Dangerous? Yes!    Stupid? Of Course!

Catch the The Morning After every Monday.">
Dangerous? Yes!    Stupid? Of Course!

Catch the The Morning After every Monday.">

Morning After

<b>The Morning After --</b> Every week, uncut, honest thoughts first thing Monday morning, win or lose, before there's time for "the coach" inside to begin thinking rationally. <br><br> Dangerous? Yes!&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; Stupid? Of Course! <br><br> Catch the <b> The Morning After</b> every Monday.

While watching the replay of the Steelers' mauling of Kyle Boller, Jamal Lewis and the rest of the Baltimore Ravens this morning, former linebackers coach Mike Archer came to mind. One night at training camp a few years back, a couple of reporters asked him about James Harrison, who was one of the camp's undrafted rookie phenoms. Harrison's strength was unique, and so was his attitude. He'd shove much bigger linemen around and then stand and admire his work. The nickname given by one reporter -- "Shaft" -- was apt.

So we asked Archer what he thought, and Archer ripped into the rookie. He said Harrison was repeatedly late for meetings and didn't take kindly to instruction. Archer imitated the killer look Harrison would give upon such an act of coaching, and said he couldn't wait to cut him.

The next day, I asked then-coordinator Tim Lewis if Harrison was really that difficult and Lewis said, "Aw, Mike doesn't know how to handle street kids. Harrison will be alright." Well, Harrison made the practice squad that year, which tells us either a.) Archer simply had a bad day with Harrison or b.) Archer was overruled by someone who really liked Harrison's talent and felt it better to overlook his potentially destructive attitude.

Of course, Archer left for the University of Kentucky by the start of the next season. Harrison was gone, too. He was picked up by the Ravens, sent to NFL Europe as roster fodder and then summarily dropped after his services were used up. Every team in the league had to send a certain number of players over to Europe, and that's all the Ravens wanted out of Harrison. As we know, the Steelers picked him up in a numbers pinch right before this year's camp, and it appears as if they've re-found a diamond in the rough. Harrison was spectacular Sunday against the Ravens, pushing a right tackle with a 120-pound weight advantage around like a rag doll. The other Ravens' right tackle couldn't block Harrison, and neither could an array of tight ends. Harrison's leap over halfback Chester Taylor and subsequent batting of Kyle Boller's fourth-down pass was perhaps the play of the game.

Knowing how Bill Cowher normally handles such young talent, it's doubtful Harrison will keep the starting job. Clark Haggans is due back for the playoffs and he knows the defense better than Harrison and is less prone to coverage busts. Harrison, in an emergency start at Cleveland, was just as explosive at the line of scrimmage but a bust allowed tight end Aaron Shea to score the Browns' only touchdown of the day.

It's presumed (although not verified) that Harrison's man scored a Giants touchdown last week. Of course, on second-and-goal from the 1-yard line, everyone plays the run, so if the wide open tight end was Harrison's responsibility he is excused. Alonzo Jackson, who was dragged into the end zone by Tiki Barber later in the game, could not be so absolved and thus lost his spot in the rotation with Harrison.

To Cowher's credit, he did make Harrison the full-time replacement for Haggans for the Ravens game. Could we hope for Harrison to remain at the position in the playoffs? It's easy for a writer to jump on the Harrison bandwagon, but a coach will tend more toward the conservative. Then again, wasn't Cowher the guy who in 1992 pulled a raw, strong, mean and nasty young linebacker aside after a blown coverage and said, "Greg, just rush the quarterback"?

Plaxico Burress sometimes makes the wisest comments. A few weeks ago, while in the midst of a setback, Burress told reporters his injury would make the offense even better. He was right on the money.

Antwaan Randle El emerged as an all-around playmaking threat and Lee Mays gained much-needed confidence with a couple of clutch plays. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, however, gained the most. He was forced to work with Randle El and by the fourth game of Burress' absence had grown immensely as a quarterback who could not only trust others downfield but became polished in his checkdowns. Roethlisberger was forced to work the entire field. Burress returned Sunday in a big way. To cap off the Steelers' opening drive, Roethlisberger looked the single high safety away from the Burress-Ward combo that had lined up to the other side of the field. It caused a couple of false steps as Burress ran the same flag route Randle El had run deep to burn the Giants. Roethlisberger easily arched the ball for the touchdown to Burress, who'd beaten corner Gary Baxter by two steps. Easy touchdown.

The time off and subsequent development of Randle El appears to have forced Burress to improve as well. On a play later in the half, Roethlisberger scrambled left and threw deep to Burress, who stopped, came back and jumped six inches off the ground to make a tough play look easy. Later, Burress ran through the middle of the field after making a catch for an additional 10 yards. Earlier in the season, on a similar play, Burress went down immediately after catching the pass. In a few plays against the Ravens, Burress proved he's motivated by more than his upcoming contract negotiations.

Jerome Bettis is perhaps the best story on a team full of great stories. But is he the MVP? It's difficult to imagine the Steelers winning as many games with Verron Haynes and not Bettis playing in place of Duce Staley. Don't take that to mean I think poorly of Haynes. He's obviously an emerging piece in the puzzle and shows more each time out. But Bettis has carried the running game. Is he the MVP though?

Sorry, that has to go to Roethlisberger. No one wants to hand that kind of mantel over to a rookie, and I doubt the players will vote that way this week, but they should.

As Roethlisberger gains a better grasp of the offense each week, the Steelers have been able to add to it as the playoffs approach. Roethlisberger is also doing the little things, like looking off safeties and hitting his checkdown receivers.

Bettis and the running game are forcing teams to bring one of their safeties up, and the Steelers are continuing to batter them with the Bus. It's almost like the Chinese water torture, and a slow death is the most vicious. But while watching the Ravens play more man coverage than I've ever seen them play, I felt Roethlisberger could've easily thrown for 500 yards and truly massacred them. Because of Roethlisberger, this is a complete team, capable of beating anyone on every given Sunday.

The Steelers are easily the best team in the league because of that balance, and it's a child who's leading them.

Following Week 15, Giants - Steelers:
It was a magnificent Sunday because it was a free Sunday. That's right, at a time when there doesn't seem to be enough hours in the days, we were given a freebie.

Last Thursday in the locker room, Deshea Townsend stretched his arms and yawned and I asked him if he were tired and he said, "Man, I need a day off." He wouldn't admit to looking forward to Sunday and the day off, but I egged him on and then teased him by saying he'd have to Christmas shop with the missus anyway. He said, "No. Online shopping is the greatest, man. I'm all done" And he let out a huge smile, and as I sat around the house Sunday trying to figure out if I wanted to do anything, I decided I would do nothing, and then I smiled. Going out to eat was the most tiring chore of the day.

The point is this scheduling quirk was another in a line of moments that have gone right for the Steelers in 2004. Forget about the injuries. I'm not talking about that. In fact, I've counted those guys out, just for the sake of my own mental health. If you keep worrying about whether Plaxico Burress is going to return, you end up reading the Tribune-Review or some such nonsense. (I was forced to early this morning because of the lying headline and ended up furious at the shabby work once again). No, that day off will help everyone re-charge at the right time. Consider the beat up Baltimore Ravens, who were dealing with fresh injuries on a plane-ride home in the wee hours of Monday morning. Now, their low energy level will be their challenge next Sunday.

