Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Gene Collier: Steelers on wrong side of NFL's fine line

Tuesday, October 31, 2006
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

So now, finally, is it time?

Given everything that has happened, and more importantly, everything that hasn't, is it time for a change Sunday at Heinz Field?

On careful consideration, I say no, you don't have to alter your traditional home game ensemble and wear a bag over your head. If you must, however, remember to say "paper" when you get the paper-or-plastic question. Just another consumer protection tip from your friends here at the Post-Gazette.

But if you've got a bag handy, you might want to put it in front of your mouth, especially if you've fallen victim to the pandemic hyperventilating in progress as a result of the Steelers' 2-5 record. I'm not here to reassure you that the Steelers lost five times last year and still won the Super Bowl, or that the playoffs are still not off the table, but a quick review of the original precepts might provide a useful overlay on the insane overreaction to everything the football team does, productive or otherwise.

Let's look again at the product, the game as sculpted and packaged and marketed by the National Football League, the undisputed champion of sustaining interest and even passion in what is, no matter how you regard it, still just a game.

Fifty thousand times in 15 years, Bill Cowher has correctly posited that "there's a fine line in this business," and the axiom he describes most is of the narrow distance between competence and incompetence in the NFL, where 32 teams with the same payroll draft from the same talent pool on roughly the same widely available intelligence.

So look around.

The New York Giants come from 17 points behind in the fourth quarter to win at Philadelphia and the next week fall behind, 42-3, at Seattle. The Jacksonville Jaguars lose by 20 at home to the Houston Texans, then beat Philadelphia on the road. The team the Steelers beat by 38 points two weeks ago, the Kansas City Chiefs, beat the team the Steelers beat in the Super Bowl this weekend, but only after falling behind with six minutes left despite putting up 499 yards of offense and 42 minutes of possession time.

None of it makes much sense, and none of it is supposed to.

Is there a real good team out there? Possibly the 7-0 Colts. The last team to beat them?

The Steelers.

So the defending Super Bowl champions go to the West Coast and the quarterback throws four interceptions leading directly to a seven-point loss. Can't happen? I refer you to your Steelers history book, the glory days chapter, and to Nov. 18, 1979, at San Diego. Chargers 35, Defending Super Bowl Champion Steelers 7. See Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw -- five interceptions.

Not only can it happen, it's designed to happen. When this season ends, 30 percent of all Super Bowl champions will have failed to even make the playoffs the following year. The NFL has not been able to command $24 billion in television revenue because the Oakland Raiders have no chance to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers.

This isn't college football, where Ohio State beats Minnesota pretty much because it's supposed to. The surprise is not that the Steelers are 2-5; it's that given their proclivity for throwing the ball away, they are actually closer to 6-1 than they are to 1-6. By the sum of two plays in four or their losses -- two plays at Jacksonville, two in Atlanta, two in Oakland and two against Cincinnati at home -- eight plays that went against them rather than for them, this team would be 6-1.
But this is the NFL, where anyone can beat you, most especially yourself.

Less than half the teams in this league have so much as outscored their opponents, and the Steelers are among them. Of the 15 teams that have outscored their opponents, only one has a losing record.

So again, the fine line, the narrow distance between Super Bowl Champion and a 2-5 team bumping ugly with the Cleveland Browns.

Maybe you came into this season with the idea that the Steelers won the Super Bowl be beating everybody 50-0. Truth was, they won it because a lot of things went their way, including the ligaments in Carson Palmer's knee and Nick Harper, who, on his way to an Immaculate Reception-like touchdown in January in Indianapolis, somehow decided to cut back and get tangled up with Big Ben.

Ten months later, things aren't going their way. That's life in this NFL. You take your licks, you leave the bag at home, and you keep going.

(Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283. )

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Ron Cook: Ugly loss raises ugly questions

Monday, October 30, 2006
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Let's put an end to the second-guessing that's surely raging this morning in every corner of Western Pennsylvania.

The pathetic Oakland Raiders didn't beat the more pathetic Steelers yesterday because of Ben Roethlisberger's concussion a week earlier, his emergency appendectomy Sept. 3, his motorcycle accident June 12 or that time when he fell off his bike when he was 11 and skinned both elbows.

The Raiders won, 20-13, because Roethlisberger played a Tommy Maddox game, a Kordell Stewart game, a Kent Graham game.

They won because Bad Ben stunk.

"Health-wise, he's fine," teammate Hines Ward said, answering the question of the day and the season about Roethlisberger.

"He wouldn't have been on the field if he wasn't healthy. I don't think the Steelers or the league would want that liability."

Left unsaid was the obvious.

All that's ailing with Roethlisberger is his game.

The man threw a career-high four interceptions, two that were returned for touchdowns that the lame Oakland offense couldn't have scored if the two teams had played all night.

It was the worst performance by a Steelers quarterback since Maddox sabotaged them in a loss to Jacksonville last season by losing a fumble in field-goal range in overtime and then throwing an interception that was returned for the winning touchdown. Actually, this was much worse.
This was the worst game by a Steelers quarterback since Maddox gave the Houston Texans three touchdowns with two interceptions and a fumble that all were returned to the house in a 24-6 loss in 2002 in a game in which the expansion Texans were outgained, 422-47.
The Raiders were outgained, 360-98.

Afterward, there wasn't much wiggle room for Bad Ben to do anything but fall on his sword.

"I'm embarrassed by the way I played ...

"In my wildest dreams, I didn't think I'd play this bad. I'm letting the whole team down. Everybody else is playing good. The defense. The O-line. The receivers. It seems like one guy makes a mistake, and that's me.

"I've got to start playing better."

Sunday against the Denver Broncos at Heinz Field would be a nice time for Roethlisberger to start, although it's probably too late to save this season.

I'm looking more at the big picture here.

The Steelers need to get their franchise quarterback back.

Forget about the abysmal 2-5 record that has the team rightfully in a last-place tie with the Cleveland Browns in the AFC North. Who could have guessed there would be concerns about Roethlisberger as a big-time player? Who could have guessed it even after he was concussed against the Atlanta Falcons last week?

Roethlisberger had played brilliantly in that game and the one before it against the Kansas City Chiefs after a slow start early in the season that could have been impacted by his appendectomy. Despite the concussion, he practiced last week and "felt good."

There's also Ward's excellent point about liability. The Steelers wouldn't take a chance with any player, let alone the guy who is their future.

They would lose a game -- any game -- rather than risk a catastrophic injury to Roethlisberger if he weren't healthy.

"No," coach Bill Cowher said, firmly, when asked if he wanted to join the second-guessers from Aliquippa to Zelienople who are screaming that Charlie Batch should have played.

It's not as if Roethlisberger was jittery in the pocket. At times, he stepped up and made great throws, especially in the fourth quarter when he led one touchdown drive and brought the Steelers within a yard of a tying touchdown.

What Cowher couldn't have expected was Roethlisberger's horrendous decision-making. That was an unexpected problem that hurt him earlier in the season in losses to Jacksonville, Cincinnati and San Diego. It came back yesterday, most egregiously when he threw into triple coverage on a third-and-goal play at the Raiders' 7 early in the fourth quarter when the Steelers were driving for a 13-13 tie. Cornerback Chris Carr's 100-yard interception return gave the Raiders a 20-6 lead.

"They didn't beat us," Ward said. "We beat ourselves. It's been that way all season."

It wasn't all Roethlisberger's fault, of course. It's never all on the quarterback. Down 20-13, the Steelers had a first-and-goal at the Raiders' 1 only to have their offensive line blown up on consecutive plays as Willie Parker lost a yard and Najeh Davenport lost 3.

"Usually, when we need 1 yard, we get 2," Roethlisberger said.

Not this time.

Roethlisberger's fourth-down pass for Santonio Holmes from the Raiders' 3 was batted away.

"We're the Pittsburgh Steelers; we've got to get in the end zone there," Ward said.

The sad, painful truth?

The Steelers were more like the Arizona Cardinals on this dismal day. Unlike their earlier four losses, this one came against one of the NFL's worst teams.

It made for a troubling question.

Can Bad Ben and the Steelers really be that awful?

I'm embarrassed by the way I played ... In my wildest dreams, I didn't think I'd play this bad. I'm letting the whole team down. Everybody else is playing good ... It seems like one guy makes a mistake, and that's me ... I've got to start playing better."

(Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1525. )

Bob Smizik: Raiders of the lost rivalry

Sunday, October 29, 2006
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It's the Steelers and the Raiders this afternoon in a game between a team desperately trying to stay alive and a team that was dead before the season began. It's a matchup that has interest in Pittsburgh and Oakland but one that's a snoozer across the country. What once was the fiercest and most flamboyant rivalry in the National Football League is officially dead, even if the architect of the bitterness that existed between the franchises is still running the show in Oakland.

The Steelers have had plenty of hot rivals over the years, with Baltimore and Cincinnati being the most recent. Along the way, Dallas, Cleveland, Houston and Jacksonville have filled that role. All of those rivalries pale next to what the Steelers and Raiders once were. This was more feud than rivalry. A rivalry conjures up great moments of sports. The Steelers-Raiders had that, for sure, but the games also were among the low points of the NFL at that time.

These two teams just weren't the best in the AFC, they often were the best in the NFL. That's why Houston Oilers coach Bum Phillips was correct when he said in the 1970s that the "road to the Super Bowl goes through Pittsburgh." Often, though, there was a detour through Oakland.

