Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Struggle for Answers

The collapse of the 2006 Pittsburgh Steelers is as shocking as is it frustrating. In this piece by Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Steelers' players begin the long, hard search for an explanation (pay special attention to Cedric Wilson's myopic comments).

"Defensive end Aaron Smith, as frustrated as any Steelers fan, groped for a solution Sunday moments after his team slinked to its lowest point of the season at 2-5.

'We have to change something,' he said. 'Something's got to change.'

They will change into their home black uniforms Sunday against Denver; that is a start for a team winless in four games on the road this season. Heinz Field will never look so good to them. But, as they proved in a debacle against Cincinnati in the season's third game, they can throw victories away at home just as easily as they can on the road.

The only change coach Bill Cowher is likely to be interested in is better play from a team that in three of its five games has dominated its foes on offense and defense only to lose because of turnovers or bad special teams performances.

'We play well and we just don't win the game,' said receiver Cedrick Wilson. 'It's real tough. Hopefully, we can get it together. We still have a long season ahead of us. We're not out until they say we are, and they haven't said so.'

Yet the Steelers are on their way to perhaps the biggest Super Bowl hangover yet. Their 2-5 start ties for the second-worst record after seven games by a defending Super Bowl champion in the game's 40 years. Only the 1-6 start by the 1987 New York Giants was worse. Those Giants, though, played in a strike season in which three early games were played by replacement players. The Giants of '87, who finished 6-9, get an asterisk.

If the Steelers don't win soon, they could go down as the biggest loser for a defending Super Bowl champion.

The other Super Bowl teams that started like the Steelers 2-5 finished this way: the '81 Raiders 7-9, the '82 49ers 3-6 (another strike season), and the '99 Broncos 6-10.

At 7-5 last season, the Steelers' playoff hopes were in critical condition. At 2-5, it might not be worth even talking about. They would have to win nine in a row to equal their 11-5 record of 2005, go 8-1 to finish 10-6 and have a reasonable shot at making the playoffs, or 7-2 and hope that 9-7 squeezes them in.

'We just have to get some wins,' said linebacker Clark Haggans. 'We need to get them in a hurry, too.'

The abyss might be too deep already. No team in Steelers history started with as few as two victories in its first seven games and went on to make the playoffs. They were 2-5, then 2-6 in 2003 and finished 6-10. They were 1-6, then 2-10 in 1988 and ended 5-11. They started 1-6 in 1986 and ended 6-10. They were 1-6 and finished 1-13 in 1969.

Including this season, they are the worst seven-game starts under Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher since Noll took over in 1969.

'I never thought we'd be in this position, but it's the position we're in,' said defensive end Brett Keisel. 'What would shock me is if we don't fight our way out of this somehow. That would shock me.

'Everyone needs to look in the mirror and see what they need to do better to help this team win.'

But that has been a standing order for the past month, or ever since they slipped to 1-2 after losing to Cincinnati. They've tried all the psychic gymnastics to pull them out of their dive and yet they keep losing.

'We've been trying a lot of things, you know?' Keisel said. 'It just doesn't seem like the ball is bouncing our way right now. We just have to keep fighting.'

Hines Ward mentioned the bouncing of the ball as well, as if the Steelers are getting paid back this season for what they accomplished over their past two.

'Last year, all the balls were bouncing our way,' Ward said. 'This year we're not getting the same bounces. We have to find a way to adjust and keep fighting and hopefully they will.'

Interceptions, though, don't bounce, and Ben Roethlisberger already has thrown as many in his six games as all of last season -- 11. The team's 18 turnovers in seven games are just three fewer than they had in 16 last season.

Their turnovers are up, their yards on the ground down and their special teams have turned terrible. If the bounces aren't going their way, it might not be the product of luck as it is just plain poor play.

'We're still in our Super Bowl reign,' rookie receiver Santonio Holmes said. 'We can't let down because of our record. We have to keep fighting every week.'

Perhaps he meant Super Bowl pain."

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