My thoughts, for what they're worth ...

Plenty of fans will dismiss the win against Tampa Bay because of the level of competition, the lack of offensive output, or the atypical experience of having to drum up reasons to root for a team that has little for which to play other than pride.

But crisp, attacking defense is good; better kick and punt coverage is good; a positive turnover margin is good; and a win … hey, a win is always very good. I think I even enjoyed re-watching the game in order to write this.

- It shouldn't be that surprising for an offense to struggle with its best player on the sidelines and his so-so backup on crutches by halftime. It's natural to want to rush a player like Santonio Holmes into the starting lineup when he's shown so much development over the season, especially with Cedrick Wilson the man lining up opposite Hines Ward most of the time. But Sunday showed that Holmes may not yet be ready to go up against players of Ronde Barber's caliber on a regular basis, as he all but disappeared once Wilson left the game due to injury. Sometimes the coaches know what they're doing by bringing a guy along gradually and using him in limited roles in which he's more likely to find early success.

-Ben Roethlisberger may not have turned a limited receiving corps and struggling offensive line into an All-Star squad, but he did make the passing game passable with his scrambles to buy time. And Tampa Bay's defense isn't all that bad.

- The Bucs don't have the best offensive line the world has ever seen, but Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel certainly didn't cut them any slack. Smith mauled anyone in his path, and over the past two seasons has looked like he could follow the Kimo von Oelhoffen getting-better-when-I-should-just-be-getting-older career path. Keisel showed off some of the freaky big-man speed that earned him attention as a reserve lineman in past years. The organization may need to take a good, hard look at the roster this coming off-season, but they shouldn't waste any time tinkering with the starting defensive line.

- Three cheers for Tyrone Carter. He might not have fared so well against many other offenses, but when you're filling in for one of the league's finest defenders at any position, it's a win if you can stop fans from thinking about that guy you're replacing even for one game against mediocre competition.

- Much, much better interior linebacker play than the Steelers mustered a week ago shut down Tampa Bay's running game, putting the pressure on a young quarterback who simply wasn't ready for it against a good defense. Not that the Bucs had been running all that well coming into the game, but then, neither had been the Ravens.

- Bruce Gradkowski's dad looks like someone I've either met or seen on television. I'm not sure whether I'm thinking of a semi-famous actor or a tech support guy at work, but I already used up my one annual Billy Connelly comparison on Rob Ryan in Oakland. In any event, when he's being interviewed, there's no mistaking Mr. Gradkowski for anything but a Pittsburgher … not that there's anything wrong with that.

- Bryant McFadden played decently in his second start, but this benching of Ike Taylor is for the birds. Yes, good for McFadden anticipating the fade when 6'4" Maurice Stovall took the field, but if he'd been wrong — or if Gradkowski had recognized the coverage and thrown a different pattern — it could've been an easy six points for Tampa Bay. Can we get Taylor back in the starting lineup, where he belongs? Pretty please?

- So, the Steelers do have tight ends.

- I hear that Chidi Iwuoma's back. I now feel assured of a four-game winning streak to close out the season. Seriously … kind of. I've almost convinced myself that Iwuoma was the missing piece this season (apart from whatever pieces of Roethlisberger's brain still sat on Second Avenue during the early games). He comes back at a good time, then, because a win against Cleveland this week should assure the Steelers a better 2006 than the season we fans endured in 2003, at bare minimum. Splitting with the Browns again would just feel so dirty …


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