The Steelers and Raiders met for five consecutive post-seasons from 1972 through 1976 with three of those games being for the AFC championship. The Steelers won two of those title games. Still, in the most famous of those playoff matchups the AFC title game was not on the line. That would be the 1972 game that spawned the Immaculate Reception and gave birth to the bitterness.

What lifted the rivalry above the rest was not just the quality of the teams but that they represented -- to many -- good vs. evil. The Steelers, with the beloved Art Rooney in the owner's chair, were the good guys. The Raiders, with detested Al Davis in the owner's chair, were the bad guys.

Along the way, Oakland tight end Bob Moore missed a playoff game in Pittsburgh when he was beaten by an anonymous fan outside his downtown hotel; the Raiders accused the Steelers of allowing the turf at Three Rivers Stadium to become frozen before an AFC title game, which they felt put their offense at a greater disadvantage; the Steelers charged that the Raiders were putting under-inflated balls into play in games at Oakland.

The rivalry became white hot in a three-game span beginning with the AFC title game in 1975, won by the Steelers, 16-10, at Three Rivers Stadium. Oakland had a defensive back named George Atkinson, who teamed with Jack Tatum to give the Raiders a secondary that more than matched the physical nature of the Steelers' unit, which was led by Mel Blount.

In this game, Atkinson put Steelers wide receiver Lynn Swann down with a blow that caused a concussion. There was some doubt that Swann would be ready for the Super Bowl but not only did he play, he was the MVP.

The Steelers opened the following season in a delicious piece of scheduling at Oakland and lost, 31-28. In that game, on a play where Swann was not the intended receiver, Atkinson came up and delivered a forearm to the back of Swann's head. Swann went down with another concussion. Because most eyes were on the actual play, a long gain on a pass to Franco Harris, few, if any, in the media saw the hit on Swann.

When coach Chuck Noll viewed film of the game and saw how flagrant the hit was, he accused Atkinson of being part of the "criminal element" of the NFL.

That's when the fun began. Atkinson filed a defamation lawsuit for $2 million against Noll and the Steelers. It was, of course, the dark genius, Davis, who orchestrated this whole thing.

Conveniently, the case was heard in California shortly after training camp opened in 1977, which meant Noll left the team for two weeks. Both Pittsburgh newspapers, the Press and the Post-Gazette, sent writers to California to cover the trial.

Swann testified that "he [Atkinson] completely, unwarrantedly, violently, maliciously hit me from behind and allowed Franco to run right by him."

While on the stand Noll was forced to admit that the "criminal element" included more than Atkinson and that his own player, Blount, was also a member of this group. That did not sit well with Blount, who briefly filed a lawsuit of his own, while in the midst of a contract holdout.

Although Noll was found innocent, Davis won. The trial, as well as holdouts by Blount and Jack Lambert, were a distraction the Steelers couldn't overcome. They opened the season 2-2 and finished an ordinary, for them, 9-5 and lost in the first round of the playoffs.

Noll is long retired, as is Swann, who is running for governor of Pennsylvania. Blount is a civic icon in Pittsburgh. Atkinson is part of the Raiders' radio broadcasting team.

Davis still runs the Raiders in his own special way. Just last week in the Raiders' locker room, he called out San Francisco columnist Scott Ostler, as though something bad shouldn't be written about the terrible Raiders. In the old days, Davis might have wanted to fight. But he's on a walker these days, an old man who the game has passed by, but who wants as badly as ever to beat the Steelers -- inside or outside the rules.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Gene Collier: Penguins slip into fast lane as hopes soar

Saturday, October 28, 2006
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Penguins ascended to first place for 48 hours this week, runnin' with (and past) the New Jersey Devils Tuesday night onto the top floor of the Atlantic Division, then hanging out until Martin Brodeur's 82nd career shutout, Thursday against Florida, hoisted Jersey back into first.
It was portentous while it lasted, though, wasn't it? At least, such is the loudest big-picture hockey question out there this morning.

As the Penguins skate toward their game tonight in Philadelphia at the start of the Flyers-Kings-Sharks-Ducks road trip, the next 10 days ought to furnish the near-term answer as to whether the Boys of Wimper from last year have morphed into a playoff contender or merely a spectacular circus of young talent still years away from winning hockey.

"We're trusting each other," Sidney Crosby was saying the other night. "We're trusting the system, staying patient, not hanging our heads."

What's not to trust now that you can headman a pass to an Evgeni Malkin, who cleaves defenses like few skaters alive? To get the kind of goal like the fourth one Tuesday night at any point last year, Crosby would have had to headman it to himself, which is still not among his many serious gifts.

"I'm a Penguins season-ticket holder, but, if I wasn't," said Mt. Lebanon billionaire and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, "I'd be running out to get them."

Cuban was in the blue seats for Malkin's stunning, sprawling goal, his fourth in his first four games (he's the only Penguin ever to do that). Cuban's jaw dropped in unison with that of some 13,000 others, including, presumably, bedeviled defenders Colin White and Brad Lukowich. It was White whom Malkin flashed past as he collected Crosby's deft dart just across the blue line, and it was Lukowich who got turned inside out as Malkin decided to go to his backhand. That move pulled Brodeur violently to his right, but Malkin's startling balance and rare reach allowed him to slide the puck home on the far side of the goalmouth.

Partly because he only has played four games as a Penguin and partly because he speaks to the city through a translator, we are nowhere close to understanding the full hockey impact of Malkin nor the fullness of the 20-year-old Russian himself. Yesterday on the club's Web site came the story of how Malkin, prior to bolting from his Russian team in August, had arranged to pay the surgical and rehab costs incurred by the family of 6-year-old Dasha Tusaeva, born without a left arm to a star-crossed Magnitogorsk family. Her father was paralyzed in a street fight. Their newspaper ad requesting financial aid for prosthetic arm for Dasha was answered by one Evgeni Malkin.

He is quite possibly more than another fluid power skater with soft hands; he is perhaps the charged atmosphere of possibility on many levels.

"We're trying to keep building this atmosphere, a winning atmosphere," said Penguins rookie Jordan Staal, who turned 18 only last month. "Coming into the season, I think people were a little bit skeptical, but things have been going well for us. We're driving hard to the net."

Why would we be skeptical of a team that didn't get its fifth win last year until some people had completed their Christmas shopping? Through eight games last fall, many of these same Penguins were 0-4-4 and had been outscored, 39-23. No wonder 5-3 looks like, well, for 48 hours there, it looked like first place.

On a cautionary note, the first act of the Not Ready For Competence Atlantic Division Players hasn't been much worth chronicling. Even this morning, your second-place Penguins were the only club in the division that has actually outscored its opponents (25-22). The Devils, outscored, 32-27, are just a week removed from an 8-1 embarrassment by Ottawa. The New York Rangers are taking more penalties than an end zone full o' Steelers. The New York Islanders are demonstrably psychotic in the front-office sense. The Flyers, tonight's opponent, started 1-6-1 before ejecting Philadelphia icon Bobby Clarke from the general manager's chair and Ken Hitchcock from behind the bench.

It is easier, it so happens, to maintain karma like the Penguins' than to reverse what seems to be happening to almost everyone else in the division.

"Winning is making a big difference," said goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who's difference-making contribution has been a 2.65 goals-against average as compared to his 3.25 last season. "You can see it in the way guys carry themselves. They can't wait to come to the rink. It's definitely easier to maintain a winning atmosphere. Everyone is relaxed on the ice this year. They don't have to think too much."

If they can carry themselves to California and back without flopping on the ice, we'd all be invited to think some unthinkable things about these kids.

(Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283. )

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Joe Starkey: Pens have two Lebrons

Joe Starkey
Thursday, October 26, 2006

What a week for star gazing at Mellon Arena -- and they didn't even open the roof.

Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby one night, LeBron James and Dirk Nowitzki the next (with Big Ben watching courtside).

On Tuesday evening, we might have witnessed the creation of an entirely new Penguins universe. The Big-Bang moment occurred in the third period, when Malkin took a Crosby pass -- a two-line pass that would've been whistled in the pre-lockout NHL -- and made like Mario Lemieux in splitting two Devils defenders and humiliating future Hall of Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur.

Asked to rate the goal on a scale of 1 to 10, Malkin's fellow rookie, Jordan Staal, smiled and said, "Probably a 12."

Mark Cuban attended the game and was as amazed as everyone else. The Dallas Mavericks owner and Mt. Lebanon native was in town for Wednesday night's NBA exhibition game between his Mavericks and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Does he regret not buying the Penguins?

"Absolutely," Cuban said. "Watching Crosby and Malkin was unbelievable."

Malkin, Crosby, Staal and 21-year-old goalie Marc-Andre Fleury all starred in the game, giving fans a glimpse into the team's lusciously promising future.

Less than 24 hours later, James brought his high-wire act to town. Great as he is, I couldn't help but feel sorry for him.

He needs a sidekick.

He's the best basketball player on the planet -- name another who could have taken the pedestrian Cavaliers to a Game 7 against the Detroit Pistons -- but he won't evolve fully until the Cavaliers find another player who's on the same athletic and creative wavelength, or something approaching it.

That's my opinion, anyway. It didn't sound like James agreed.

"No, we don't need that type of guy," he said. "We have a bunch of great guys who can play the game. (Larry Hughes) is probably the closest one that could be a sidekick to me, but I don't like making players be a sidekick."