But what of these injuries? As I said, count Burress out. Count Duce Staley out. Wanna play patty cake with Clark Haggans' injury news for the next five weeks? Me neither. Count him out. Chad Scott practiced last week? I saw the meaty portions of three practices and didn't see him work at all. They said he practiced so I reported it. Count him out. As Gene Hackman said at a tough point in the movie Hoosiers, "My team's on the court."

Anything that comes of these injured players will be gravy, but realize the rest of the players should be regenerated after that beautiful, wondrous gift from God on Sunday.

How would any of these potential returnees help anyway? I know the great Steeler Nation believes Kendrell Bell and his whirlpool pals are necessary for a real run. But seriously, how would any of them help? Maybe special teams. Otherwise, Burress sends Antwaan Randle El back to the bench on first down, perhaps second down, and then Burress worries about re-popping his hamstring. Staley comes in for whom? To take carries away from Jerome Bettis? Verron Haynes? Willie Parker still has that touchdown we all know is in him this season. How about Scott for Willie Williams? Are you sure you want to do that? Internet writer Pete Prisco claims teams are game-planning to exploit Williams. Well, his interception ended the game Saturday. Williams may get beat every now and then, but I haven't seen a bust or a peek in the backfield from him yet. And he doesn't make contact. The guy is a pure cover corner who does just enough in the run game. Do you want to mess with chemistry at this point by bringing Scott back and working him back into shape? Gravy. He's gravy in case of another injury. So is Bell. So are Burress and Staley. Haggans? If he gets Alonzo Jackson off the field, OK. He's needed. And, yes, Burress would help the 3-wide sets but otherwise this "stretch-the-field" nonsense has run its course. It's obvious that teams that can't stop the run have to move their SS up, which opens the field more than anything. Ben's arm is second in terms of "opening the field." He keeps free safeties deep. The Redskins, Jags and Jets were stout enough to stop the run much of the time with seven. It made passing difficult.

Burress will be missed on third-and-10, but frankly he's never been a warrior in terms of going after the ball. But you've head all this from me before. The Trib, by the way, is still apologizing: "Burress scores a touchdown every eight times he touches the ball," they gushed today about his four touchdowns this season.

As for the defensive deficiencies Saturday, let's give a little credit to Eli Manning. He showed real talent and his line picked up the blitzes and gave him time. That will happen when your veteran and respected running back rips off a 40-yarder early in the game. At least the Steelers adjusted and shut Tiki Barber down the rest of the way.

Aaron Smith and James Farrior didn't have their usual great games, and they may have needed them in front of the New York media at Pro Bowl time, but both came up with potential game-saving plays. On the pass to TE Jeremy Shockey, who was carrying Williams toward the goal line, Farrior met Shockey at the one and drove him back. Then, Smith blew up the third-down run by Barber and the Giants had to settle for a field goal.

Special teams hurt the Steelers more than anything Saturday. Sure, lack of depth had something to do with it, but I'd rather blame the low energy level on the team. Some might call that an irreversible condition, but as I mentioned earlier the day off will do wonders.

Offensively, Bettis, against any cover-2 defense, will gain four yards a carry. He is slow-but-sure poison and teams will bring their SSs up, guaranteed, because they know the Steelers have the patience to ride Bettis. What would Staley mean to the mix? He should be ready in case Bettis needs a blow. I do believe I've passed the starting mantle on, and so be it. Haynes is ready to run and Parker's ready in case of injury. But as for next year, this team may need to draft a running back. I know they have their eye on a Division I-AA guy for the mid to late rounds, and that may be enough, but they must go in looking at the worst-case scenario: Bettis is old, Staley is getting old and injured, Haynes has been injury-prone and Parker has shown poor ball-management skills. This team MUST draft a running back, and if they think they can get by with this late-round sleeper, fine. That's a call they have to make. I don't have their scouts' eyes, so I would look for a higher pick at running back.

Defense and the running game are this team's staples and it would be foolish to draft a WR first after the way Randle El and Lee Mays have developed. You drafted a quarterback high for a reason, and he's come through much better than you ever could've dreamed, so let your passing game rest with him and fortify your staples.

As for the line, I saw Alan Faneca throw some tremendous blocks in key situations Saturday. He IS the best lineman in the game. Marvel Smith also had a very good game. It appeared that Osi, the Giants DE, played very well, but that was mainly second effort after being scrunched by Marvel. Give Osi credit for a great motor, but don't take away from the great game Smith played. Also, tight end Jerame Tuman threw some big-time blocks to help spring big gainers. As for Bill Cowher, he had three chances to challenge via replay in the first third of the game and passed on each. I admire his patience. All three were questionable plays that would've provided minimal gain (no way Shockey's TD would've been overruled) so I agreed with him in saving the challenges.

For any of you who are upset by the narrow win, remember the other team gets paid, too. The Giants aren't nearly as bad as the point spread indicated. They have some weapons and a good coach, and they were playing their biggest and best game of the season.

The bullseye can be uncomfortable, but will feel much less constricting next week, I presume, because of that Sunday in mid-December when the players didn't have anything better to do than Christmas shop online. And some of then didn't even need to do that.

Following Week 14, Jets - Steelers:
If you were a New York reporter, you were sniggering with all your sophisticated pals (one was so cool he wore a thermal undershirt over a sweatshirt to work) in the press box lounge after watching Randy Moss throw an end-around pass for an interception in the end zone.

Shouts for Paul Hackett's head are always amusing, but these folks weren't trying to entertain, but to scald Hackett for a halfback option pass he'd called about a month ago when Lamont Jordan was intercepted by the Baltimore Ravens.

"Hah! Hah! Hah!" they all said to each other And, boy, they were so much cooler than their Appalachian colleagues - mainly, me.


They may as well have been Sean Salisbury, who last night on his sports report scalded the call when the Vikings did it, but praised the call when the Steelers pulled it off. It's called execution, tools. Try some of it next time.

Thanks for allowing me to get that off my chest, but there's another corollary (coronary?) brewing after reading the New York Post. Not that I'm anything but a detached and objective journalist, of course, but the Jets are raising hell, saying they can't wait to play the Steelers again in the playoffs. Here's Shaun Ellis:

"Put my name on it; put it out on TV; do whatever, but I honestly believe if we see them again we'll beat them. The outcome will be different."

Ellis is alleged to be one of the more humble and quiet Jets, but he went on:

"It's going to be a tough, hard game, but it'll be a different outcome if we play them again. They got this one. We just hope we see them again somewhere down the line."

Well, that's one player. But another one - one who is truly humble and modest - said something along those lines, although Curtis Martin wasn't quite as definitive.

"I hope we come back here," Martin said. "I'm really looking forward to it. I would love a second chance."

Martin was asked if he feels the Jets would win a second meeting.

"That's my expectation," he said.

Although Martin allowed that he didn't think "anyone's better than us. Maybe that's foolish pride."

Well, both players -- and I'm assuming they took their cue from their coach's post-game speech -- have a point, but they don't realize how much better the Steelers can play.

What would change in a playoff game?

