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Steelers at crossroads


They've blown 17-point leads in two of their last three games. They have the NFL's 28th-ranked pass-defense and the league's worst third-down defense. Their pass-offense is fifth in the league and their time-honored running game is 10th.

These are not the Steelers that stormed to the best record in the AFC last year and began this season as the favorite to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. These Steelers hold a precarious half-game lead over the Browns in the AFC North title race and may be at a crossroads this Sunday when they face the Jaguars at Alltel Stadium.

"We have not played our best stretch of games and we're still a half-game ahead. We still feel we have a ways to go before clicking. Having that lead and not playing our best yet is refreshing," running back Jerome Bettis said.

But will they reach the level Bettis expects? The Steelers are loaded with uncertainty, from a quarterback position that has gone from Kordell Stewart to Tommy Maddox and back to Stewart, to a defensive backfield that has been unable to stop anybody, including the Bengals.

"Of course we're not happy where we are. We're winning ugly. It's not pretty, but we're winning," second-year linebacker Kendrell Bell said.

A year ago, Bell was the league's defensive rookie of the year. He made big hits and big plays and he was on his way to becoming the Steelers' next great linebacker, until a high-ankle sprain in the preseason compromised his performance in the regular season. Now, on a defense that's floundering, the Steelers need Bell to return to his big-play ways.

"Where we're losing it is on third down," safety Brent Alexander said.

Opposing offenses have focused their efforts on cornerback Chad Scott, but most recently it was Scott who broke up a fourth-down pass in the end zone to preserve victory against the Bengals with 42 seconds to play.

The onus has fallen hard on the Steelers offense this year, and that offense responded in a big way when Maddox was inserted into the starting lineup in early October. Maddox, likely to be the NFL's comeback player of the year, has a 91.0 passer rating and has thrown 16 touchdown passes. His receiving corps of Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress and rookie Antwaan Randle El is one of the league's best trios.

But who will start at quarterback this Sunday? Maddox suffered a frightening spinal contusion two games ago and was deactivated for last Sunday's game. Stewart came off the bench and turned in a spectacular performance. Who will coach Bill Cowher name as this Sunday's starter?

Whether it's Maddox or Stewart, the Steelers are likely to turn their emphasis on offense toward their running game; they need to control the clock to protect a suspect defense.

Amos Zereoue has rushed for 512 yards and has caught 28 passes as Bettis' replacement. Bettis returned to action last Sunday from a knee injury and he was effective in churning out 79 yards.

After that win over the Bengals, linebacker Joey Porter said the Steelers had reached a "turning point" in their season. "Now is the time to go out there and play," he said.

But will it be that simple? Do the Steelers really have the ability to turn it on, or has their defense lost its touch?

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