But does James have teammates who can think and create on his level?

"At times I do," he said.

At times won't cut it if he wants to win a championship. It seems to me every rare talent needs another in order to maximize his gift. That is particularly true in basketball and hockey.

Football's more intricate. Baseball's more individual.

With only five players performing at a given time (excluding a goaltender), hockey and basketball lend themselves to dynamic duos.

The greatest teams have them.

Michael Jordan needed Scottie Pippen. Shaquille O'Neal needed Kobe Bryant. Lemieux needed Paul Coffey (then Ron Francis, then Jaromir Jagr). Larry Bird needed Kevin McHale. Magic Johnson needed James Worthy. Wayne Gretzky needed Jari Kurri (not to mention Mark Messier and Coffey).

And Crosby needed Malkin.

What an incredible stroke of luck for Penguins fans.

It's early yet -- Malkin has played all of four games -- but both appear to have the kind of a pedigree that could make them more than just All-Stars.

They are rare talents.

In effect, the Penguins have two LeBrons.

Considering they grew up on opposite ends of the planet and had never practiced together until September, Crosby and Malkin have developed remarkable chemistry.

But then, genius is an international language.

Did you take a close look at Crosby's perfect two-line pass, which hit Malkin in stride? A handful of players in the world, maybe, make that pass.

Did you see Malkin catch it at full speed, in traffic? I'm not sure even a handful could have done that.

Crosby is elated to have a like mind on his side.

"When you go out there, you know there's someone who will anticipate things with you," he said. "There's just an intangible he has. He's creative and uses his imagination. You know you can try plays that will hopefully catch other teams off guard."

Having two stars on one team can create problems, too -- remember Shaq and Kobe -- but that doesn't figure to happen here. Crosby's too good a kid to let petty jealousies get in the way.
"I just want to win," he said.

So does LeBron, of course, and he will win his share of games. But without a sidekick, we might never know how great he can be.

Joe Starkey is a sports writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He can be reached at jstarkey@tribweb.com

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Malkin, Penguins looking special

Oct 25, 3:33 AM EDT


PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Evgeni Malkin has needed only four games to show the NHL he might be a very special player. He proved it to star goaltender Martin Brodeur with one shot.

Malkin, moved up to Pittsburgh's top line with Sidney Crosby for the first time, secured the young Penguins' 4-2 victory over the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday night with exactly the kind of did-you-see-that-goal that made him a No. 2 draft pick in 2004.

Taking a cross-ice pass from Crosby, Malkin split two defenders and did a spin move near the net to beat Brodeur on a backhander to restore Pittsburgh's two-goal lead midway through the third period. Malkin, the Russian Olympic star who sneaked away from his pro team there to play in the NHL this season, has a goal in each of his first four NHL games. He is the first player to do so since Steven King of the Rangers in 1992.

"I came right from the bench and I had a lot of energy," the 20-year-old Malkin said, speaking through interpreter George Birman. "A lot of guys on their team were wanting to change. He made a nice pass, saw me there and it was just me and the defender."

In the only other NHL games Tuesday, it was: Ottawa 6, Toronto 2; and Calgary 6, Phoenix 1.
Brodeur's take on Malkin's goal?

"Pretty amazing," the Devils' longtime star said. "It was a great pass, but there's not too many guys who can control that and after that, have the presence to outmuscle a guy and shift when a guy is trying to take your head off. I thought I had it the whole way, he had nowhere to go, and he just stopped and went right around me with his reach."

Right now, a player must do something remarkable merely to get noticed on the Penguins. The NHL's worst franchise the last four seasons is flashing signs it could be much better - and soon.

Jordan Staal, the No. 2 pick in the June draft who turned 18 only last month, has three goals in two games and four in eight games. One game after being the youngest player in NHL history to score twice short-handed, he got his first career goal at even strength on a tic-tac-toe passing sequence with Nils Ekman, who also scored, and Mark Recchi.

Oh, yeah, and those guys named Crosby and Fleury? Not to get overlooked, Crosby had a goal and an assist, giving him 34 points in his last 18 games dating to the end of last season. And former No. 1 pick Marc-Andre Fleury, who is 21, lowered his goals-against average to 2.50 by making 22 saves.

"There's a lot of talent here," the 19-year-old Crosby said. "Everybody realizes the great opportunity we have here, and that to be successful we have to be a team. Nobody cares who gets credit when we win. Everybody has that attitude here."

The Penguins' 5-3 start might seem modest, but it's a big improvement from their nine-game losing streak to start last season when they were a much older team. Now, only San Jose had a younger roster to start the season.

Already, NHL general managers and coaches are scrambling to think of when one team added so many potential young impact players in so little time.

"No, I don't think the talent here surprises you at all," Devils coach Claude Julien said. "How many first-round picks, how many first overall picks do they have here? When you finish last you get those picks and they've been fortunate to have guys like Crosby, Malkin. When you're picking early, you're going to pick the best every year."

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Ron Cook: Roethlisberger's apparent recovery eases Steelers' pain

Tuesday, October 24, 2006
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

As Mournings After go, the one yesterday at Steelers headquarters wasn't all that depressing.

The players reported to work, as always. There was the usual teasing and laughter. Sure, there were more complaints about the officiating in the 41-38 overtime loss to the Atlanta Falcons Sunday. Everyone was more convinced than ever after reviewing the game tape that referee Ron Winter blew it when he didn't call a helmet-to-helmet penalty when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was injured in the third quarter, then made an even more grievous error on the final play of regulation when he called Steelers wide receiver Nate Washington for a false start penalty. But there was no indication anyone felt the season was over despite the deflating loss and the team's abysmal 2-4 record.

Roethlisberger was the reason.

He showed up with the other players and was feeling OK, aside from some expected minor head, neck and back pain, according to teammates.

It won't be a shock if Steelers coach Bill Cowher announces today that Roethlisberger will start against the Oakland Raiders Sunday as long as he makes it through the week of practices.
Who would have guessed that when Roethlisberger lay crumpled and motionless on the Georgia Dome carpet?

At that point, it was hard not to think about Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Trent Green. Green was knocked out in the opening game six weeks ago and won't play again until at least mid-November.

As Roethlisberger wobbled off the field and then took a cart to the Steelers' locker room, a vacant expression on his face, it was hard not to think about Hall of Fame quarterbacks Steve Young and Troy Aikman. Repeated concussions ended their careers prematurely.

How could you not wonder?

How much more trauma can Big Ben's head take?

After this hit and his horrific motorcycle accident June 12?

A lot more, apparently.

That's terrific news for the Steelers, probably better than they deserve considering how inconsistently they've played in digging a two-game hole in the AFC North Division behind the Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens.

There was a palpable feeling yesterday that Roethlisberger will be able to bring the team back. He and his offense have had two consecutive superb performances. He completed 16 of 22 passes for 238 yards and three touchdowns against the Falcons before his injury. A week earlier, he completed 16 of 19 for 238 yards and two touchdowns in a 45-7 win against the Chiefs.

It's nice to think the hit from Falcons defensive end Chauncey Davis won't set Roethlisberger back the way his emergency appendectomy Sept. 3 did, that it won't make him skittish in the pocket. He took advantage of a Falcons defense that loaded up to stop the run by completing 13 passes of 10 yards or longer. Backup Charlie Batch picked up where he left off with six completions of at least 12 yards, including gains of 70, 49 and 25 yards.

The Steelers' wide receivers are playing much better. You knew Hines Ward would turn it up once he settled in after missing all of the exhibition games with a hamstring injury. Cedrick Wilson has caught everything since the coaches started giving some of his playing time to Santonio Holmes. Holmes looks as if he's going to be a big-time player, although it would be helpful if he stops fumbling punts. Washington caught a 10-yard touchdown pass and set up another score with a 49-yard catch.

The Steelers know the 38 points would have been enough to win if they hadn't lost three fumbles and an onside kick. They think they still would have been enough if not for Winter's call on Washington that denied Steelers kicker Jeff Reed an opportunity to kick a winning 51-yard field goal.
"He was set before the snap. The ref was looking at Nate instead of the snap. That was no penalty," one player said.

You can't blame the guy for asking for anonymity. Like Cowher after the game, he doesn't want to be fined by the NFL. Only Dan Rooney complained publicly, telling the Post-Gazette Sunday, "These officials should be ashamed of themselves."

That isn't to suggest the Steelers didn't earn that 2-4 record or that they don't have issues to solve. All of the turnovers are alarming. The special teams have been lousy. So has the red-zone defense. And what happened to Cowher putting an end to those ridiculous excessive celebration penalties? Ward and Holmes made him look like a fool when they were penalized for joining Washington in a dance after his touchdown. Shame on them.

No, this is just to suggest it's still a little too soon to write off the Steelers' season.

They believe they can make up ground quickly on the Bengals and Ravens as long as their offense keeps playing this well.

They'll always believe that as long as they have a healthy Roethlisberger.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Gene Collier: Overcome by Alge; that's inexplicable

Monday, October 23, 2006
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

ATLANTA -- There was little doubt that by its very dimensions and its remarkable density, what played out over three hours and 41 minutes in front of the biggest crowd in Georgia Dome history yesterday was pure football colossus.

