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Have Steelers found balance?


No one has ever questioned their defense or their running game. They are the time-honored staples of Steelers football and, this season, the Steelers sit at number one in the league in both categories midway through the season.

Kordell Stewart and the passing game has always been the Steelers' downfall. In fact, because throwing the football had become such a lost art in Pittsburgh, the Steelers and their fans found reason recently to celebrate the passing attack's meteoric rise to, well, 27th in the league.

Stewart even posted consecutive 200-yard games, and the last time that had happened was in 1998. And 2000 first-round pick Plaxico Burress had even caught his first touchdown pass, and it only took him 19 games to do it.

Sarcasm aside, Steelers fans have sensed something good happening to their team, its quarterback and his much-maligned wide receivers. Considering the depths at which the Steelers passing attack labored through the first few games of the season, it's unlikely Terry Bradshaw could've moved them much higher than, say, 26th.

In a three-game stretch, against Tennessee, Baltimore and Cleveland, Stewart has played his best football since 1997, when he led the Steelers to the AFC title game in his first year as a starter. His passer rating has soared to the middle of the AFC quarterback pack for the first time since '97 and, most importantly, there have been actual indications opponents are beginning to respect someone in the Steelers offense other than Jerome Bettis. That was the case when Baltimore defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis moved strong safety Corey Harris away from the line of scrimmage and into pass-coverage.

It's Pittsburgh's version of a balanced offense, and it may just be enough of a balance between run and pass for Bettis to finish the season without his head being completely flat on top.

Bettis is still the man, and he's on course for his best season ever, which has surprised many, but Stewart is the Steelers' most valuable player because his production relates directly to Bettis and what the Steelers really want to do: RUN THE BALL.

"We rally around him," fullback Jon Witman said of Stewart. "When he feels good about himself, we feel good about the team. We know when he's rolling, we're rolling. He might not want to think of it, but he's our offense. When he goes, we go."

Stewart is being praised for subtle improvements. He's not staring down receivers as much as he had in the past. He's become more outspoken and is exuding more leadership traits.

"Kordell, Plaxico and Hines (Ward), they're really coming on. If they can match us as far as running the ball, we can do some things offensively," left tackle Wayne Gandy said.

Meanwhile, the Steelers defense has been spectacular this season. They were first against the pass, third against the run and first overall after week eight, and linebacker Joey Porter was among the AFC leaders with seven sacks.

This Sunday at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field, the Jaguars (3-5) will test Stewart and the Steelers (6-2) in a rematch of the season-opener, which the Jaguars won, 21-3.

It is a game of the utmost importance to the Steelers, who are in the thick of the AFC Central Division title race for the first time since they last claimed the title in '97.

The Steelers are a blend of a few proven veterans and several young players seeking stardom. This Sunday's game marks the start of the second half of the season. How will the Steelers' key young players, such as rookie linebacker Kendrell Bell, react down the stretch? Does Bettis have enough left in the tank to carry the Steelers through the whole season? Is Stewart truly on the rise, or will he again prove to be the Steelers' weakest link? Or is it his receivers?

"Teams are going to have to stop our passing game and stop rolling eight, nine men in the box on Jerome and just play everybody equal," Burress said.

Well, maybe something like that.

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