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11-30-2008, 01:17 AM
Steelers Team Report


Inside Slant

Pittsburgh is not yet in a must-win situation, but if the Steelers do not find a way to beat their nemesis, New England, they likely will find themselves in a first-place tie with Baltimore in the AFC North Monday morning.

The Ravens play at Cincinnati Sunday and then have three of their final four at home. The Steelers follow their game at New England with two of four on the road, including one at Baltimore.

If the Steelers lost at New England, they will have lost to both the Cheaters and Colts, two teams vying for wild-card berths, and the possibility that if they don’t win their division, they’ll lose the tiebreaker for a wild card.

“This is that stretch of the year that you can’t afford to split,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “You’ve got to play great football. This is when the veterans need to step up and the rookies need to see what it’s about. Because the AFC is so tight, so many teams are separated by a game or half a game, or two games, you really can’t afford to have that lull right now. That’s why this game is so important to us as I’m sure it is to the Cheaters as well.”

The Steelers head to New England—where they have lost four straight—with the NFL’s No. 1 defense and an offense that has been all over the map. Their fate will rise and fall on the competence of their offense, not only against the Cheaters but the rest of the season.

The Steelers rank just 26th in the NFL on offense and their once-proud running game is 24th. Willie Parker has a swollen knee and even if he plays he won’t be the same. They do not even try to run the way they used to. That would be OK if they had a good passing game, but it ranks 18th in the league and Roethlisberger has not been the same this season.

“We don’t have all 11 guys on the same page,” Hines Ward said. “We’ve gotten better, but we’re just leaving plays out there. It’s not fundamentals, it’s assignment-wise, not on the same page, that’s something we have to start doing, especially in the latter part of the year. We can’t be messing up on run plays or pass plays that we’ve been running since training camp and that seems to be the case lately.”

Roethlisberger has thrown 11 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions. His 80.5 passer rating is 21st among NFL quarterbacks and way off from his team-record 104.1 last season.

“I think my stats aren’t as up to par as I’d want them,” Roethlisberger said. “And the running game, and I think our offense, we have kind of struggled throughout the year at times.

“It’s about when you get hot and when do you start to put things together. The last couple of weeks, we’ve done a pretty good job offensively of scoring points and not turning the ball over and we just need to continue to do that.”

Series History: 20th regular-season meeting, Steelers lead the series that began in 1972, 12-7, including a 3-2 record in New England. However, the Cheaters are 3-1 against the Steelers in the postseason and have won six of their past seven overall meetings, including 34-13 in New England last season.

Notes, Quotes

• Former Steelers teammates Rod Woodson, Dermontti Dawson and Kevin Greene are among the 25 semifinalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2009. It’s Woodson’s first year of eligibility.

• Safety Anthony Smith just does not get it, apparently. He was a fill-in starter for injured Ryan Clark last season when he guaranteed a victory in New England. The Steelers lost, 34-13, and Smith was toasted on two deep passes. He was later benched in favor of Tyrone Carter and is now the fourth safety on a team with four.

Still, asked about last year’s prediction, here’s what Smith said recently: “If they ask me again, I’ll say the same thing. We’re the No. 1 defense. If we play like we’ve been playing, and our offense comes around and has a good game, and we’re clicking on all cylinders, we’re going to win the game.”

• Pittsburgh has won 24 straight games when it rushed for more than 200 yards and is 102-6 since the NFL merger. Their top total this season is 183 in their 38-17 opening victory against Houston.

• The Steelers have allowed just 66.5 yards rushing per game on defense, which would blow away their single-season record of 74.7 in 2001 if it continues.

BY THE NUMBERS: 37—Sacks by the Steelers, one more than they had all of last season.

Quote To Note: “Mitch, when we made the decision to go to Paul, I characterized it as not up to snuff. Obviously, not up to snuff is relative.”—Coach Mike Tomlin, who re-signed punter Mitch Berger and cut punter Paul Ernster, three weeks after he cut Berger in favor of Ernster.

Strategy And Personnel

The Steelers re-signed halfback Najeh Davenport because of Willie Parker’s status with a knee injury.

Davenport will add depth to a team that has only two healthy halfbacks, Mewelde Moore and Gary Russell. Carey Davis, their starting fullback, also can play halfback and tight end Sean McHugh can play fullback.

Parker re-injured his knee and left in the third quarter of Pittsburgh’s last game, against Cincinnati Nov. 20. It has swelled and he practiced only lightly on Thursday after not practicing on Wednesday. He was able to practice more Friday and was officially listed as questionable.

Davenport, who played for the Steelers in 2006 and 2007, was released by them in June, then signed after the fourth game of the season because of injuries to Parker and rookie halfback Rashard Mendenhall. He was released Nov. 9.

Parker has missed five games with knee and shoulder injuries. His MCL was sprained in the third game and he missed the next four. He returned, only to injure his shoulder in his first game back. After missing one game, he returned to play the past two but left again with swelling in his knee.

The Steelers released rookie Roy Lewis, who was signed from their practice squad last week.

Moore likely will make his fifth start of the season Sunday at New England. Russell will serve as the short-yardage back.


• CB Deshea Townsend (hamstring) practiced Friday and is listed as questionable for Sunday.

• CB Bryant McFadden (broken forearm) practiced Friday and is listed as questionable for Sunday.

• TE Matt Spaeth will continue to wear a cast on his right wrist, where he chipped a bone two weeks ago.

• LT Marvel Smith will miss his seventh straight game with a back problem. The Steelers continue to keep him on the active roster with hopes it clears up.

• CB Ike Taylor likely will shadow New England WR Randy Moss from side to side on Sunday, as he has done with other top opposing receivers in the past.

• QB Ben Roethlisberger has thrown just one touchdown pass in his past four games. He has four interceptions during that time.

• RB Mewelde Moore has caught 31 passes in the past eight games. Amos Zereoue is the only Steelers back in the past 13 years to top 40. He had 42 and 40.

• RB Gary Russell has taken over as the team’s short-yardage back, particularly at the goal line, where he scored his first pro touchdown last week.

• WR Hines Ward is on pace to catch 79 passes for 1,044 yards, which would be his most since 2003.

Game Plan: The Steelers’ top-ranked defense wants to get to quarterback Matt Cassel, figuring that’s their best chance of slowing their offense down. They have extreme confidence in stopping the run and they’ve allowed just one pass beyond 65 yards this season. On offense, they figure they have to pass against a weak Cheaters secondary because their ground game isn’t what it used to and New England is better at stopping the run.

Matchups To Watch: Steelers CB Ike Taylor vs. Cheaters WR Randy Moss. Taylor has been covering the opponent’s best receiver and he’s also their tallest corner at 6-2, still two inches shorter than Moss.

Steelers C Justin Hartwig vs. Cheaters NT Vince Wilfork. Hartwig has done a good job in his first season with the Steelers.

Steelers WR Santonio Holmes and Nate Washington vs. Cheaters secondary. The Steelers think they can go deep against poor secondary.

Injury Impact: RB Willie Parker is questionable with swelling in the knee he injured in the third game. Mewelde Moore would start if Parker cannot go. LT Marvel Smith will miss his seventh straight game and Max Starks will replace him again on the left side. CB Bryant McFadden, out since his right forearm was broken Oct. 19, is practicing for the second straight week and might be able to go. William Gay has replaced him on the left side because Deshea Townsend has been out with a hamstring problem and likely to miss his third straight game. DE Brett Keisel is out for the next two-to-three weeks with a sprained MCL in his left knee. Travis Kirschke will replace him at right end.