Thickened with an almost dizzying narrative that included 10 touchdowns, more than any NFL game this season, the Steelers and Falcons unleashed some wildly successful overtime theatre, even if it was fueled by nonsense and layered by subtexts that were purely inexplicable.
"Crazy game," said Steelers linebacker James Farrior.

"Wild and crazy," said Falcons coach Jim Mora.

That's fine, but I'm sticking with inexplicable.

How can Santonio Holmes, for example, streaking across the carpet toward the touchdown that would atone for the touchdown he had just set up for Atlanta by fumbling another punt, get knocked off his feet in the open field by the desperate swiping hand-tackle from the opposing kicker?

How can the Falcons, by the same token, consistently kick the ball to Holmes when he's standing back there next to Najeh Davenport, who is, let's just say, eminently more containable?

How can Holmes join an end-zone celebration dance by Nate Washington, a dance already joined by Hines Ward to trigger another excessive celebration penalty, less than a month after Bill Cowher said that would never happen again? That didn't come up in the postmortem, saving the coach the embarrassment of having to say, "that will never happen again again."

How can Atlanta defensive end Chauncey Davis, bull-rushing Ben Roethlisberger, leave his feet, collide helmet-to-helmet with the quarterback, knock him cold, and draw no penalty? But Nate Washington "flinching", now that is not going to be tolerated.

"I'm not going to be judgmental," Cowher said of both the Washington penalty and the Davis hit. On the Davis hit specifically, he said, "the league will handle that."

Or fail to do so.

But of the more relevant nonsense that somehow churned out a 41-38 Falcons victory on a day when Roethlisberger and backup Charlie Batch threw five touchdown passes, two issues were little less than confounding.

Michael Vick, averaging 8.7 yards per rush coming into this game, and the league's co-leader in runs of 10 yards or more with 19, ran only five times. Only once in the first half.

"I was very surprised," said Steelers safety Ryan Clark, "but, if you watched TV this week, you saw there was a lot of turmoil down here. I think he just wanted to show that he could stand in there and throw, that he could beat a quality defense that way. And he did a great job."

The turmoil was the result of an interview Vick did in which he allowed that he felt better about himself in the offense of former coach Dan Reeves, but Mora didn't seem to let it bother him, and certainly nothing was bothering him after ancient Morten Andersen ended this chaos with an easy 32-yard field goal seven minutes into overtime.

"It's no surprise I'm a Mike Vick fan and everybody knows that," Mora said. "For all the talk about what Vick can't do, I like to talk about what he can do. And he does things that no other football player in the history of the game at that position had the ability to do. I think that play was another indication of his greatness."

"That play" was the play, a third-and-9 at the Atlanta 45 on what would soon turn out to be the only possession necessary in overtime, thanks to Vick. That Vick completed a 26-yard pass to Alge Crumpler that put the Falcons at the Steelers' 29 and essentially ended this thing is not terribly surprising, but the fact that he escaped the blitzing Troy Polamalu to enable it, that's just frightening.

If you could pick one guy in the league who'd be able to close on Vick on open carpet and plant him on a blitz, No. 43 would likely be that pick.

"That was totally my fault," Polamalu said. "I made a mistake on that play. I just missed the tackle."

"I was actually pass-blocking on that play," Crumpler said, foiling any notion of intelligent design on the most crucial play of a game filled with crucial plays. "Michael leaked out and I leaked out, and he found me."

The Steelers' defense knew all about leakage yesterday, and thus the most inexplicable element of a long afternoon wasn't just that the Steelers allowed 41 points, but that their accomplished secondary got positively scalded by a tight end they rarely double-covered even though Atlanta's wideouts are pedestrian at best.

"We didn't come in looking to double him or anything like that," Clark said. "Vick is just so accurate throwing the ball."

Crumpler had 16 catches in five games before yesterday, when he caught six Vick missiles for 117 yards and three touchdowns of 22, 3 and 31 yards, the longest one at the expense of Ike Taylor. So even after he scored three touchdowns, who got left wide open on third-and-9 in overtime? Mr. Crumpler.


I mean inexplicable.

(Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283. )

Bob Smizik: Steelers drop ball, and Falcons make them pay for it

Monday, October 23, 2006
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

ATLANTA -- It was understandable that in a defeat that could suck the life out of his team and one in which it played gallantly down the stretch, Bill Cowher chose to accentuate the positive.

Cowher opened his postgame news conference after a 41-38 overtime loss yesterday to the Atlanta Falcons with this tribute to his players:

"We left everything out on the field."

Did they ever!

Left on the field were fumbles by Santonio Holmes, Ben Roethlisberger and Willie Parker. Also left on the field was a muffed onside kick by Tyrone Carter. All were recovered by the Falcons.
All quickly were turned into touchdowns.

The Steelers just didn't lose this game, they gave it away.

In the process, they fell two games behind Cincinnati, which beat Carolina, and Baltimore, which was off. The Steelers are 2-4 and with 10 games remaining, there's plenty of time for them to challenge for a playoff spot. The question that hangs over them today is this: Are they good enough?

They've yet to beat a team with a winning record, and their schedule is thick with quality opponents the rest of the way, beginning in two weeks against Denver, a team that is 5-1 and has allowed only 44 points.

The Steelers have played well in all aspects of the game at various points in the season, but rarely have they put it all together.

They were offensively outstanding against the Falcons, accumulating a season-high 473 yards of offense in a memorable game of dizzying twists and turns and ups and downs. Although Atlanta shut down the Steelers' running game, it could not begin to stop the passing game.

Roethlisberger picked up where he left off last week against Kansas City by completing 16 of 22 passes for 238 yards and three touchdowns. He did not throw an interception.

When he left with a head injury in the third quarter, Charlie Batch came on and was magnificent in rallying the team while completing 8 of 13 passes for 195 yards and two touchdowns. He did not throw an interception.

Roethlisberger's passer rating was a close-to-perfect 147.3. Batch's was 145.0.
It's not easy to lose games when your quarterbacks play that well. But the Steelers did because they could not hold on to the ball.

Holmes was stripped from behind while trying to follow his blockers on a punt return early in the game. On Atlanta's next play, Michael Vick threw a 22-yard touchdown pass to Alge Crumpler.

Early in the second quarter, Roethlisberger fumbled a snap from center Jeff Hartings, in a mixup on the silent count, and the Falcons took over on the Steelers' 25, from where they scored six plays later.

Late in the second quarter, Carter was crushed by cornerback Jimmy Williams as he was catching the onside kick. The Falcons moved 51 yards in seven plays to score.

Midway through the third quarter, Parker fumbled while reversing his field trying to find running room in his own backfield. The Falcons took over on the 26 and scored six plays later.
Fumbles happen, and none of the four players should be overly criticized for dropping the ball. But it was the reason for the defeat.

Holmes, who was otherwise excellent by catching five passes for 91 yards and returning three kickoffs for 88 yards, said, "I was getting ready to follow the play we set up, and it was a blindside hit. I didn't see him, and he got a piece of the ball.''

Concerning Roethlisberger's fumble, Hartings said, "It was the way we do the silent count. I thought I felt him hit me. He didn't. He wasn't ready [when the ball was snapped.]"

Carter was more the victim of perfect Atlanta execution than any shortcoming of his own. Just as he was about to catch the high short kick, he was walloped by Williams and had little chance to hold on to the ball.

Parker blamed himself.

"I was trying to do too much. I could have stayed down instead of reversing my field. He [tackle Jonathan Babineaux] just got a hand on the ball."

It would be asking too much of a defense to stop the opposition from scoring considering the excellent field position the fumbles gave the Falcons. But linebacker James Farrior made a good point when he said, "At times like that, you have to hold them to a field goal, but they scored a touchdown. We have to do better in the red zone."

It wasn't to be, and, later in the game, the defense allowed scoring drives of 75 and 64 yards.
"We kept fighting and battling. We might not have won, but this team grew today," said defensive end Aaron Smith.

The Steelers need to do more than grow. They need to start winning -- soon and with near-weekly regularity.

(Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com. )

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Early Success hasn't changed Crosby

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By Karen Price
Sunday, October 22, 2006

It's 12:30 p.m. on a Penguins practice day, the session has been over for a half hour and Sidney Crosby is still on the ice.

Not that it's unusual for Crosby to be among the last to head to the dressing room.

Crosby took the hockey world by storm last year, becoming the youngest player in the history of the NHL to reach 100 points at the age of 18 years, 253 days. But while his life has changed in some ways, like becoming a homeowner, in most regards, he remains the same hard-working, focused player he was a year ago.

"I think it's important (to stay the same guy)," Crosby said. "I feel lucky that I'm able to play hockey, and I don't take that for granted. I'm lucky to wake up every day and do something I love. A lot of people don't have that opportunity."

Crosby's drive and maturity have been well documented over the years and particularly since he stepped into the spotlight of the NHL with labels such as "The Next One" and the new savior of the Penguins.

Sidney Crosby's father, Troy, believes that much of his son's maturity comes from playing both hockey and baseball with kids who were older than he was growing up.

"He was never around kids his own age except in his class," said Troy Crosby, who often attends games. "In sports, where he spent most of his time out of school, he was with kids who were maybe two years older. So, maybe it was just something that happened naturally. I don't know."
Troy Crosby says that he and his wife, Trina, didn't groom their son to be able to handle the spotlight and the pressure. But they did raise Sidney and their daughter, Taylor, to be respectful of others, he said. But there's nothing they did specifically to prepare Sidney for hockey superstardom.