Well, for the Jets, they would have their best pass-rusher back. Defensive end John Abraham is quite a player, but his back-up yesterday, Bryan Thomas, played well. Abraham would certainly be a big-play threat against the frenetic scrambling of Ben Roethlisberger, which leads us to …

The Steelers' first move should be to sit Roethlisberger down and talk about how he steps up into the pocket, and then kills the pocket by jerking back toward the defensive ends. It's an Abraham-forced fumble waiting to happen.

The Steelers would also be better prepared to attack the 3-5 front the Jets used yesterday. Now, the Jets have brought eight men up into the box much more than they have in the past under their former Tampa Cover 2-oriented defensive coordinator, but the 3-5 Sunday was a new look and one the Steelers didn't figure out until the fourth quarter. A couple of big passes broke that defense down, which leads us to …

Plaxico Burress should be back for the next game. Granted, Burress hasn't been missed in the won-loss column, and Big Plays Mays is gaining confidence with each Plax-less passing week, but Burress is the gravy on this offense. He might be the difference between a championship and a playoff loss to the Jets, even if he is wearing his Ron Artest jersey again.

What will help the Steelers more than Burress is the week off for which they're seemingly destined. Roethlisberger was obviously hindered Sunday by his thigh bruise; James Farrior is bothered by his knee; Kimo von Oelhoffen is also at less than 100 percent; Marvel Smith could use a break; so could Duce Staley. It goes down the list. The Steelers would certainly be much fresher with a bye and that's a huge advantage.

Chad Pennington may have the weakest arm in the NFL and the Jets quarterback will only have more trouble here in January. The Steelers D-backs gave Santana Moss and Justin McCareins plenty of cushion, and that should disappear in blustery conditions because Pennington just won't be able to cut the wind with his passes. Geez, I hope there's not a bad pun in there that I missed.

And this columnist would be remiss if he didn't laud the Sunday performance of James Harrison, who clearly outshone Alonzo Jackson as the two alternated in place of injured Clark Haggans. Harrison showed much more as both a pass-rusher and run-stopper, and may even prove to be better than Haggans by the time the Jets visit again.

Good luck with all that, Jets. And make sure you bring all those cool and sophisticated reporters with you next time.

Following Week 13, Jacksonville - Steelers:
Remember, oh, about early August when I called this shot: The Steelers would improve to 11-1 on a late drive highlighted by Bill Cowher's impeccable clock management, rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's steady nerves, Lee Mays' hands and Willie Parker's feet?

Remember? Yeah, pretty improbable.

Even more improbable is the notion the rivalry between the Steelers and Jaguars is dead. Thanks to the inspired play of four former Steelers and a dying playoff possibility, the Jaguars put on one of the best shows in the NFL this season, topped only by the hard-hitting Steelers in a physical contest starring two young quarterbacks out of the MAC. No, this rivalry is far from dead and because of Ben Roethlisberger and Byron Leftwich it'll likely continue throughout the decade. The Jaguars are very close to elite status; the Steelers are already there.

Here are the highlights:

With such physical play at the point of attack, on both sides of the ball, rushing yards were difficult to come by, even though Fred Taylor, Duce Staley, Jerome Bettis and even Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala were in prime form.

1. Roethlisberger's 20-yard scramble early in the fourth quarter, with a bad leg, on third-and-2, and after nearly being sacked by his right tackle Oliver Ross, wins top prize. The bonus was the 15-yard penalty tacked on when a Jaguars defender pushed Lee Mays after the run.

2. Taylor ran around right end for 19 yards with 6:04 left in the game to keep the Jaguars' go-ahead field-goal drive alive. He showed speed in getting to the corner, strength in breaking free of Larry Foote and agility in side-stepping Troy Polamalu.

3. Parker's 12-yard run to the Jacksonville 29 on a draw with 1:23 left. The skittish rookie has had problems with ball management but he ran strong and determined with the game on the line.

Honorable mention: Two wide receivers in tailback bodies scored rare touchdowns -- Hines Ward scored on a 37-yard Roethlisberger pass by easily juking free safety Deon Grant, and Edwards busted a Chris Hope tackle and scored on a 22-yard pass from Leftwich.


1. Mays caught an 18-yard laser-beam out from Roethlisberger at the J40 in front of Dewayne Washington with 1:38 left. Mays added a 9-yard catch in front of Washington with 58 ticks left.

2. Chris Hanson scooped up a poor snap from center and positioned the ball properly for Josh Scobee's 36-yard field goal. It gave the Jaguars a 16-14 lead with 1:55 left.

3. Weak-side tight end Todd Yoder beat Foote and Hope to catch a 56-yard pass in the third quarter. It wasn't much of a catch, but needed inclusion in a game in which the quarterbacks put most passes on the money.


1. Leftwich's fastball to Edwards split two tight defenders for 36 yards early in the game. Edwards was pushed out of bounds at the P3 by a hustling Russell Stuvaints and the Jags eventually settled for a short field goal (14-10).

2. Roethlisberger's 26-yard touchdown pass to double-covered Jay Riemersma was put in the only place the big tight end could've caught it. By the way, I agreed with the ref's decision not to overturn the call. Riemersma's arm was under the ball, even after his knee had touched down with possession.

3. If Mays is credited for making a catch he should've made, he must also be criticized for a big drop. Roethlisberger threw him a perfect strike on third-and-11 in the third quarter and Mays dropped it.

Honorable mention: Leftwich's 36-yarder over the middle to Ernest Wilford on third-and-15 in the middle of the third quarter.


1. Staley wiped out blitzing linebacker Akin Ayodele on the Steelers' first possession. It allowed Roethlisberger to throw the touchdown pass to Ward. This was the easiest award of the game to hand out.

2. Jags back-up left tackle Bob Whitfield blindsided Joey Porter as the Steelers' OLB was bearing down on Leftwich for a potential sack late in the first half.

3. Wilford taking out Willie Williams to open up the corner on Taylor's big run in the fourth quarter.


1. Ike Taylor timing his hit (or getting very lucky) on the Jacksonville punt returner in the third quarter. Instead of a bang-bang play it was a bang-POW! play. After the play, an announcer said it should appear on an ESPN big-hit highlight segment called "Jacked Up." Chimed in an analyst, "They can turn that show into a 3-hour special by just replaying this game."

2. James Farrior tackling Fred Taylor on third-and-3 with 2:16 left and the Steelers out of timeouts. Farrior had help from Chris Hoke, who held the point of attack after nearly jumping offside. Had the Jaguars converted this third down, they would've won.

3. Ike Taylor, again. This time the Steelers' dime cornerback jarred the ball loose from Edwards on a third-and-4 pass. Instead of a first down, the Jaguars settled for a missed field goal.

Honorable mention: Kimo von Oelhoffen rag-dolling Ephraim Salaam back and into Fred Taylor, who went down for a loss; Alonzo Jackson's kick coverage; Kendrick Clancy knocked Fred Taylor for a loss on second-and-2 early in the fourth quarter and the Jags never did convert.


1. The official who called an illegal contact penalty on Hope's "whiff" block of Jimmy Smith, away from the ball, after the Steelers had stopped the Jags well short on third-and-12 with 4:10 left. Jacksonville would've punted, but instead was allowed to continue a drive and kick the go-ahead field goal.

