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Big Ben Is Back
BILL COWHER is an emotional man, and his feelings of disgust and anger were readily apparent last Thursday as he called his team together midway through practice. The Steelers coach sensed a lack of intensity that simply could not be tolerated from a team that had lost three of its first four games. As the players gathered around him, Cowher talked about the importance of resilience and avoiding self-pity. He hammered home his displeasure by using a tactic he rarely employs during the regular season: He started the entire practice over again. "He said it didn't matter if we were out there for another two hours," says reserve quarterback Charlie Batch. "We couldn't believe it, because we were halfway through the day."
The defending Super Bowl champs seemed to get the point, as they reminded everyone how dominant they can be, in Sunday's 45--7 win over Kansas City. In handing the Chiefs their worst loss since 1984 (excluding '87, a strike year), Pittsburgh was nearly flawless on offense, scoring on five of its first six possessions. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger completed 16 of 19 passes for 238 yards and two touchdowns and no interceptions. (His passer rating was 153.8.) The backfield combination of Willie Parker and Najeh Davenport ran for 187 yards, while the Steelers averaged an eye-popping 7.3 yards per play.
"That win was a total team effort," Roethlisberger said after the game. "The offensive line did its job and so did the receivers, backs and myself. We just executed well, that's all it was."
Though it would be wrong to place too much significance on this victory—the Chiefs, after all, are 2--3, having beaten only San Francisco and Arizona—the win did ease the pressure on a team that is not as bad as its sluggish start suggested. Before Sunday's game the Steelers had dealt with a variety of issues that kept them stumbling through the first month of the season.
For one thing, their schedule has been brutal: After opening with a win over Miami, they lost consecutive games to Jacksonville, Cincinnati and San Diego—three teams that should contend for playoff spots this year. There's also an easy tendency to blame Roethlisberger, who missed the season opener after emergency surgery to remove his appendix and entered Sunday's game with no touchdown passes, seven interceptions and an abysmal 41.7 passer rating. But that wasn't the only thing wrong with the Pittsburgh offense. With wideout Hines Ward facing constant double coverage, no one else in Pittsburgh's receiving corps (first-round pick Santonio Holmes, Cedrick Wilson and Nate Washington) had emerged as a dangerous threat. The offensive line, a staple of the team's past success, let their pass protection slip at some key moments. The running game suffered from the loss of the recently retired Jerome Bettis. Perhaps most important, the Steelers discovered how every team gets up for the NFL champs.
Parker said he realized this two weeks after Pittsburgh's 9--0 loss at Jacksonville on Sept. 18, while watching the Jaguars lose to the Redskins during the Steelers' bye week. He noticed that Jacksonville didn't play with nearly as much fire as it had against Pittsburgh. "I realized that if we're going to be every team's homecoming game," Parker says, "we need to start hitting people in the mouth first."
The question in the coming weeks is whether the Steelers can continue what they started against Kansas City. The schedule doesn't get much easier in the next month (after visits to Atlanta and Oakland, home games await against Denver and New Orleans), but now that Roethlisberger seems to have regained the form that has made him 28--7 as a starter, the team expects to play with renewed confidence. Pittsburgh also has five AFC North games remaining, so is still very much in the hunt for the division title.
That had to be on the Steelers' minds before Sunday's game, when they watched one of their rivals, Baltimore, lose to Carolina on the locker-room TV. After taking the field for warmups, Pittsburgh learned that another AFC North team, Cincinnati, had fallen to Tampa Bay. And when his players returned inside before kickoff, Cowher announced that it was time for the Steelers to do their part in closing the gap in the division.