PITTSBURGH – The game plan for today's game at Heinz Field (1 p.m.) shouldn't require a code breaker.
Let's see, the 9-3 Chicago Bears have the NFL's No. 1 defense, the No. 5 running game and a rookie quarterback, Kyle Orton, who's ranked 40th in the NFL by The Football Outsiders, a group of statisticians who call him "the worst quarterback in recent memory."
So the Bears' plan will be simple: run the ball and turn the game over to their defense and hope it creates a mistake.
The 7-5 Pittsburgh Steelers counter with the NFL's best defensive average per rush (3.3 per carry) but an offense that's sputtered due to the collapse of its offensive line.
So the Steelers' plan should be simple: two runs, a safe pass and a punt, and hope for a mistake by Orton, who has thrown 13 interceptions and fumbled 11 times.
"There's nothing wrong with punting," said Steelers receiver Hines Ward. "If we take that approach, we'll be fine."
Sad? Perhaps. True? No doubt.
But each team has a problem with a punter's duel: The Steelers can't punt and the Bears can't catch. They've muffed or fumbled nine of the 36 punts they've had to field. Return men Bobby Wade and Rashied Davis have been shuffled as often lately as the Steelers' running backs.
"We know those guys have been struggling with it," said Steelers coverage ace Clint Kriewaldt. "Hopefully we'll have someone right down there in their face and we can recover one."
The key would be a strong punt, which has eluded Chris Gardocki of late. Coming off a No. 6 finish in the NFL in net punting last season (37.2 avg.), Gardocki ranks 31st this season (33.3 avg.).
The Steelers' gross punting and their opponents' return average have both slipped 15 spots in the rankings over the year, but net average is the key number and Gardocki's hasn't been this low since 1994, when his net average was 32.4.
"I've punted well but I've hit some bad ones at some inopportune times," said Gardocki. "In Baltimore I had a great game but hit a couple bad ones at the end in overtime that cost us field position."
It aided in the loss that kick-started the Steelers' current three-game spin.
Last week against Cincinnati, Gardocki had a gross average of 32 and a net of 31. Both numbers are next-to-worst for him this season. Only the Jacksonville game -- in which Gardocki had a punt altered (9-yard punt) for the first time in his career -- was worse at 31.7 and 25.8.
Is Gardocki showing the effects of age? He'll be 36 in February.
"No, I still feel strong," he said. "I stay in pretty good shape. During the off-season you try to maintain your strength, especially toward the end of the year. But my leg feels just as strong. I feel real good."
The coverage teams have been under scrutiny this week. Coach Bill Cowher hinted at changes on Tuesday, but the players say they've been minimal. Verron Haynes will be added to the coverage units, as will rookie Andre Frazier, who's made the most explosive hits of the season. He's returning from a hamstring injury and will force Mike Logan back to his coverage spot (No. 2) and knock fill-in Quincy Morgan off the unit.
"On Saturday nights," said Logan, "we get together and we watch film of kickoffs and punts. It gets to be repetitious but anything we can get off of that film we go and review it. Then we review it again. If one of us misses something, we'll bring it up again. And we might not get anything out of the film on certain weeks, but it's just the fact we're trying to do everything we can and make sure there aren't any breakdowns on special teams because that's a phase of the game the offense and defense shouldn't even have to worry about."
"We hadn't been emphasizing that every guy get in there and do that every week," Logan said in the middle of the week, "but it'll be a full house on Saturday."
So today, a conservative game will be won by the better punt and punt-return units.
"Against a great defense, it's OK to go three-and-out," said Ward. "There's nothing wrong with that, especially with their offense struggling. We've got to play field position instead of trying to press the issue so much."