2. Porter's unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. His action was never showed, but Jacksonville reporters said he kicked Leftwich in the head. Cowher, after consulting with an officials, began screaming at Porter ("You were wrong!") from the sideline and ESPN's Joe Theisman said, "Joey's going to keep on doing these things wrong and as great a football player as he is, Bill's not going to care." He'll care. He just won't do anything about it. The Jags' drive ended in a missed field goal anyway.

3. The Steelers' squib kick in the final seconds. It was returned to the J39 and the subsequent 60-yard FG attempt was short. WHY do this with a jacked-up kicker who'd just given your team a lead? I hate squib kicks.

Honorable mention: Hoke jumping offside on 3rd-and-1 to give the Jags a first down at the P21 and eventually a short field goal (14-13); Roethlisberger taking a sack (or even the pass attempt being called out of spread formation) on third down when the Steelers were in position to kick a 44-yard field goal with 7:15 left.


1. Cowher calling his three timeouts beginning with 2:30 left in the game. We've been screaming for him to understand this situation better for years and this ol' dog finally learned.

2. Cowher (at least he's getting the credit since he's the boss) ordering Roethlisberger to let the clock run from :58 to :23 before spiking the ball. Cowher then sent Reed out to kick the game-winner.

3. Picking on Washington three times on the final drive. It allows us to call Mays "Willie" at least for this week.

Honorable mention: Giving Staley more work than Bettis, even though Bettis has the hot hand. It had to be a tough decision, but one that will pay dividends in the long run. Staley needed the work; Bettis needed an eased workload. They both will be needed down the stretch.

Following Week 12, Redskins - Steelers:
These are the days a fan dreams about in the off-season. Not the big games. Those are noted, and spindled, and will be mutilated by Monday Night Football in the future, but these are the cruise games, the boring games, the games that put you to sleep but also put you at 10-1.

Sunday's 16-7 win over the Washington Redskins, I imagine, is similar to those at the same point of the Steelers' other big seasons. So I will check … give me a minute, please … Yes, in 2001 the Steelers slumbered past Minnesota 21-16 and then the New York Jets 18-7 on the first two Sundays in December. In 1997, the Steelers needed overtime to win at Arizona on Nov. 30. In 1995, they beat Houston 21-7 on Dec. 2. So history tells us not to worry that the Steelers are neither blowing out their opponents nor providing spectacular and noteworthy performances. It's just the beginning of the stretch run.

Actually, the win over the Vikings in Game 11 in 2001 was the beginning of the end. Jerome Bettis injured his groin and, really, hadn't recovered until this year. Bill Cowher would have none of the same Sunday when he surprisingly de-activated Duce Staley and allowed Bettis his fourth consecutive 100-yard game. Staley said he could've played. When asked if he didn't because of the cold and mud, he referred reporters to Cowher.

"Duce was probably about 90 percent," said Cowher, who explained that the other backs were healthy.

Did it have anything to do with the condition of the field?

"No," Cowher said. "The field was fine."

The Trib reporter persisted.

Was it because of the rain?

"He was not 100 percent and everybody else was," Cowher said firmly, obviously irritated he had to be asked three times to explain what he'd explained the first time. Sometimes you just want to take some of these reporters out back and teach them what for. But I regress.

In retrospect, and with the knowledge we have from 2001, it was a great move by Cowher. Bettis survived and it looks like the Steelers will have a true 1-2 power punch down the stretch.

Obviously, the Steelers' stretch will be much more difficult than the Patriots'. With a three-game division lead, of course, the Steelers' main opponent has become the Patriots. The two teams are tied in the battle for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, with the Steelers holding the tiebreaker edge. The Indianapolis Colts are the dangerous third team in the race, but the Steelers hold a 2-game lead in the all-important race for a first-round bye.

In the next five weeks, the Patriots travel to Cleveland, host Cincinnati, travel to Miami and the New York Jets and host San Francisco. Those teams are 19-36 (.345). The Steelers face five teams that are 31-24 (.564). Some may argue it's not so important based on Cowher's home record in AFC Championship Games (1-3), however the Steelers have never won a road playoff game under Cowher, so I'll side with the poison that allows me to die at home.

Just kidding. I don't see that happening this year. If the Steelers do play at home, they'll go to the title game and squash the NFC rep.

While watching Pitt beat West Virginia on Thanksgiving night, I thought of Cowher and the Steelers and how similar they are to Mike Ditka and the '85 Bears. Now, the '85 Bears had a defense like the old Steel Curtain in that it can't be replicated in this era of free agency. But the styles are very similar. For one, this Steelers' defense lives and dies by the blitz and is run by a genius, not that Dick LeBeau is nearly as egomaniacal as Buddy Ryan, but they are kindred spirits on the field. Two, the offenses are very similar. Plaxico Burress is Willie Gault; Hines Ward is Dennis McKinnon; the offensive lines are built to road grade; and the running backs are unspectacular, but tough, team-oriented and performance-driven. Remember, Walter Payton was winding down his career - still very effective but not his old spectacular self.

Finally, the head coaches are very similar, and that's what I thought about as I watched Walt Harris call timeout on third-and-1 at the WVU 2 with Pitt running the ball down its opponent's throat. Cowher and Ditka would've smelled blood in this situation, but Harris called timeout so that he could coach. The result was a pass to a freshman in triple coverage that fell incomplete and resulted in a 20-yard field goal. While the embattled Harris has done his best coaching job this season and therefore deserves to keep his job, Pitt fans will have to live with his style. And that style is in direct contrast to Cowher's, and that's why folks such as me who rant about Cowher's lack of intelligence do appreciate his bloodlust. I guess you can't have the perfect coach. But that's when I came up with the comparison of this Steelers team to the '85 Bears.

You know, Ditka long regrets his decision to bring William Perry into the Super Bowl at the goal line that year instead of giving Payton his one touchdown run. But Ditka couldn't help himself. He tasted blood, even though the game was in hand, he truly hated the Patriots at that minute. He wanted to make them pay with a face full of a 400-pound nose tackle. Cowher would do the same, but he already has that kind of tonnage at running back.

Three notes before I leave. One, WVU coach Rich Rodriguez deserves our respect. That T-Day game was one of the best of the year. It was heated but cleanly played and Rodriguez did not whine about the officials when he had every right to question some of those calls. But Rodriguez also did what so many coaches have stopped doing in this day and age: He suspended his star before a big game. I'm a Pitt grad and appreciated the win, but I appreciate even more what Rodriguez did and the comportment of his team.

The second note is that the Steelers obviously missed Burress. While I believe Antwaan Randle El would become a dangerous split end in time, and after working with Ben Roethlisberger, the stats prove that Burress was missed. In a little under seven quarters without him, the Steelers have gained 357 yards in 110 snaps for an average of 3.2 yards per snap. With Burress, the Steelers averaged 5.2 yards per snap. Those are the facts, ma'am.

The third note crept up on me after I saw Michael Wilbon getting a rare one-on-one interview with Roethlisberger outside the interview room. Now, I don't begrudge Wilbon, the Washington Post's fine columnist, the one-on-one with Ben, because frankly Ben at this stage is possibly the most boring interview this side of Marvel Smith. But I see Ben falling into the trap that so many young stars before him have: National reporters should be more respected and given more time than the locals. But Ben should be wary. National reporters don't have to build a relationship with him. They will stab him in the back at the first opportunity. Local guys must worry about a career-long relationship. Not that it matters to me. I'm just passing along the wisdom that's in the bottom of this here thimble.

