old and hasn't rushed for this kind of yardage (252 yards) in consecutive games since early in the 2001 season. He hasn't carried the ball this often (62 times) in consecutive games since October, 2000.

In his favor, Bettis has rushed for more yardage (1,587) against the Bengals than against any other NFL team. And the Bengals' 30th-ranked run defense hasn't been seriously tested since their top run-stuffing tackle, Tony Williams, was injured three games ago.

"These last couple games they've been really tough against the run, but not only that, just in terms of football period," said Bettis. "They're a better football team than when we played them last time. They're on a roll. They've won a couple in a row. So we've got to be very, very, very careful because we're playing them at home - they're 3-1 at home - so they're going to be ready for us."

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