"He's been in the spotlight for a long time, even in minor hockey. So, he's been singled out as being a little bit different, and he's always had a lot of attention," Troy Crosby said. "But there's nothing that we did consciously to prepare him, no."

Pierre McGuire, analyst for TSN, NBC and Versus, has known Crosby for years and says that, even when Crosby was attending Shattuck St. Mary's (Minn.) as a 16-year-old, he was known for being mature for his age, both on and off the ice.

McGuire also saw examples of it when Crosby was swarmed at his first World Junior Championship tournament in Helsinki, Finland, when he became the youngest player to score a goal in the tournament, and again when he went to play for Rimouski of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

"Rimouski is an extremely French town, and he not only played there, but he learned the language," McGuire said. "He had to adapt to a culture far different from what he grew up in, and he never complained. He was proud to be part of it and enjoyed it so much that, during the Olympic break last year, he went up to Rimouski."

Crosby's life did change a bit over the summer.

Although in Pittsburgh -- Crosby still stays with Mario Lemieux and his family -- Crosby bought his first house close to where he grew up in Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, for the offseason. It's a good place for privacy, he said, especially since his parents' address is known well enough that fans have actually showed up unexpectedly at the front door.

"I found a spot that I've kind of always dreamed of having, and it was a perfect situation for me, so I was more than happy to get something there," Crosby said, adding that it's in a gated neighborhood. "It's not a place that's full of houses or a suburban area or anything. It's in the woods and on a nice lake, so I really enjoy it there."

One thing Crosby has come to be known for amongst his teammates is his willingness to share in his good fortune.

Reebok is one of Crosby's main sponsors, and last year, he had them deliver enough running shoes to outfit the entire team.

"He always does stuff for the guys in that way," Ryan Malone said. "Obviously, he has a lot of endorsements, and he thinks of the guys. That just shows the kind of person he is. He wants to make sure everyone can benefit from his success. He's definitely thinking about the guys, and he's a good team guy."

This year, Crosby arranged to have a popular Canadian brand of coffee delivered to Mellon Arena, so that his teammates and staff members could have it whenever they wanted.

"I know we don't have it here (in Pittsburgh), and the trainers enjoy a nice coffee sometimes because, let's face it, they're at the rink so much and early in the mornings, things like that," Crosby said. "I know a lot of the guys like to drink coffee, too, so I just figured that if I have the ability to get my hands on some coffee, I'd try to hook up the team and the office."

Malone said it was hard to judge whether Crosby seems more mature this year than he did last year. To him, Crosby's the same guy he's always been.

"He's still only 19, but he knows how to handle himself," Malone said. "To me, he's the same player. We still get on him and joke around with him. To us, he's still just another guy on the team."

One of Crosby's best friends on the team is Colby Armstrong, 23.

Armstrong laughed when it was suggested that Crosby sometimes acts like he's 19 going on 39. But he said that everything Crosby does, both on and off the ice, is done with the idea of helping the team get better.

In six games this season, Crosby, who had 102 points in his rookie year, has two goals and seven assists to lead the team in scoring.

"He wants the team to do well," Armstrong said. "He wants to win. He's obviously a big competitor, and he wants to turn this thing around not in a year, not in two years, but now.
"It's a great attitude to have, and it's obviously rubbing off on everyone else."

Troy Crosby said as mature as his son is on the ice during the season and as seriously as he takes hockey, he still shows his teenage side when he's at home during the offseason.

"When he's at home relaxing, he's like any other 18 or 19-year-old kid, hanging out with his buddies, laughing, joking around, watching TV, playing football or golf, just having fun and trying to relax away from the rink," Troy Crosby said. "He's definitely just a normal kid."

Troy Crosby has already had many proud dad moments over the course of Sidney's career, and he'll undoubtedly have many more to come. But, at the end of the day, he might be most proud of the person his son is, not the hockey player.

"What parent wouldn't be proud of that?" Troy Crosby said. "He cares about people, and he's respectful.

"After hockey's over, that's what's most important is being a good person. That's all we try to raise our kids to be. That's absolutely something that I'll always be proud of."

Karen Price can be reached at kprice@tribweb.com.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Brown glad to be back with the Steelers

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Big Ben hopes ending losing streak gets Steelers going

By Mike Prisuta
Friday, October 20, 2006

Chad Brown, who celebrated his one-week anniversary with his new team Thursday, read a screen pass with ease and expertise. And he would have blown up the running back had the Steelers allowed such things to happen in practice.

Nobody told the 36-year-old backup linebacker the screen pass was coming.
Still, Chad Brown knew it was coming.

"It's the red zone," Brown said. "People like to apply pressure in the red zone. How do you stop pressure? You screen people."

A plus B equals C; call the field-goal team.

"I've been around for a while," Brown said.

That he's back with the Steelers isn't an unprecedented development, especially since the organization softened its once all-but-ironclad stance against such trips down memory lane.

Cornerback Willie Williams left and returned eventually.

So did defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.

So, it's not as if Brown has personally shattered a long-standing tradition.

But it's also true that, as recently as 1998, when it was thought that cornerback Rod Woodson might return to the Steelers, then-director of football operations Tom Donahoe responded with a cold, calculated, "we're not the Salvation Army."

The Steelers are more practical about those situations these days.

"I prefer that attitude," Brown said. "I don't think vengeance should be part of your business decisions."

Brown left via free agency after a 13-sack, All-Pro season in 1996, accepting a six-year, $24 million contract from the Seattle Seahawks that included a $7 million signing bonus -- at the time, eye-opening money for a defensive player.

The Steelers' offer "wasn't comparable," Brown said, acknowledging an economic reality the team apparently never took personally.

"Although they had a certain view of free agency and how they were going to deal with it, they didn't burn the bridge," Brown said. "Whenever we would play the Steelers, coach (Bill) Cowher and (Steelers chairman) Mr.(Dan) Rooney and all those guys, we were very cordial and nice.
"I would say how much I missed them and being a part of the organization, and they would say how much they missed me. We still had a great rapport."

Brown first contemplated re-joining the Steelers last season, but ultimately, he opted for New England because of a greater likelihood that he might land a starting job.

Again, no hard feelings.

Last week, when the Steelers found themselves without linebackers Joey Porter and James Harrison, Brown found himself a job.

He'd played inside and outside linebacker and rush end in LeBeau's defense, and despite eight years with the Seahawks, it was still the defensive system with which Brown was most familiar.
He still loved the game, perhaps more than he did during his first go-around with the Steelers, when he publicly acknowledged he might consider other employment if it paid as well. And Brown thought he could still play.

The sack he recorded while working as a rush end in passing situations last Sunday in a 45-7 win over Kansas City revealed as much.

So did the screen pass he sniffed out in yesterday's practice.

Brown might not get another sack this Sunday in Atlanta. But he'll remain appreciative of the opportunity to re-join the franchise that brought him into the NFL as a second-round draft pick out of Colorado in 1993 -- for a number of reasons.

"The stability of the organization, the trust that they hire good people and let them do their jobs," Brown said. "The city itself. The kids around here grow up wearing Steeler diapers; there are Steeler bibs for sale. The fan base is not wishy-washy or temporary. This is who they are.
"The whole city identifies itself with the team, and the team identifies itself with the city. You can't separate the two. I don't think it's that way anywhere else."

Mike Prisuta can be reached at mprisuta@tribweb.com.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Joe Starkey: Malkin and Crosby belong together

Additional Stories
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Joe Starkey
Thursday, October 19, 2006

Sidney Crosby was unusually loose after the Penguins' morning skate Wednesday at Mellon Arena.

Maybe it had something to do with the fact that somebody -- finally -- was going to ease his burden as the Penguins' only star. Heck, as their only bona fide threat.

That somebody, of course, was Evgeni Malkin, who made his long-awaited, much-debated, two-week-belated NHL debut last night against the New Jersey Devils.

"I'd love to set him up for his first one," Crosby said. "Hopefully, me and him can have a lot of memorable nights together, and, hopefully, this will be one of them."

Hopefully, coach Michel Therrien will put the two together more often, but we'll get to that in a minute.

First, let's state the obvious: Malkin's a superstar.

That might sound ludicrous, considering he is only 20 years old and has logged precisely 18 minutes, 15 seconds of NHL ice time.

But if you saw him in the Olympics and again last night, you know it to be true.

Malkin was the best player on the ice in the 2-1 loss. He scored the Penguins' only goal, barely missed another on a skillful deflection, dangled the puck and slowed the game the way that Mario guy once did, dropped Devils winger Cam Janssen like a horsefly, and, for good measure, broke a pane of glass behind the Devils net on a wicked slap shot with 8:32 left.

Oh, and Malkin's former Russian team reportedly notified the NHL several hours before the game that it will be suing the league and the Penguins.

Talk about a full day.

As game-time neared, the line for $20 student-rush tickets wound a few hundred yards around the arena. Some fans wore brand-new, No. 71 Malkin jerseys ($160 will get you one, too).

A roar went up when the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Malkin skated out for warm-ups. A louder one ensued when he followed Crosby out of the tunnel before the game.

The standing-room-only crowd of 17,030 -- it was Crosby Bobblehead Night, as well -- was ready to erupt at the slightest hint of a Malkin moment, but all they got for most of the first two periods was a deflection off the goal post behind Martin Brodeur, who finished with 37 saves in a performance similar to the one he turned in last season in Crosby's NHL debut.