Following Week 11, Bengals - Steelers:
Now, this was a game that put them a class apart. The Steelers won on a bad day, on the road, against a highly motivated rival. This is what we've been waiting for, the buy sign. Bring on New England with Corey Dillon!

Sorry. Got a little excited there.

To win on a bad day is certainly a positive sign. You begin thinking of playing into February after something like that. Ben Roethlisberger was off. Oliver Ross was off. In the past, that alone would've explained a 20-point loss.

Alan Faneca and Jeff Hartings were off. Hines Ward was off. Kendrell Bell and Plaxico Burress limped off. Willie Williams was off. Deshea, gulp, was off. Troy Polamalu was beat deep, probably sniffing at play-action, but that's just a guess. But the Steelers won. On the road. Against a wound-up team.

Sorry if you've heard this before.

Jerome Bettis was on. Jeezabel H was he on. That's 91 carries in three games. His career three-game high was 92 carries back in 1997, seven years ago, when he was 25 years old. Strange things going on.

I would hope that even Jerome will admit his legs are friskier than they've been since 2001. When we said he was way off in 2002, we were right. Jerome wouldn't admit it, but we were right. Some of us didn't write him off completely. He'd begun working with a sprint coach right before that, and continued it.

The results are showing. He peaked a bit late last season, but against Oakland and San Diego and you wondered if those teams had quit. But Jerome's back. The line is blowing holes open -- the aforementioned struggled with their pass blocking -- and Bettis is running like the Bettis of old. He really is. And I'll fight you on this!

Two exclamation points in one story. My extreme apologies.

As I was blahing about, Bettis and the Steelers become an even bigger story if Duce Staley can regain his health. He's worried about his hamstring but Bill Cowher says there's no setback. I'll see it when I believe it, because (and don't kill me three years later on this Duce) he is 29 years old. It's that time for running backs. So we keep our fingers crossed on Duce, for he and Bettis would easily make up for any loss of Plaxico Burress.

OK. You know my feelings on the big receiver. But as you've been reading along with me this season, I might boldly guess, you've also been reading the minds of the Steelers front office. I believe I mirror their thinking on Plax, and that's just a guess and I could be totally wrong. But I believe Plax is making them think about making a big-money move with him. I don't know; they don't know. You may disagree with me, but I really believe the Steelers are thinking the same way. So these next few games, if Burress doesn't play, will be very important to that final decision.

Can Antwaan Randle El play the position? In a stop-gap capacity if necessary? The Steelers will be watching to see if he can clear the line of scrimmage. They're guessing he'll have a hard time, compared to Plax, but they haven't ruled it out, thus the big opportunity for Randy.

Again, if Duce and the 25-year-like Bettis are healthy, any loss of Burress becomes a mute (as Cowher would say) point.

Someone had to play well defensively, to go along with Dick LeBeau's brilliant play-calling, and two who've been most consistent all year played well again: Aaron Smith and James Farrior.

I've been accosted by the journalism police here at Steelers headquarters for knocking Farrior at the start of the year about his lack of playmaking. But I plead that I was right! In seven years, Farrior had 5.5 sacks and a handful of turnovers. He didn't make many plays through the first half of this year either (I'd use stats but the press releases on this matter differ and some columns don't add up). But, wow, LeBeau has turned this guy into a player.

By the way, check out Farrior's Pro Bowl competition. Ray Lewis, who'll no doubt win the vote, has 1 sack, 0 interceptions, 0 forced fumbles and 1 fumble recovery. Farrior has 3 sacks, 3 interceptions, 4 forced fumbles and 3 fumble recoveries.

Career year? More like a career for Farrior up until this point.

Anyway, Farrior and Aaron Smith should both go to the Pro Bowl. Smith's putting up numbers (7 sacks, cog in top-3 run defense) and has some name recognition now. Also, Casey Hampton drew enough 3-4 support. Perhaps the Hampton votes will slide to Aaron.

One criticism was the offensive play-calling. I thought Ken Whisenhunt should've run the ball more on the Bengals, but it's a minor quibble. He kind of stretched Roethlisberger out, and the rook survived a shaky day. Also, Bettis didn't really need more carries. Perhaps Verron Haynes and Willie Parker could've received more action, but again, a minor quibble.

In the end, I believe the survival of this shaky day puts the Steelers over the hump. I know, beating New England without Dillon, at home, on a revved up day, was one level. And then beating the surprised and stunned and would-play-much-better-in-a-Super-Bowl Eagles was another level. But winning a second consecutive road game on a bad day was the real test, and the Steelers have shown they are a dominating, championship-level team.

Following Week 10, Browns - Steelers:
HOME - The three-day Midwest swing complete for all but the KDKA Showdown late Sunday night, so we're kicking around topics and a producer asks if "Laird" is the Coach of the Year.

In my opinion, yes. And after hearing William Laird Cowher's post-game press conference, after whipping the Browns in Cleveland, my vote is sealed.

Call it the straw that broke my back because I thought his focus, the…What is that term? Singleness of purpose, yes that's it ... His singleness of purpose has never been better, and I suspect it's trickling down to his team.

We did hear Jerome Bettis squawk about negative press the previous week. My guess is Jerome had his say and will return to the quest, because, and this includes coaches such as Walt Harris and Rich Rodriguez, too, the focus should not be the media or the fans. The focus should be much, MUCH higher.

Which brings us back to Laird.

He walked into the press conference with the fine line that divides swagger and swollen heads foremost in his thoughts. There were also the elements of the rivalry and all the talk that went with that, and then the ejections on top of things. All were delicious topics for the media. How to walk this fine line?

With a machete. Clear a space and make your stand.

"In regards to the whole pre-game thing," Cowher started. "I really don't want to get into it."

Perfect. Intentions are known. But why?

"It would serve no purpose."

Press can't argue with that, and didn't have time to question him. These were Cowher's opening remarks. He continued.

"As far as all the comments that were made leading up to this game, you know, we do our speaking on the field."

OK. Cut out more corrosives and inject the swagger. Now he's standing on firm ground. All he has to do is provide as much info as he can without crossing any obvious lines, and remind his team, and himself, that nothing has been accomplished. But, the press won't leave the pre-game comments alone without a second try.

"You know, it's unfortunate," Cowher said, budging a bit from his initial stop sign. "I have a lot of respect for a lot of people on that football team over there. What's sad is there are a few players who give it a very poor reflection. But that is not for me to judge. They had to deal with their business the way they feel they want to do it. If they want to condone it, they can condone it."

Oooh, the Tao of Laird. Perfect.

But here comes a veteran reporter taking a second stab at the ejections issue.

"Should the officials have been out there?" he asked. The question might've elicited a tirade against the officials in Cowher's younger days. And he did heat up.

"They were out there!" Cowher snapped. "I don't want to get into it."

Singleness of purpose.

Next up was a question about Joey Porter's replacement and then the traditional "How did you avoid this trap?"

"Are you kidding me? Trap?" Cowher said. "If you start taking yourself too seriously, yeah, then that is a trap you fall into."

