Steelers' leadership to be tested

The New York Giants will certainly test the Steelers' refurbished offensive line this afternoon, but an entire week of distractions has already put Mike Tomlin to the test. Today's game will tell us much about the Steelers' young coach.

PITTSBURGH – At his press conference Tuesday, Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin tried to get a handle on a week he knew could catapult his team through its most difficult stretch of the season.

Tomlin saw that his 5-1 team would be heading into a hectic PR week against the NFC's best 5-1 team, the defending champion New York Giants. So when asked about Hines Ward's blast on Keith Rivers, Tomlin attempted to shut it down then.

"I think we're making too much of this," he said. "Next question."

But it was only the beginning of a week that's testing Tomlin's ability to lead. An NFL dog-and-pony show paraded through the facility the next day. And instead of calming the anger of the Steelers, the NFL only exacerbated it by saying Ward's hit would lead to a rules change.

Ward went off, and Willie Parker and Marvel Smith stayed off, and Santonio Holmes toked up, and Aaron Smith … well, who knows what happened to the Steelers' most valuable defender to force him out of three practices for "personal reasons."

Tomlin tried his best to put all of his fingers in the dyke, but the bigger questions have to do with the basics: Can the Steelers block the second-best pass-rushing unit in the league? And can the Steelers stand up defensively against an offensive line Tomlin called "the best line I've seen in quite some time."

"The best ever?" asked a wide-eyed Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton when informed of Tomlin's comment.

"Well, they are pretty good," Hampton said. "They work pretty good together. Hopefully we'll do good against them and then we'll be the best defensive line he's seen."

To do that, the Steelers must stop 6-foot-4, 264-pound tailback Brandon Jacobs with Hampton at "85 percent" health after missing the last three games and Smith a question mark after missing practice this week.

Jacobs leads a Giants rushing attack that averages 5.6 yards per carry. He's rushed for 516 yards (5.4 avg.) to rank ahead of Derrick Ward (337, 7.2 avg.) and Ahmad Bradshaw (147, 5.7). Jacobs just might be the NFL's new version of Jerome Bettis.

"He might be a little faster than the Bus," said LaMarr Woodley. "Once he gets going, he runs through guys."

But Hampton ratcheted down the comparison. "I think he's more like Jamal Lewis was a couple years back when he was in his prime," Hampton said. "Bus had more wiggle to him; Jacobs is downhill trying to run you over. Bus will try to slide by you; Jacobs just tries to put his head down and get you."

That's why the Steelers believe they can corral Jacobs at the line before he gets rolling. But if the Giants' passing game clicks, the mob trying to tackle Jacobs will thin. The Giants' passing game of course is keyed by quarterback Eli Manning and former Steelers wide receiver Plaxico Burress, who missed most of the week with shoulder and neck problems but returned Friday and proclaimed himself fit to play. Burress has a team-leading 3 touchdowns and averages 13.6 per each of his 25 catches. Slot man Steve Smith leads the Giants with 26 catches.

Defensively, the Giants' sack-happy linemen look to beat a refurbished Steelers line that's allowed only three sacks in the last 10 quarters. Max Starks replaces Marvel Smith again at left tackle, but the hot spot will be right tackle where Willie Colon takes on Justin Tuck.

"His resume talks loudly," Colon said of a player who only became a starter this season.

"Yeah, but he did show up in the Super Bowl," Colon said. "He showed up on a key stage. He's going to be a special talent and he'll step up and I'm not going to back down. I know he's not. We'll have it out on Sunday."

The Steelers' offense will be hampered by the loss of Holmes, who was cited Thursday for possession of marijuana and made inactive by Tomlin. Holmes will be replaced by Nate Washington. However, Holmes' production might instead be replaced by tight end Heath Miller and running back Mewelde Moore, in for Parker.

The Giants have allowed tight ends such as Reggie Kelly and Steve Heiden to have season-best games. Browns tight end Darnell Dinkins scored his only touchdown against the Giants. Running backs Steven Jackson, Chris Perry, Jerome Harrison, Michael Robinson and Frank Gore have also posted season-high numbers against the Giants.

But it'll come down to which team can handle this distracting week the best.

"I see it as just two good teams going at it," said quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. "Forget the Super Bowl stuff, it's more about two 5-1 teams in a powerhouse slugfest. It will be a good game, I hope."

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