Crosby and Malkin began the night on the same line but were reunited only once in the first period and not again until late in the second, with the Penguins trailing, 1-0, and desperately needing a spark.

They got an inferno. Crosby, Malkin and Mark Recchi buzzed around Brodeur, who finally covered up a weak Recchi shot -- or appeared to, anyway.

Malkin swooped in and made like a shuffleboard player, poking the puck from between Brodeur's pads and slowly over the goal line. Bedlam ensued. Malkin pumped his fist as Brodeur argued with the referee.

Public address announcer John Barbero finally made the call, above the roars:
"Penguins goal, his first of the season and first in the National Hockey League, scored by No. 71, Evgeni Maaaaaalkinnnnnnn!"

Curiously, Therrien did not keep Malkin and Crosby together. He should consider doing so, because the Penguins don't appear to have enough firepower on the wings to generate much offense otherwise.

As Crosby said afterward, when asked about unexpectedly starting the game on Malkin's line, "Hopefully, it'll be one of many shifts we play together."

Joe Starkey is a sports writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He can be reached at jstarkey@tribweb.com

Gene Collier: Malkin opens by finding an opening

Thursday, October 19, 2006
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

When they talk about obvious scoring opportunities in the National Hockey League, the scorer's mind flashes to a small opening in the goaltender's imposing posture, a target about the size of a flank steak, a spot through which you can light the lamp only if you hit it dead on.

Save for the random occasions on which the goaltender is out of position due to bursts of offensive pressure, the obvious scoring opportunity is usually obvious solely to the shooter and probably only applicable if his confidence is rolling.

Thus the delicious little circumstance around Evgeni Malkin's first National Hockey League goal was something else entirely.

When the great Martin Brodeur has just fallen on a shot from his doorstep like a Doberman collapsing on a bouncing bone, no one expects anything resembling offensive opportunity, but the expectations around Malkin apparently aren't through the never-retracted retractable Mellon Arena roof for nothing.

A second after dropping a pass to right wing Mark Recchi, Malkin elevated his debut performance to something near mystical, sweeping past Brodeur to inspect a non-rebound of Recchi's shot under the sprawled Devils' netminder, and somehow poking it the length of Brodeur's sprawled musculature across the goal line and into Pittsburgh legend.

"Evgeni and Sid [Crosby, last year's even-more-hotly anticipated Penguins phenom] have totally different styles," Recchi said. "Sid is just a damned spark plug. He's explosive, sick explosive. Malkin is more like Mario. He's big, a great skater, has great vision, and he can finish. He's got an edge to his game."

Something in that edge then, must be able to make him think he can poke a stick at that thing beneath Brodeur.

"Recchi gave me a good pass," Malkin said through an interpreter late last night. "I gave it back to him and he shot it. It came up on Brodeur and I just shot it."

Well, sort of.

Malkin's goal, coming late in the second period, punctuated a months-long drama that began with an escape to North America through an equally unlikely opening somewhere in the Helsinki Airport. Between then and last night, too much of Malkin's existence had played out like an implausible foreign film.

"Skill-wise, he's had an easier time getting to the NHL than the rest of us," Recchi was saying last night. "But, when you consider what he's had to go through to get here and the pressure put on him back home, on his parents, it's incredible.

"I've heard horror stories, the Russian mob, the mafia, whatever you want to call it."

Even as Malkin was arriving at Mellon Arena last night, his former Russian team was filing a lawsuit against the Penguins and the NHL, claiming breach of contract. Legal precedent consistently has held that Malkin is free under applicable labor law provisions.

Though a scoreless and largely lifeless first period sapped it of any special electricity, this was a hockey night in Pittsburgh perhaps like no other, because whether Evgeni Malkin is the next Sidney Crosby or the next Mario Lemieux or merely a player of his own singular definition, he already has done something those cross-generational Penguins icons did not.

He started his NHL career on home ice, and, even though the supportive crowd's early buzz was more indicative of a much-anticipated theater opener than a typical Atlantic Division slap-off, and while Malkin didn't score on his first shift, as Lemieux did at Boston in 1984, or even very nearly score on his first shift, as Crosby did last October in East Rutherford, N.J., it actually appeared he had either gotten his first or at least his first assist late in the first period.

Dropping a pass back to Ryan Whitney at the right point, Malkin swung into position in front of Brodeur as Whitney wound up to fire the slapper. Malkin redirected Whitney's laser, and, while it looked to the naked eye (strategically positioned a city block away 500 feet above the ice surface) that Malkin's redirect flicked the New Jersey net, it actually hit the post.

Few among the non-Russian speaking population in the Penguins' locker room (everybody but Sergei Gonchar) can fully appreciate what it meant for Malkin to be on an NHL ice surface last night, but it had to help Evgeni that the guy skating Malkin's right wing had exactly 1,261 times the NHL experience as the 20-year-old phenom from Magnitogorsk.

"He's a goofball on the ice; that's really his element, his comfort zone," Recchi said. "But off the ice he seems very mature."

(Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283. )

Polamalu earns a Lott of high praise

Thursday, October 19, 2006
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Atlanta coach Jim Mora didn't split hairs yesterday when he talked about Steelers safety Troy Polamalu. He did not compare him to Sampson; he went one better.

Mora compared Polamalu to another Southern California standout, Ronnie Lott, perhaps the greatest safety in NFL history. Lott not only went into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on the first ballot, but he also was one of three safeties chosen to the NFL's 75th anniversary team.

"My favorite player in the history of football is Ronnie Lott," Mora said yesterday on the telephone. "He is the only player up on my wall that I have a picture of. I was watching film the last two days and kept thinking about Ronnie as I watched Troy."

High praise, indeed.

"Oooh, that's a huge comparison," Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor said. "That's huge. Huge!"
It's the kind of eye-opener that Bill Parcells prompted when, two years ago, he compared Ben Roethlisberger's rookie season to that of Dan Marino's.

Polamalu almost bashfully deflects that kind of praise as he does the news that the AFC made him the conference defensive player of the week yesterday.

"Humbled and honored," he said of Mora's comparison. "He can believe what he wants to believe. Obviously, Ronnie was a great NFL defensive back, but I couldn't agree with him at all."
Playing with a healthy right shoulder for the first time since it was bruised in the opening game, Polamalu led the Steelers with 10 tackles, knocked away two passes, intercepted another and returned it 49 yards. Among his tackles were three in a row on halfback Larry Johnson in the second quarter. The Chiefs had a second-and-2 at their 41 when Polamalu burst through their line and, with Larry Foote, tackled Johnson. On the next play, Polamalu dropped Johnson for a 2-yard loss.

"Those plays he made on short yardage," Mora gushed, "the second- and third-down ones where he hit the gaps; you talk about having great instincts and anticipation! He is so fun to watch. If you like defensive football, you love watching that guy play. He is inspiring."

He inspires his teammates, even the new ones. Linebacker Chad Brown, 36, played in a game against Lott, and he does not think Mora overstated the comparison of the two.

"Both are dynamic playmakers," Brown said. "I think Troy perhaps brings a little more athleticism to it than Lott did. Obviously, both guys are hitters. Ronnie was an intimidator whereas Troy can hurt you quite a few different ways.

"You have a guy here who's a triple threat. He can sack the quarterback, pick off passes and stop the run. I don't know what more you could want from a player. I suppose if you were to plan it out perfectly, you'd make him bigger and you'd cut his hair so he could bring that one back last week."

Polamalu is shorter at 5 feet 10, 207 pounds but more compact than was Lott at 6-0, 203. In his fourth season, Polamalu has a long way to go to equal Lott's record of 63 career interceptions and 10 Pro Bowls in a career that spanned from 1981-94. Polamalu was All-Pro last season and made two Pro Bowls in his first two seasons as a starter. His 49-yard return with an interception against Kansas City Sunday -- before Larry Johnson yanked him to the ground by his long hair -- was the ninth pickoff of his career.

"We'll have to see how his career pans out," Steelers linebacker James Farrior said. "I mean, Ronnie Lott's one of the best safeties to ever play the game. Troy's doing some fantastic things right now. That's a great comparison, but I think it's a little too early right now."

It doesn't make it off target, though. Polamalu helps make the Steelers' entire defense go, elevates it to another level. His bruised right shoulder held him and them back early in the season.

Quarterbacks are taught to start with the safety in order to read a defense. It doesn't help much when they're reading Polamalu, who jumps all over before the snap of the ball.

"He confuses the offenses because he's running around in so many positions," said veteran backup safety Mike Logan.

The Falcons will look at Polamalu the way the Steelers watch tape of Michael Vick this week, trying to figure out some way to counter him.

"Troy, he's different," Mora said. "I know you guys get to see him a lot, but, for someone who doesn't get to see him a lot and turns on the film, he is something.

"I have a great regard for defensive players in general. He's at the top of my list right now."

(Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com. )

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Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Bob Smizik: Steelers' season still up for grabs

Steelers right the ship, but season's course remains mystery
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The events of Sunday -- a Steelers win and losses by Cincinnati and Baltimore -- served to right a season gone wrong, but in no way should they be taken to mean all is well. In the case of the Steelers' victory against Kansas City, it was one win and achieved against a team of questionable ability. The Steelers are back in the AFC North Division race and the hunt for another Super Bowl championship, but still of unknown quality.