Next, a Ben Roethlisberger question, but with an additional attempt to get inside the rookie quarterback's head.

"How aware is he of what he's accomplished?"

This is the one Laird drives out of the park.

"We're not sitting here talking about what we've accomplished," he said. "Our team has not accomplished anything."

It's become the mantra. But Cowher had a little more fun with the question.

"You don't sit there and talk about, 'Oh, well, you did this.' We haven't done anything. We are still trying to stay ahead of Baltimore. We are fighting every week. We will continue."

A couple more questions for guys doing sidebars and then the attempt to get inside Laird's head. Hey, he won; he's sticking around a little longer. Let's see where this goes.

Why the mean faces out there?

"I probably get a little too animated at times," Cowher said. "I probably should watch myself." Well, not much, but it was a partial admission to maturity.

"Like waving your hat while you were walking off the field?" a columnist asked.

"It was a big game. Respect the game," Cowher said, and a couple of dull questions closed the book on another Steelers Sunday.

The point is, singleness of purpose is a must to achieving anything. Some coaches, players, reporters, they get caught up in the ancillaries flopping on around them. Who said what? What does it mean to you? Are you mad about that?


Blah, blah? Oh, but blah, blah, blah?

It's easy if you don't get caught up in it. Just stay focused. Respect the game. See where it leads.

Following Week 9, Eagles - Steelers:
There has to be a morning after, doesn't there? I mean, people are walking around saying things like "Willie Williams shut down Terrell Owens" and "Oliver Ross dominated Jevon Kearse." I mean, crazy things. At any moment I'll wake up. I just know it.

And if I don't, it only means one thing: Heaven's great, folks!

But there has to be negatives. We want to keep this interesting, so let's see, after a 21-3 halftime lead, the Steelers scored only six points. Last week against New England, after taking a 24-10 halftime lead, the Steelers scored only 10 second-half points. Are they emotionally flat in the second half?

Certainly they didn't need to throw the ball, but you worry anyway, particularly since Bill Cowher has a history of burning his teams out by about Thanksgiving. It's nothing that should be a real concern, but, hey, we're looking for something to criticize here this morning.

Speaking of being emotionally dry, it'll be interesting to see how the Steelers respond next Sunday in Cleveland. There's definitely a letdown alert out, considering they'll have a three-game lead over the Browns and will be coming off two extremely emotional home games. The guess here is that the Steelers have become so physical and so good, emotion may not factor into it at all. Then, we'll know this team is a true championship contender.

Keydrick Vincent caught me off guard after the game. I asked him if it's true Oliver owned Jevon. Vincent gave me a quizzical look.

"What?" he said.

Did Oliver own Jevon?


Did Ol-i-ver Ross own Je-von Kearse?

"Who is Jev--? I didn't hear that guy's name. Who?"

Then I realized Vincent was jerking me around.

"Oliver came to play today," he said with a laugh. "Hats off to Oliver."

Hats off to Oliver should be the name of the team's fight song. Interesting to note, at this hour, is that the Browns have lost to the Ravens on a ridiculous play. The tying touchdown pass bounced off the receiver's hands and went 106 yards the other way for a touchdown in the final seconds. The Browns are crushed. They'll offer very little resistance Sunday, if any. But the Steelers can't let them hang around. I know the Browns don't have a burning hatred for the Steelers, like they do for the Ravens, but the fans could get into the game if the Steelers let them.

Only one thing's better than a physical running game that can silence a crowd and just grind out wins, and that's great defense. Finally, with Dick LeBeau, the Steelers are reaching that level again. You watch how he's doing it, and you watch a little closer, and you can't begin to figure it out. The blitzes are surprising me more frequently, and if they're surprising a guy up in the press box with binoculars, imagine what they're doing to quarterbacks. James Farrior is really timing his bursts well, as is Williams. Kendrell Bell will only help. Exotic blitzes, exotic coverage's and just plain brute strength at the point, particularly from Aaron Smith, are adding up to a championship level.

At the halfway point of the year, the MVP - since Jerome Bettis just took some of the luster off Duce Staley - has to be rookie Ben Roethlisberger. That makes him Rookie of the Year, too.

Does he belong in the Pro Bowl? If Peyton Manning is the first choice, Roethlisberger has to be the second choice ahead of Tom Brady, doesn't he? Brady, though, will be second because he's the vet, and if Ben stays healthy he'll be the third guy and follow in Dan Marino's rookie footsteps.

As for Pro Bowlers at this point, along with Roethlisberger, I'll take Staley, Hines Ward, Jeff Hartings, Alan Faneca, Smith and Farrior. Possibilities with strong second halves include Plaxico Burress, Deshea Townsend, Marvel Smith and maybe even Troy Polamalu. That's a boatload, but that's what should become of Super Bowl teams.

Following Week 8, Patriots - Steelers:
One of my more insightful internet friends e-mailed me at 2:05 a.m. Monday. He's a hit-and-run essayist, comes and goes with his insight, and with that history I prepared early this morning to read the real Morning After, or more like ACouplaHours After, but all that appeared was this simple question:

"Super Bowl?"

I gave it about 34 good seconds of thought and answered with: Why not?

Seriously. Why not?

A championship has to be on every Steelers fan's mind this morning after the club bludgeoned the Patriots, 34-20. Understand, the final score doesn't describe the true domination, but this stat does: 42:58 to 17:02 in time of possession.

Now, I knew the Steelers were confident that they could batter the Patriots, that consistency and patience were the questions. Yet I witnessed something beyond that Sunday. And the Steelers even made mistakes, something they said they couldn't do.

In chronological order, the home team jumped early on the first third-and-6 before punting; punched someone for 15 yards on a punt return to start the second series; committed offensive interference on the third series; threw the ball at the opponent right in front of an official to start the second quarter; jumped on another third down; threw away three points at the end of the half by holding.

This all occurred in the first half, yet, the Steelers led 24-10. They jumped on a fumbled first snap of the second half to lock up the game.

So, yes, the Steelers made mistakes, but they obviously made up for it. Funny how some of the most penalized teams are the best, and that appears to be the Steelers this year because of their physical all-around style. Keydrick Vincent and Oliver Ross are really rounding out this offensive line. They're huge men and they were mashing Patriots on Sunday. Jeff Hartings and Alan Faneca continued outstanding seasons. Marvel Smith is playing first-rate left tackle, but my opinion is he's playing in pain. It's something to monitor, but boy these guys sure hate talking about injuries. Anway, it was good for rookie Max Starks to see playing time as well, and he's a giant. This line is huge and Sunday they came out hustling and knocking the Pats off the ball.

On the defensive line, new NT Chris Hoke was tenacious as expected. The Pats couldn't challenge him much at the point because of the loss of Corey Dillon, and the early deficit, but the suspicion here is that Hoke -- even though he lacks Casey Hampton's bulk -- has enough motor to become a championship player.

And the physical style doesn't stop with the lines. Look at the wide receivers, the tight ends. No one's complaining about Jay Riemersma's blocking anymore, are they? Fullback Dan Kreider. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The tailback. Heck, the back-up tailback, even the third-down back. They are physical, man. The list goes on, and Kendrell Bell's coming back this week.

"That's the plan," he told me with a confident smile.

I was excited for him. That's how confident he is, but he won't cross the line.

