What Now, Bill?

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Bill Cowher has painted himself into a pretty small corner. The Steelers head coach has a pretty big decision ahead of himself in the next 24 hours.<p> Does he stick with Kordell Stewart as his team's quarterback, or does he put a now completely healthy Tommy Maddox back in as the team's starter?<p>

It's not as simple a decision as some would think, especially after the way Stewart has played in the past three weeks. With the season on the line in their third game of the season at Heinz Field against Cleveland, Cowher pulled Stewart in favor of Maddox, who rallied the team to an overtime victory. That was huge.

But what Stewart did Sunday, leading the team to a victory in Cowher's personal house of horrors - he was just 1-6 heading into Sunday's game at ALLTEL Stadium - was perhaps the team's biggest win of the season.

At 7-4-1, the Steelers not only control the AFC North, but with home games remaining against Houston, Carolina and Baltimore, they are now also in line to get a bye in the first round of the playoffs. If they finish with at least 10 wins, they will be in good shape because while their tie against Atlanta Nov. 10 doesn't count as a win, it also doesn't count as a loss. And if they get into a tiebreaker with other teams with 10 victories, they'll win by virtue of their fewer losses.

Had they lost Sunday, they likely would have been looking at a nine-win season. Because of Stewart, they didn't. While his passing total of 202 yards wasn't great, it was enough for the Steelers to move the ball effectively.

But it was Stewart's running that was the difference in Sunday's game. His 28-yard TD run in the second quarter was one that only he and a handful of other quarterbacks can make. And Stewart's running also helped make the Steelers' defense better.

That's right, Stewart made the defense better. In large part because Stewart rushed for 84 yards on 12 carries, the Steelers ran for a season-high 219 yards on 40 carries, just the second time this season they've broken the 200-yard rushing barrier. As a result, Jacksonville gained just 226 yards compared to 403 for the Steelers, running just 47 plays to Pittsburgh's 69.

"That was the formula from last season," said Steelers linebacker Joey Porter. "The offense controls the clock and we stay fresh and go out and shut them down." That keep-away offense as much as anything was the reason the Steelers' defense was No. 1 in the league last season.

Stewart also took very good care of the football for the second consecutive game. His only interception was one that bounced off of Plaxico Burress' hands and into Marlon McCree's. Even the most ardent of Stewart's bashers - and they are many - must admit that he's at least made Cowher's quarterbacking decision a tough one, something that seemed silly to say just two weeks ago when Maddox was injured at Tennessee. Remember, Cowher likes to play ball-control football and with Stewart at quarterback, they are better able to do that. With Maddox, they are a more potent, high-scoring offense. But they are also an offense more prone to turnovers, something Cowher loathes worse than the Pittsburgh media.

Whatever Cowher's decision, that quarterback will be on a very short leash. Unlike most teams, the Steelers have two quarterbacks they can win with.

Maybe that corner Cowher is in isn't so small after all.

--Dale Lolley


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