Saints facing Steelers

Published 4:16 am Sunday, November 12, 2006


AP Sports Writer

PITTSBURGH (AP) — The New Orleans Saints and Pittsburgh Steelers are exactly where they were a year ago. One is 2-6 during a gloomy, turmoil-filled season that couldn’t have gone much worse, the other is 6-2 going into a promising second half that awaits.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Only there aren’t many in the NFL who would have predicted it would be the Saints, one year after spending an unsettling full season on the road because of Hurricane Katrina, who are 6-2. Or that the Super Bowl champion Steelers, one of the NFL’s model franchises for consistent winning, would be 2-6.

After the Broncos sneaked out of Pittsburgh with a 31-20 victory created mostly by six Pittsburgh turnovers, Denver linebacker Al Wilson imagined how Steelers fans are reacting to a losing season.

“There might be panic in the streets,” he said. “That’s the best two-win football team I’ve ever seen. They’re not that far from the team that won the Super Bowl.”

Oh, yes they are.

These Steelers didn’t have much roster turnover after winning their first NFL title in 26 years, but they’ve had plenty of turnovers on the field — a league-high 24, including 10 in the last two games. They had 23 turnovers all last season.

If nothing else, they are a perfect example why every football coach since Amos Alonzo 1/4 has preached protecting the football.

“You look at that team, they’ve put up the numbers,” Saints running back Deuce McAllister said of a Pittsburgh offense that is sixth in yards gained. “They just haven’t taken care of the ball. That’s where it’s won and lost.”

Regardless, linebacker Joey Porter and coach Bill Cowher came precariously close to flat-out predicting the Steelers would beat the Saints — perhaps because they still can’t believe a team that put up nearly 500 yards on an excellent Denver defense lost by 11 points.

“It’s time — no more excuses,” Porter said. “I’m going to put some of the pressure on my shoulders for us to go out there and get this victory. We will come back with a victory on Sunday.”

Cowher said his players are pressing too much and worrying about mistakes, and that’s exactly why they are committing them.

“We have to correct the things we control,” Cowher said. “We have to win a football game, not to look at anything else but winning a football game. I have a sense we will do that.”

Regardless of how optimistic they are about turning around this season gone wrong, the Steelers face a huge challenge to make the playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons. The only NFL team to recover from a similar start and make the playoffs was the 1970 Bengals, who were 1-6 before winning their final seven during a 14-game season. The Steelers won their final eight last season, counting the playoffs, but that was after they started 6-2.

What’s difficult to quantify is how much they have been disrupted by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s numerous medical problems: a near-fatal motorcycle wreck, two concussions, an appendectomy. He is 1-6 as a starter, with seven interceptions in his last two games, yet he passed for 433 yards against Denver.

There’s also increasing speculation that Cowher, whose family now is living in Raleigh, N.C., won’t be back for a 16th season in 2007.

Like the Steelers, the Saints have more giveaways (13) than takeaways (10), but have won three of four despite leaning harder on their passing game than they expected.

They planned to build the offense around McAllister and rookie running back Reggie Bush, yet they were limited to a combined 27 yards on 26 carries in last week’s 31-14 victory over Tampa Bay. Bush had minus-5 yards on 11 carries, and has six games of 26 yards or fewer.

Instead, it has been Drew Brees providing a steady, playmaking hand, throwing for three touchdowns in each of his last three games and 14 overall, with seven interceptions. Roethlisberger is exactly the opposite, with 14 interceptions and seven touchdowns.

The Saints rookie who has made the biggest impact isn’t Bush but wide receiver Marques Colston, a seventh-round draft pick from I-AA Hofstra who made 11 catches against the Buccaneers. He has seven touchdowns among his 44 receptions.

At 6-foot-4, he presents the same matchup problems for Pittsburgh’s secondary that Denver’s Javon Walker did while making six catches for 134 yards and two touchdowns. Walker also ran 72 yards for a touchdown.

After Walker repeatedly beat cornerbacks Ike Taylor and Deshea Townsend on fade routes, Cowher moved Taylor off the starting unit and plugged in Bryant McFadden. Taylor signed a new contract two months ago and normally covers an opponent’s top receiver, yet may not start Sunday.

“I’ve got to work my way back, plain and simple,” he said.

Nearly every Steeler can say that. Just as Brees said the Saints can’t relax despite leading the NFC South.

“I’ve been on teams that have gotten to this point and have finished 8-8,” he said. “I’ve also been on teams that finished 12-4. You’ve just got to know what it takes in the second half as far as staying focused, never getting complacent … saying you got it figured out.”