"I don't want to get my hopes up too high and have them crushed again," he said.

That's the first order of business for a championship team, at least from my point of view: Be physical. And this team is physical. Sunday's win may even give them the word I hate most in sports these days: swagger. I hate it because it's used so often it becomes trite and almost idiotic, what with all the trash talking and reporters who cover trash-talking, but swagger on a champion, or blossoming champion, is unmistakable.

It may take another win over another quality opponent to complete the makeover from last season. And what better time than next week and what better team than those undefeated Eagles? You can run on the undefeated Eagles, and I know a physical tailback who's been saving up for it. Las Vegas had better put them at minus seven because the Steelers can't wait to get back on that field.

Following Week 6, Cowboys - Steelers:
It was the best of times; it was the worst of times; it was the right line to steal.

At least that's how I feel about the up of Ben Roethlisberger's play yesterday and the down of Casey Hampton's injury.

Perhaps the reaction is premature, but I'll assume the worst and trust Bill Cowher's initial prognosis that Hampton is out for the year. What a blow! The run defense was on the verge of shaky as it was, and Hampton was the major reason it was still on the plus side of shaky.

Coming off a Pro Bowl appearance, and an overweight one at that, Hampton reported to training camp in surprisingly good shape. He appeared to have lost even more weight in recent weeks and was playing at a Pro Bowl level, his all-time best. The rest of the defense seemed to be slipping, but most of its greatest lapses had occurred in the nickel or dime alignment without Hampton. His loss could be devastating.

Travis Kirschke moving to Kimo's spot at end. It'll probably become part of the rotation, because Hoke's going to get tired.

Ricardo Colclough at his position in the dime while taking practice reps at both the dime and left corner. If and when it becomes obvious that Williams is a liability, Colclough will be thrust into the starting lineup. The bye's coming at a good time.

OK, so the injuries Sunday were killers. But whatever happens the rest of the season won't really matter, at least to me. That's the way I feel right now about Roethlisberger. It dawned on me -- as he operated coolly against a team reportedly at a playoff pitch, and playing very, very well in front of a frenzied crowd -- that he IS Dan Marino. This team has a big-BIG-time quarterback for the foreseeable future. That is major. That renders everything else -- even a season-ending injury to the glue of the run defense, and, frankly, the leader in the secondary - trivial.

And that brings me to Hines Ward variety; not the B Burress variety; but an "A" receiver for Ben in the decade to come? Or do you recognize Burress' height and wonder if he and Ben might be giants who can play the game at a higher plane?

I just don't think you tie the future up in Burress. Granted, he's playing fine football. But I saw the end of his second contract and it is Keyshawn Johnson, a tall guy, now slowed over the years, with average hands who every now and then will catch a scoring pass in a losing effort and make a lot of noise. I just see Burress at the peak of his physical skills and don't believe he'll ever become an "A" threat.

Think big for Ben. Think beyond the immediate ruptures. Put something together that is special. It's been done before. It can be done again.

Following Week 5, Browns - Steelers:
Mornings don't get much better than this. All facets of the team are humming, they're 4-1 (well, maybe the Ravens losing last night would've made for a better morning) and my man, Plaxico Burress, has shown everyone I was right all along about him. He's a superstar! I told you so.

No, seriously, Burress backers can enjoy their time in the sun. The bar has been lowered for playmaking wide receivers around here, or maybe I'm just missing it. So enjoy your day Burress fans and most of the Pittsburgh media that has joined the Michigan State PR staff at the Tribune-Review and WDVE.

The Browns obviously came into the game looking to stop the run and make rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger beat them. He did. Thank you Browns, and thank you for passing on him in the draft last April. Wouldn't want an Ohio kid running your team when you have Jeff Garcia. Of course, Garcia is only 34 years old, so Browns fans can expect to enjoy several more months of his fine quarterbacking play while Steelers fans go through the growing pains with the Ohio kid.

Seriously, I'm trying to get serious here, and when I watched Garcia run for his life on every pass attempt, I realized the Steelers' 2003 line had moved to Cleveland this year. That performance was worse than any Browns' line I watched from last year. Joaquin Gonzalez is the evil twin of Oliver Ross I suspect. But the point was driven home to me after the game when I asked Alan Faneca if he was surprised Roethlisberger won his third straight start. Faneca said, "We all won our third straight start." He knew what I was getting at, and told me he was kidding, but I realized he was right. The Steelers' offensive line was magnificent Sunday. It was evident on Duce Staley's 25-yard touchdown run. Of course, that's not to take anything away from Staley's hard running, but the line performed at a high level and was probably the key to the game.

Roethlisberger, of course, is stunning. And I like the way he's being coached. QB coach Ken Whisenhunt is also just letting the big rookie play. Whisenhunt said he's keeping close to 25 percent of the offense out of the game plan and he has no plans to bring it to full capacity over the bye. He just wants Ben to play, and that he is.

Defensively, the hitting was ferocious. The linebackers led the way. Clark Haggans just toyed with Gonzalez all day. Haggans probably could've intercepted that fumbled shotgun snap with another step.

Deshea Townsend. Coordinator Dick LeBeau blitzed Townsend often in the Browns' final series, and Townsend came through after a fine day of coverage.

Negatives? Ah, if I had to pick one it'd be Jerome Bettis, who couldn't kill much time, and I wasn't too pleased with the playcalling late in the fourth quarter, but that's just nitpicking. Bettis, really, had no place to run since the Browns knew he was going to get the ball, but that's like apologizing for Burress not getting open against double coverage. Your expensive playmakers are supposed to do it the hard way. But I digress. It's a day for the Burress apologists to dream of a big payday for their hero. It's an even better day for Steelers fans overall. First place, superstar rookie quarterback, quieted Cleveland. It doesn't get much better. Have a great week. Meet you at Vinny's place.

Following Week 4, Bengals - Steelers:
The hero of Sunday's game was Troy Polamalu, and of course Marvin Lewis for not starting Jon Kitna at quarterback, but that's a whole 'nother story.

No, today the hero is Polamalu, the little safety with the wild hair who runs recklessly around the field and leads the team in tackles. But Sunday he read a key pass play, made a great catch on the interception, refused to go down in spite of the urging of teammates and then bowled over his former college roommate -- Carson Palmer -- at the goal line. In the locker room, he repeatedly called it "a blessing" and I had to search my memory banks for whether he ever praised "the Lord" or Jesus in particular and I couldn't remember. He's a spiritual guy, but I like the way he does it, by calling it "a blessing" instead of an invisible man upstairs. Before the game he was asked what it would be like to intercept his old roommate and he said "it would be a blessing." And that's my feelings exactly on how good fortune is reciprocated. As I left the stadium, I picked up a shiny penny and considered it "a blessing." The security man said it's the first drop of a flood of such blessings I can expect. I'll have to talk to Troy about expecting riches. Doesn't seem right, but I think his play yesterday opened the door for him.

Enough spirituality, time to rip. Let's see, Chad Scott seems a likely target. He would've been Kitna's, that's for sure. It appeared as if Scott's legs were shot yesterday. On one play, he didn't bite on a pump fake, but was still beaten deep by Cliff Russell, who was on the practice squad last week. Scott was called for a bad pass interference penalty, but the worst part of the play was his legs. This is somewhat surprising since the man who normally takes the wrath of Steelers fans nationwide has actually played pretty well this season. But he done got old, I'd say. Good thing the Bengals didn't force the issue with Chad Johnson over on that side more often.

