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Jaguars to face same old Steelers

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They have one of the league's best defenses and most consistent running games. Heading into this past Sunday's game against Philadelphia, the Pittsburgh Steelers hadn't allowed a touchdown for 21 quarters, before the Eagles halted that streak in a come-from-behind win in Pittsburgh this past Sunday.

Through a five-game winning streak, the Steelers were playing some of the best football in the NFL in every way except one: They still can't complete a pass to save their rankings.

Say hello to the league's fifth-ranked rushing attack, sixth-ranked defense overall and the ninth-ranked run-defense and fifth-ranked pass-defense. Now, say hello to the same old Steelers passing game, which is ranked 30th in the league.

The situation had reached a peak when, on Nov. 5, the Steelers lost in Tennessee, 9-7, despite having held the Titans to, you guessed it, no touchdowns. Classic Steelers football, right?

"I think, right now, every team has an identity. You are what you are right now. It is very hard at this point to try to change in midstream, particularly when you are in the hunt," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said of his team's reputation for a great defense and a strong running game, but a passing game that borders on single-wing football.

The steel hit the fan following the loss in Tennessee. Cowher was grilled by reporters as to what he was going to do to pump life into his passing attack. His coordinator, Kevin Gilbride, was being called out for misusing quarterback Kordell Stewart, and even for passing too often (22 times against the Titans).

Cowher acknowledged his passing-game woes, but by and large defended his team's play.

"We need to be able to throw the football more efficiently, but I'm not going to allow this football team to lose sight of the things they are doing well," Cowher said.

This Sunday night, the Steelers (5-5) host the Jaguars (3-7) in a game that is critical to the Steelers' playoff hopes. The Steelers desperately need a win as they head into a finishing schedule that includes games against the Raiders, Giants and Redskins.

The Jaguars will be making their final appearance in Three Rivers Stadium, where in 1997 they lost an overtime game that is one of the classics in that stadium's 31-year history. Next season, the Steelers will play in a new state-of-the-art facility on what was a parking lot, which is what Three Rivers Stadium will become.

That's next year. This year still has the promise of some dramatics, beginning this Sunday in a place that had been a house of horrors for the Jaguars until last season, when they won, 17-3.

Amazingly, not much as changed for the Steelers. Problems still abound at quarterback, where Kordell Stewart had replaced Kent Graham as the starter, but nothing is ever too secure in Pittsburgh at football's most important position.

"We don't feel we handcuff our quarterback, if that's the insinuation you're making and the comparisons that you make," Cowher said in responding to a reporter who questioned the fact that the Steelers continue to use Stewart as a drop-back passer, instead of utilizing his running skills.

"There are very few teams that don't have shortcomings right now. You try to strengthen your weakness. At the same time, don't weaken a strength. If all the focus is set on what you can't do, you're losing sight of the things you do well," Cowher said.

Of course, everybody knows what the Steelers don't do well, which continues to cause opponents to stack their defenses against Jerome Bettis and the running game.

"We haven't been successful throwing the football. That's where we've been struggling," Bettis said.

"Some teams can't run the ball at all. Some teams are having a hard time playing defense and are involved in high-scoring games. In other cities, they're talking about those things on Tuesday afternoon with the head coach," Cowher said.

Since his team opened the season 0-3, and through a five-game winning streak, Cowher has taken a protector's approach toward his team. He has steadfastly focused on his team's successes, and avoided talk of its failures.

Fans and media are having trouble, however, ignoring the fact that the Steelers' inability to mount a credible passing attack may be the one shortcoming that keeps Cowher's team out of the playoffs.

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