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Steelers experiencing tough times


They were the team on whom the Jaguars initially trained their focus. Not too many years ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers owned the AFC Central. These days, they aren't even a contender.

The two-time defending AFC Central-champion Jaguars (2-2) host the Steelers (0-3) this Sunday in what once was a red-letter game. Once, this was a game that delivered thrills, as in 1997, when these two teams played two heart-stoppers. Now, it's just another game on the Jaguars' schedule.

Times are tough in Pittsburgh. How tough? Well, following a 23-20 loss in Cleveland in week three, one Pittsburgh columnist's headline read: "How low can the Steelers go?"

Then consider coach Bill Cowher's press conference two days after that loss in Cleveland, where the Steelers saw the clock expire as they attempted to get their field-goal team onto the field, following a play in which quarterback Kent Graham was sacked with no times out remaining.

"I do not want to go back to talking about different options and scenarios that could have taken place, particularly at the end of the game," Cowher told reporters during a long opening statement.

First question: "With 35 seconds left, why not throw three passes into the end zone?" Every subsequent question media question also involved the subject matter about which Cowher did not want to speak.

Respect is not being afforded the Steelers these days. Once, they were one of the most feared and respected teams in the game, with one of the rising young coaches in the game. Neither is the case these days.

"We just bounce back," veteran linebacker LeVon Kirkland offered as a solution to the Steelers' woes. "That's what we do. You don't hold your head down. You walk out like a warrior and keep playing hard. We have to keep playing hard until it gets better. I feel good about this team. It's going to get better."

The Steelers will take that attitude into Alltel Stadium this Sunday. It is a place where the Steelers haven't won in five tries. Once, that was OK because the Steelers always won at home. That is no longer the case either.

Quarterback continues to be a troubled position for the Steelers. Kordell Stewart lost his job to Graham, a nine-year veteran journeyman who has a 69.5 passer rating through three games this season. However, the Steelers' problems now even run deeper than quarterback.

A once-renown defense whose trademark was sacks and big plays, has just two sacks this season continues its trend of allowing big plays by the opposing offense. The Steelers have surrendered pass completions of 53, 36, 36, 38 and 79 yards. Now, they come to Jacksonville to face Jimmy Smith and company.

"That's what you have to eliminate," cornerback Chad Scott said. "That's what separates the average defenses from the good defenses. Good defenses don't give up big plays and, when they do, they make big plays to compensate."

The fact of the matter is the Steelers are no longer even a good defensive team. They are 27th in the league in total defense, and 30th against the pass.

Jerome Bettis cracked the 100-yard mark against the Browns, but the Steelers running game isn't anything like it used to be. The offensive line is in a state of reconstruction, and figures to be an area of focus in next year's draft.

What the Steelers do have in the way of talent for the future is a nucleus of players at a variety of positions. Earl Holmes is one of the good young linebackers in the league, Alan Faneca is developing into a productive guard, and first-round pick Plaxico Burress is a 6-6 play-maker with loads of potential.

Clearly, the Steelers are in a serious rebuilding phase. Their needs are such that they can turn in any direction and have improved themselves. If their current trend continues, they could even find themselves high enough in next year's draft to address their quarterback situation.

"I understand the frustration," Cowher said recently. "It is real and we all feel it. I want them to feel disappointment. I don't want them to lose that feeling, that you don't accept losing. You learn to deal with it."

These are tough times for a tough franchise, which has been down this road before, but it's been awhile.

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