Face it, the Bengals are awful. So are the Dolphins. So are the Raiders. The Browns coming up? Awful. The Cowboys? Awful, but well-coached. The Steelers could go into the break 5-1 with their young secondary and quarterback improving all the while. Things are breaking nicely for this team.

Would you rather have Palmer, the No. 1 pick in the entire 2003 draft? Or would you rather have the No. 11 of this year's draft, Ben Roethlisberger? I think I know your answer. Mine would certainly be Roethlisberger, and I'm sure the city of Cincinnati was expressing collective regret yesterday over letting one of their own get away, particularly to the hated Steelers.

Should I continue my barrage on Jerame Tuman and Dan Kreider, were blocking ferociously yesterday.

Speaking of blocking, the line played very well, particularly Marvel Smith and Oliver Ross. The former hasn't shown any signs of neck problems and the latter has made huge strides over last season. I know Duane Clemons won't be lining up across Ross every week, but last year Ross couldn't handle Clemons.

The college player that impressed me the most -- and I'm concentrating on running backs this fall -- was Minnesota's Laurence Maroney, who clearly outshone his more celebrated running mate Marion Barber III. Minnesota, in fact, impressed me greatly. Now, I know they were only playing Penn State (why not go for 2 after a fourth-quarter touchdown in a 16-0 game?) but Minnesota showed great team speed and of course the dynamic running game. The only comparable pair of backs in the nation, I think, is at Auburn, where I rank Ronnie Brown a better pro back than the Cadillac Williams. Minnesota and Auburn are nice underdog picks for the national title game.

Have a great week.

Following Week 3, Dolphins - Steelers:
That first cup of coffee is going down a lot easier this week, and not because the Steelers played so well, but because they won a game on the road against a tough defense in difficult weather with a rookie quarterback.

Ben Roethlisberger receives my first game star for the way he handled the football without turning it over (after the first possession) in a monsoon. He was poised, moved around well and delivered in the clutch. Now, he had some slack since Miami was virtually no threat to score, so Roethlisberger could take a conservative approach. That won't make the grade in a month or so, but for now it's certainly something positive upon which to build.

The second star goes to Hines Ward, who got lost (at least with the media outlet I worked for last night) in the stunning wake of Plaxico Burress making a couple of catches and drifting right, as any first-year player would've done, to help out a right-rolling Roethlisberger on one of the game's key third downs. But I did not come to rip the overrated Burress again. Instead, I'm praising Ward, who flirted with a third consecutive 100-yard game, provided the best offensive highlight with his hurdle of a would-be tackler, and made the two best catches of the game, one for the only touchdown.

The third star goes to special teams coach Ike Taylor's blocked punt. It didn't turn into points, but may help Ike crawl out of Cowher's dog house.

Since there are only three stars to hand out, that leaves a hard-hitting defensive unit to find its own scraps. Deshea Townsend.

I was also pleased with the conservative offensive play calling with the rookie QB in the stormy weather. There was no need to become greedy with Miami's awful offense being held at bay. The decision to run mud puppy Verron Haynes a little more also paid off. It was a nice in-game read by the coaching staff. Now, heaving the ball on the first play of the game was bone-headed but the play-calling improved exponentially as the game went on.

Let's not forget about the job Marvel Smith did on Jason Taylor. Sometimes when you don't notice an offensive tackle you tend to overlook the performance, but when you don't hear from Taylor most of the game you know someone's doing a great job. Keydrick Vincent and Oliver Ross also played well.

On the down side, Larry Foote was also pushed around a little bit, but this is just nitpicking. As for Burress, please try to run after a catch. And Antwaan Randle El chickened out on a high pass. He would've been crushed by the waiting safety, who missed his chance for the ball, too, by worrying about the tackle. Perhaps Randy's discretion may turn out to be the right decision in the long run, but it was a chance for him to make a serious play and begin the process of replacing Burress and giving the Steelers true playmaking threats on both sides of the field.

Now, the Steelers won't be able to play this conservatively against anyone else on their schedule, and it appears as if Miami will go 0-16 this season, but it was a good win for the Steelers and particularly the rookie quarterback.

Following Week 2, Ravens - Steelers:
Yes, the Steelers were whipped physically and had their hearts ripped from them by a team that wanted it more, but that's an easy way of making a general statement that absolves too many of blame. Remember the fine line? Yes, even in this ugly loss a couple of plays turned the tide, so I'm lashing out here at whomever put that game plan together, particularly offensively. It's easy to cast aspersions upon new coordinator Ray Lewis; Ward vs. the cackling Ravens secondary -- to watch the game, I'm going to get a little peeved. ... Cowher will continue to raise hopes around here, and he's just good enough to put a team in contention, but he's not going to win a title. It's never been done with a coach who's been in one place so long without doing so. It's obvious to him and his players that the coach has mucho stability. Cowher can try to ignore the psychological reasons why history has proven this phenomenon to be true, and he can try to break free from the complacency that is bound to set in, but recognizing the problem won't stop it. And remember, this is the best job in all of football. Please, please, please don't tell me a new coach will be too hard to find. Not in this organization, with the track record of the owners' patience here, with the great facilities, with a fine personnel department trying hard to work with the coach. It's a coach's dream organization. That means so much. It means there will be a long line of quality prospects available when this nonsense about an impassioned coach spitting all over everyone with such GREAT enthusiasm finally comes to an end. A breath of fresh air is needed here, but it won't happen for another five years minimum. That's why some day this team will enter a 40th season without a championship and everyone will wonder how in the heck it happened -- again. ... There will be brighter days ahead. The opportunity for Roethlisberger I'm sure will be good for the long run of the organization. But my gut tells me that until Cowher's gone, it will only mean small steps without reaching the ultimate goal.

Following Week 1, Raiders - Steelers:
Excuse me for saying this, or for peeing in your Wheaties, or for whatever bad start this makes for your day but I couldn't help but thinking I was watching two very mediocre teams playing yesterday. Now, I realize quarterback Clark Haggans and Aaron Smith proved the advance scouts right with outstanding performances. Look for Robert Gallery, who played some left guard and right tackle Sunday, to become the entrenched right tackle for the Raiders very soon. ... Just another clutch day at the ballyard for Hines Ward. His leaping catch of yet another bad Maddox pass on the final drive may have been the key play of the game. On the other side, One-Catch Plax was being shut down in single coverage by Denard Walker. Ol' One-Catch, I suspect, will also undergo some post-game going-over-the-middle trauma for awhile after taking a full load of Danny Clark in the head on one incompletion. ... The instant replay system failed in that the flow of the game was seriously compromised. If the natural process had been followed, the bad call on Rich Gannon's pass/fumble would've been matched by the bad call on the punt off the Raider's leg. The bad calls would've evened out and the game would've been much more aesthetically pleasing. ... Yeah, I know, a little grumpy after a win, but hopefully the players and coaches are looking at it in a similar way. This is certainly no time to be pleased with yourself, not with an upcoming chance to go two games up on the Baltimore Ravens. Have a great week.

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