They should remain a North Division contender the remainder of the season, if for no other reason than the Bengals, believed to be their toughest competition, play a ridiculously tough schedule. In the next five weeks, the record of the Bengals' combined opponents is 20-7.
But, whether the Steelers have the stuff of another Super Bowl run and exactly how good they are has yet to be determined.

Their immediate schedule -- a road game Sunday against the 3-2 Falcons and the dangerous Michael Vick, a laugher at hapless Oakland and a Heinz Field-meeting with Denver, a 4-1 team that has allowed only 37 points -- isn't the most daunting of challenges but should put the team in a clearer light.

To suggest the Steelers are not a quality team might be blasphemy to some. After all, they're the Super Bowl champs. That is a convincing argument, but let's not forget that before they won their final four games in the 2005 regular season to squeeze into the playoffs, they were 7-5.
They're 2-3 today. That comes to 9-8 in 17 games and definitely average if -- and that's a large if -- the Super Bowl run was an aberration.

That's not to suggest it was, but it could have been. If the Steelers continue to lose with pretty much the same roster that finished last season -- and seven of their remaining 11 games are against teams with a better record -- the Super Bowl will remain a shining moment and a wonderful memory, but meaningless in terms of the 2006 season.

But the fact they were 15-1 in 2004 lends credence to the belief that the Super Bowl run was legitimate. But let's see how this plays out.

Any team with Vick, arguably the best athlete in the NFL, poses problems. Coach Bill Cowher yesterday called Vick "a nightmare to defend," and no one would suggest he was guilty of coaching hyperbole. In preparing for such an offense, an appropriate question to be asked is this: Do the Steelers have the defenders to handle a nightmare?

A return to health of outside linebacker Joey Porter would be a big boost to the Steelers' hopes of defending Vick. With Porter, who is doubtful for Sunday and who didn't play against Kansas City, the defense is a considerably better unit. His top backup, James Harrison, is out, which means Arnold Harrison could be making his second NFL start. Arnold Harrison played well enough against Kansas City, but he'll be challenged considerably more by the Falcons.

NFL stats indicate one troubling trend with the Steelers' defense. They ranked ninth overall among the 32 teams, which is good but not necessarily as good as the Steelers normally are.
What is disquieting about that ninth ranking is that of the Steelers' five opponents, only one, San Diego, is having a good offensive season. The Chargers rank third in offense, but Jacksonville is 16th, Cincinnati 19th, Miami 21st and Kansas City 26th.

If the Steelers' defense ranks ninth after playing teams whose offenses average a combined 17th, it makes you wonder what they'll do against better offenses.

Which brings us back to Atlanta, which has the No. 1 rushing offense in the league. Warrick Dunn, 31 and in his 10th NFL season, is fifth in the league in rushing with 511 yards, leading Cowher to wonder if Dunn had discovered the "fountain of youth."

Vick has carried 46 times for 401 yards, making him the 16th-leading rusher in the NFL. Rookie Jerious Norwood, described by Cowher as having "unbelievable speed," is averaging 7.5 yards per carry on 30 attempts. All three are exceedingly dangerous. Dunn has run 90 yards for a touchdown, Norwood 78 and Vick 34.

It's an imposing challenge, although somewhat lessened by Vick's questionable passing skills. But it's another step forward in determining who the Steelers are and how far they can go.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Steelers O-Line Rediscovers Swagger

Additional Stories
Harris: Turmoil unites Big Ben, former coach
Healthy Polamalu presenting big problems
Notebook: Steelers re-sign St. Pierre
Things not what they seemed in NFL
Police: Fireman exposed himself, Tasered at Steelers game
Revived Steelers clobber Chiefs
Steelers, Polamalu scalp Chiefs

By Scott Brown
Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Alan Faneca is used to it by now, the emotions of a Steelers-crazed area going up and down like a yo-yo, last rites on the team getting administered or championship status being granted by radio-listening folks driving home from work.

But even the veteran offensive lineman couldn't help but smile when thinking how much had changed in one day. Or, more accurately, how much perception had changed following the Steelers' 45-7 win Sunday over the Kansas City Chiefs.

That victory, coupled with losses by AFC North rivals Baltimore and Cincinnati, left the Steelers just one game behind the Ravens and Bengals in the loss column.

"One week, we're done. We might as well start packing our bags and heading home," said Faneca, the All-Pro guard who is in his ninth season with the Steelers. "The next week, all of the sudden, we're in the mix of it again."

What may have gotten a little lost in the euphoria that followed the Steelers' first win in more than a month is how an offensive line that had been maligned dominated the Chiefs.

The Steelers (2-3) piled up 219 yards rushing, while quarterback Ben Roethlisberger completed all but three of his 19 pass attempts for 238 yards and two touchdowns and only was sacked once.

"I thought our line did a heck of a job," said Steelers coach Bill Cowher, whose team visits the Atlanta Falcons at 1 p.m. Sunday.

Running back Willie Parker found enough room to rush for 109 yards and two touchdowns before giving way to Najeh Davenport, who added 78 yards and a touchdown on the ground.
"That's the Pittsburgh Steelers I watched in the past," Davenport said.

Indeed, a robust running attack has become as associated with the Steelers as the "Terrible Towel," and the ground game hinges on the effectiveness of players such as Faneca.

The only time it seemed like the Steelers weren't pushing the Chiefs around Heinz Field came early in the fourth quarter, when three running plays netted a yard.

With the Steelers facing fourth down from the Chiefs 1-yard line, Cowher opted to go for it. Davenport scored, though it took instant replay to reverse a call on the field that he had been stopped short of the end zone.

The touchdown didn't mean much -- the Steelers were already leading, 31-7, at the time -- but it did reward the offensive line in a sense for how it had played.

"You never want to walk off the field and kick a field goal when you're so close," Faneca said. "It's a pride factor a little bit down there.".

The Steelers certainly restored some pride by walloping the Chiefs, and so all is well.
At least for now, as Faneca knows.

"There's so much football left to be played," Faneca said, "that I'm sure some other crisis will come up in the division and we'll be talking about that before it's all over with."

Scott Brown can be reached at sbrown@tribweb.com or 412-481-5432.

Malkin making his debut tomorrow

Russian phenom likely to center No. 2 line with Recchi, Malone against New Jersey
Tuesday, October 17, 2006
By Shelly Anderson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

In a way, it's a little like the Penguins' season will be starting over tomorrow night.

At least coach Michel Therrien will have much the same lineup he hoped to open with four games ago.

That's because Russian rookie Evgeni Malkin will make his NHL debut against New Jersey, giving the Penguins the overall look and depth at center that they were counting on before Malkin got hurt last month.

If the line combinations from yesterday's practice hold up, he'll pick up where he left off -- centering a No. 2 line with Mark Recchi on his right wing and Ryan Malone on his left, which could give the Penguins a powerful one-two punch with the top line, where center Sidney Crosby skated with Colby Armstrong and Nils Ekman.

"The second line has been having a hard time producing, and there's no doubt a guy like that has the capacity to make his teammates look good and create a lot of offense," Therrien said. "We feel comfortable to have the Crosby line and the Malkin line."

Malkin, 20, the second overall pick in the 2004 draft, played well in the Russian Super League, the world junior tournament and the Olympics over the past year. He went through a lot over the summer to get to this point.

Officials with Magnitogorsk Metallurg, his team in the Russian Super League, disputed his departure for the NHL, forcing him to sneak away from the team, hide in Finland for a few days, then spend a couple of weeks in Los Angeles before he arrived in Pittsburgh in early September to sign with the Penguins.

By all indications, he was having a strong training camp until early in the second period of his first NHL preseason game Sept. 20, when a collision with teammate John LeClair left him with a dislocated left shoulder.

In a short interview with defenseman, countryman and landlord Sergei Gonchar serving as interpreter, Malkin was low key.

He said his shoulder is fine and that, despite a language barrier, he's settling in well.
"I feel comfortable here," he said. "I'm living with Sergei and everything is working well."

Malkin said he is glad he will be making his debut in front of the home crowd -- despite the fact that his family has not been able to attain travel visas and won't be at the game -- and likes skating with Malone and Recchi.

"In training camp we had a chemistry that worked," he said. "We are going to try to get our chemistry back. Then we will do well."

Malone and Recchi agreed.

"In practice, he makes things easier for his wings, so maybe he will help me get going," said Malone, who in Malkin's absence has played center and has been struggling, with no points and a minus-3 plus-minus rating.

Recchi said he, Malkin and Malone were a good fit in their short time together in training camp before Malkin got hurt, and he's hoping Malkin will help infuse the team with offense.

The Penguins (2-2) are averaging 2.2 goals per game.

"We've got to generate some more offense, and when you're a balanced team -- you have four lines to score goals or chip in -- it makes a big difference," Recchi said. "This is definitely adding a lot of depth to our hockey club. But we can't forget that defense wins games, so we can't get carried away."

The team's third line in practice was center Dominic Moore with Michel Ouellet and Jarkko Ruutu. Rookie center Jordan Staal played with a combination of wingers, and Therrien will have to decide who sits out tomorrow night.

For the first time this season, Malkin won't be one of the scratches.

"When we lost him, we tried to find combinations to try to bring some offense," Therrien said. "Now we're going back to where we were in training camp. I liked what I saw of Malone and Malkin and Recchi, and I liked what I saw as well with Sidney's line. That's why we're going back to those plans."

