Steel City Pre-Game

<b>Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Carolina Panthers</b><p> It doesn't seem like this year's Steelers team does anything the easy way. Instead of getting off to a fast start, the Steelers were a blocked field goal away from an 0 - 4 start. They then won 4 in a row only to let a 17-point 4th quarter lead evaporate under the fire of Michael Vick. They lost the next game at Tennessee and also lost Tommy Maddox for the following two weeks.<p>

In those two weeks, Kordell Stewart led the team to wins over Cincinnati and Jacksonville, but neither were convincing victories; both games came down to the final minutes of play.

And then there was last week's turkey.

So where does this leave Pittsburgh's current destiny? Will this team fade down the stretch, not unlike the 1998 version? Or will the team gel in the final 3 weeks, possibly capping the regular season with a spectacular upset in Tampa?

While it's never too early to begin thinking about the make-up of next year's squad, this season's Black and Gold is still in a real honest to goodness playoff fight. For just a moment, I want you to forget that this team was picked by many to win the Super Bowl. Better yet, forget that they've hosted 4 championship games dating back to January 1995. That's 4 in the past 6 years.

Have you forgotten yet?

In a way, the Steeler fans and Steeler teams have been sharing the same curse ever since the franchise won 4 Super Bowls in the 70's. Every squad has to live up to absurd expectations year-after-year. Steeler fans across the country hold every quarterback accountable for nearly every miscue. And every year everyone is reminded of how the 70's teams delivered on the expectations of them when another of the legends has a home game dedicated to him or is nominated to the Hall of Fame.

Have you forgotten yet?

This year's team may be the best example of a team cursed by a legacy and its franchise's own self-absorbed ego. There are only a handful of franchises that can even compare to the Steeler's success since 1972. These 40 years have been good and bad and good again for the franchise, but in retrospect, the Steelers look like the Yankees to Cleveland's Boston Red Sox.

Have you forgotten yet?

This pre-season, players took it easy. Very few jobs were up for grabs and those that were such as ILB and RG were pre-determined based on free agency and the draft. The team coasted through the preseason, the only scare coming when Kordell Stewart received a concussion at the hands of Lavar Arrington. Even after the first two weeks of the season, fans cried and the media solaced. They said, "Don't worry, the Steelers will be fine. For the Steelers have a trump card." That card was dealt by the scheduling committee.

Have you forgotten yet?

Well that card burned up quickly. The Steelers lost games they should have won and have yet to win a game they should have lost. But, up until last week, the Steelers looked to be on Easy Street. Dr. Z of SI said:

"We're supposed to be all in a tizzy about their QB battle, but hey, they play Houston, then Carolina. Wake me up in two and a half weeks when they travel to Tampa Bay, and I'll take careful note of who's calling the signals ... make that who's throwing the passes; the computer calls the signals."

Well, somebody better go wake up the good doctor and tell him the city of Pittsburgh offers its condolences on an early rise.

Have you forgotten yet? No? You say I keep reminding you? That's what happens around franchises with strong legacies. No matter how you try to suppress the memories, they maintain their freshness and linger to haunt the present and future. If it was that difficult to forget the past 6 years, how about forgetting the past 40? It's not going to happen. So somebody please pass a note to the team locker room to remind them of their responsibility as Pittsburgh Steelers. And while you're at it, remind them to hold onto the ball.

Defense:
Pittsburgh Rank 8th (Rush 2nd, Pass 20th). The Steelers held the Texans to 46 total yards last week. The Texans have the worst offense in the NFL this year, but 46 yards is still quite an accomplishment against any team.

Carolina Rank 6th (Rush 8th, Pass 8th). The Panthers have lost Julius Peppers for the season, but they still have Dan Morgan in the middle. Their unit plays very hard and believes it can keep its offense in games. They should give Tommy Maddox problems from the start by blitzing early and often, which has led to the league's second-highest sack total of 42.

Advantage: The Panthers have the advantage.

Offense:
Pittsburgh Rank 3rd (Rush 10th, Pass 5th). The Steelers are only averaging 132.5 yards on the ground this season. That's approximately 38 yards less than last year, which translates to 3.8 less first downs on the ground. That means less time of possession, less ball control, and less wins.

Carolina Rank 30th (Rush 19th, Pass 29th). The Panthers had to have looked at what the Steelers did to the 32nd ranked offense last week and become very nervous. But, there are two things that may assuage some of their fears. First, the Steeler defense has shown no consistency throughout the year. Second, the Texans had started 6 rookies on offense.

Advantage: Between the 20's the Steelers have the advantage. The red-zone is anyone's guess.

Quarterbacks:
Tommy Maddox's real problem stems from a stale playbook and fear of the pass-rush. His line didn't give him much help last week and he, likewise, did not do them any favors.

Rodney Peete missed part of the season with an injury, but he keeps the Panthers in most every game. Yet, this is the same Rodney Peete who was benched in Philadelphia in favor of Ty "Six Interception" Detmer. So I'll have to see it to believe it.

Advantage: I think Tommy Maddox will redeem himself. He's shown too much this season to start doubting him, at least for one more game.

Outlook: The Steelers should give most everyone over the age of 40 heart problems this Sunday, but will win it by 2.

--The Steel Apple


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