In addition to being a skilled forward, Malkin plays a physical style. That might worry some because of Malkin's shoulder, but not Malone. He and winger Andre Roy gave Malkin something of a test last week with some roughhousing.

"We were bumping him at the end of practice, jumping on him, goofing around," Malone said, laughing, "and, obviously, he wouldn't be out there if he didn't feel comfortable with his shoulder.
"I think in the game everybody will be watching the first time he gets hit to see how he reacts, but I think he will be just fine."

(Shelly Anderson can be reached at shanderson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1721.)

Monday, October 16, 2006

Steelers victory had everything, including a bizarre hair tackle

Monday, October 16, 2006
By Robert Dvorchak, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

No matter how you cut it, it was a good hair day for Troy Polamalu and the Steelers.

The free-wheeling safety was dragged down by the long locks that flow out of his helmet during an interception return that will be re-run more often than a Seinfeld episode. And who knows what the fallout would have been if the play had had a direct impact on the team's 45-7 win over the Kansas City Chiefs.

As it was, the tackle and an ensuing unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Kansas City's Larry Johnson turned out to be little more than a conversation piece and a point of levity in the locker room.

"No, it didn't hurt," Polamalu said in the aftermath. "It felt good."

He did concede that he had never been dragged down by his hair before.

"No, but if I got the ball in my hands, they can tackle me all day like that," Polamalu said. "We had a lot of fun out there."

For the record, any part of a player's hair that extends from the helmet is considered part of the uniform and is fair game for a tackler. It's known as the Ricky Williams rule for the running back who favored dreadlocks as his hairstyle. The NFL has instituted a new rule that prevents tacklers from collaring a ball carrier from behind, but that may be splitting hairs.

Although Johnson held onto Polamalu's hair and looked as though he twisted it when Polamalu bounced back up, he later explained that he tried to let go but his fingers got stuck. He thought the penalty was called because he hit defensive back Ike Taylor in an aftermath that could be described as a hairy moment.

"I mean, the dude had hair. What do you want me to do?" Johnson said. "They said that hair is part of the uniform the last time I checked. When I grabbed him, that's the only thing I could get my hands on. It's not like I was trying to jerk him down...If you know anybody who has long hair, you take your hand and run it through somebody's head, it's going to get stuck, and that's what happened. Trying to get my hands out of it was the hard part."

So now everybody knows the shaggy look is not the work of extensions.

Long regarded as the best safety in football by coach Bill Cowher, Polamalu is like a human highlight reel for the way he flits all over the field, running with the speed of a cornerback and hitting with the ferocity of a linebacker to disrupt offenses. Although teammates have nicknamed him The Tasmanian Devil for his appearance and his play, he could also be called The Mane Man in the Steelers secondary. Hey, Samson performed better with long hair too.

The 'do isn't for show, though. His grandparents hail from the island village of Tau, which is part of American Samoa. The long hair is a symbol of his heritage and the Samoan warrior tradition.

If the interception did anything, it showed football fans that Polamula is recovered from a shoulder injury that hampered him during a three-game losing streak.

"He played like a warrior. You can see what happens when he's healthy," said defensive lineman Brett Keisel. "That's one of the risks you take if you grow your hair out. I try to keep my jersey as tight as it can be .... But that's who Troy is. He's got that warrior mentality. It kind of fits the part with his mop. He is incredible."

The play happened during the third quarter after the Chiefs had recovered a fumble.
Quarterback Duane Huard's pass was deflected, and Polamalu stepped in to pick it off. He ran to his right and was speeding down the sideline when Johnson caught him from behind. Everybody went down in a whirling furball of tangled bodies.

"Someone did a great job of tipping the ball, and I was just blessed to be in the right spot at the right time," said Polamalu, whose ferocity on the field stands in stark contrast to the soft-spoken demeanor he has off it.

He didn't mind the manner of being hauled down at all.

"It really doesn't matter to me. He can tackle me by my hair or my ankles. It doesn't matter. I understand the nature of the game. A lot of things like that can happen," he said.

Some words were exchanged on the sideline when the opposing players tangled. But Steelers defenders understood what Johnson did.

"He said [the hair] got caught in his fingers, and he apologized," said linebacker Larry Foote. "If I was Larry Johnson, I would have grabbed for the hair, too. It's either grab the hair or give him the touchdown, one or the other, so you have to grab him."

Mid-October is rarely a time for intense scoreboard watching. But the defending Super Bowl champs benefited from losses by Cincinnati and Baltimore earlier yesterday afternoon, making their situation much brighter than it was going in. Plus, one of the folksier cliches in football is that winning is the best deodorant.

"Obviously, we have our backs to the wall still. It's not like we haven't been there before. We'll just keep on working hard, as we have been," Polamalu said. "We played really good football, but we haven't played a whole game. There were times our defense slowed down a little bit [yesterday], which we can't allow to happen. So there's a lot left for us to work on."

When asked if he would be getting a haircut today, Polamalu chuckled softly.

"I lost half of it already," he said.

(Robert Dvorchak can be reached at 412-263-1959 or at bdvorchak@post-gazette.com. )

Gene Collier: All's well, Big Ben's ticking again

Monday, October 16, 2006
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

So that right there, that reasonably familiar brilliance you saw all over the North Side lawn yesterday, that was a perfect example of what's wrong with Ben Roethlisberger.


All right, maybe not a perfect example, because the mathematical definition of perfect in Ben's professional discipline is a 158.3 passer rating. This meticulous Roethlisbergerring of the Kansas City Chiefs shook out at 153.8 in football's extra-logical, quasi-goofy numerology, but as a work of high athletic art it was not a grace note short of masterful.

Leading a wounded Steelers team into an urgent episode in what until yesterday had been a fairly wobbly defense of its Super Bowl title, Roethlisberger had absorbed not only the responsibility for the immediate fate of the club, but four months' worth of ominous speculation about his health, focus, sensibilities, capabilities, karma, and even a small but swelling batch of give-us-Charlie Batch blather.

"I think sometimes Ben tries to take too much on his shoulders," Bill Cowher said 10 minutes after this team leaped back into the AFC North race. "He probably tried to do too much too fast. It was good to see him have some success. He's worked through it. He's taken a lot of criticism in the last couple of weeks. I've been very proud of him and the way he's been accountable.
"He stood up to it all, and that's been true with our football team."

Roethlisberger might have stood up to it before this had he been able to stand up in the pocket at all, which was not often the case, especially last week in San Diego, where he looked skittish in his set-up. That happens sometimes after the defense throws you on the floor half a dozen times.

"When you protect this quarterback," Cowher said, "he's pretty good."

Maybe you've noticed, but it's hard to notice that you've noticed through all your oh-my-gawd, sky-is-falling, Ben-bashing caterwauling.

In his first three starts post-appendectomy post-offseason reconstructive face surgery, Roethlisberger scared up only two plays of greater than 25 yards, the Steelers' own standard for defining big plays. Yesterday, he authored three lethal big plays in the space of eight sizzling throws. His second pass, a precise little flip into the right flat, got turned into a 50-yard play by Santonio Holmes. His sixth went 47 yards down the middle for a Nate Washington touchdown. His ninth found Hines Ward floating in a broken coverage near the back of the Kansas City endzone.

In the time it took Ben to go 8-for-his-first-9, the Steelers led 28-0.

"It was important for us to come out and really get it going early," Roethlisberger said. "We really started making plays. We moved down the field really well; I was really happy to be on the same page with the receivers and that we really got things cooking. I'm not sure how many times we punted today, but I don't think it was too many."

The Steelers punted only once before they stretched the lead to 45-7, and then only because Roethlisberger's arm was bumped as he unloaded a deep ball to Washington on Pittsburgh's second possession, and Washington still got his mitts on the resultant underthrow.

"I told Nate on the bench, 'Listen, I'm going to come back to you,' " Roethlisberger said, " 'and next time you're not just going to make that catch but you're going to score.' "

Two offensive snaps later, Roethlisberger pump-faked to his right, faked a draw, and threw a laser to Washington streaking near the Kansas City 20, where he got a perfunctory bump from rookie safety Jarrod Page on his way to a touchdown.

"He did a great job; I've got to commend him," said Washington of Ben. "He did a great job tonight making his reads and just playing with so much confidence."

Just as he didn't lose the last three games alone, Roethlisberger didn't beat the Chiefs by himself. He got tremendous protection of two varieties, the brutish efficiency of an offensive line even as it functioned with substitute right guard Chris Kemoeatu, and the protection a quarterback is afforded when the featured running back is piling up 109 yards like Parker. But even given those precepts, No. 7 was simply fabulous. He completed 16 of 19 for 238 yards, and for the first time this year, no interceptions.

The key there? "Throwing to the guys in the black jersey," Ben cracked, "not the white jerseys. I found the guys that were open."

Though no one would say it aloud, an electric sense of relief crackled through the Steelers' organization with Big Ben's big Sunday.

Asked straight out if he's "back," Roethlisberger demurred.

"Not yet; I won't say that yet. I felt good out there today, though. I felt like things were really clicking well. I'd love to feel this way every week."

So why not just say, "I'm back?"

"Not my style," he said.

Or maybe it was just the fact that he didn't think he'd been gone. And maybe he's right.

(Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283. )