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Time to play, not think

| Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2002

The Steelers understand the dynamics and the details of their 0-2 start. They know there's a price to be paid for 10 turnovers in two games.

They just can't believe that they're the ones who have been treating the football with such disdain.

"We have a very good football team," tight end Mark Bruener said. "We're just not playing well. We're not playing to our expectations or capabilities."

"The record that we have right now is not an indication of the type of football team we have right now," quarterback Kordell Stewart said.

This Steelers team didn't go bad over night, like some piece of food left in the refrigerator too long. It's still a team comprised of outstanding athletes, a group that has worked together with cohesion and consistency before and one that can and will do so again. It's still a collection that's lead by an outstanding coaching staff, by a group of creative and committed assistants and by a head coach who usually has all the answers, at least until January.

So why this September swoon?

Fumbles and interceptions have a lot to do with it. And on Sunday night against the Raiders, a 96-yard kickoff return hemorrhaged at precisely the wrong time was probably the single most overriding factor in the Steelers' confidence threatening 30-17 loss to the Raiders.

Still, it's been more a case of what's happening between the ears than what's taking place between the white lines according to offensive tackle Wayne Gandy.

"It's fixable," Gandy said. "But every man's going to have to come back when we play Cleveland in two weeks and realize that this game's about emotion and passion."

As usual, Gandy's observation in this instance is as shrewd as it is insightful.

The Steelers haven't done much right this season, but it's obvious now that what they've failed to do most of all is handle the grandiose expectations they had earned for themselves coming into it. They've been tight. They've been tentative. They've played not with emotion and passion, two trademark characteristics of Steelers football during the Bill Cowher era, but like a team that's interested merely in showing up and fast-forwarding the season to another AFC Championship Game and a chance at redemption.

Either that or they've played like a team that for some reason is suddenly afraid to fail.

That's why they've been all but unrecognizable, especially to themselves.

"Sometimes, it stops being about X's & O's," Gandy said. "Sometimes you have to step up to the plate like Joey Porter did and make plays."

Porter was a linebacker possessed against Oakland, finishing with 12 tackles, three sacks and two interceptions, one of which he returned 84 yards, in the process denying the Raiders the touchdown that would have put the game away and setting the Steelers up for the score that should have ignited a fourth quarter rally and would have if only the kickoff team had followed suit.

"Second-and-goal at the 4-yard line and he jumps on a pass and makes a play," Gandy said. "That's what we used to do last year and that's what will get us over the hump, when we start competing with each other. That's what it seemed like we had last year, 'I want to make the key block,' or 'I want to make the key tackle,' because the other guy is about to make it.

"We're not doing that right now. The little things that championship teams do to win we're not doing. You have to take your hat off to New England and the Raiders for playing more sound football than us. I know the reporters and the TV and all that are going to write us off as dead and gone, but that's not this team.

"What we're showing on the field as far as the mental lapses is not Steelers football. It never was, and these next 14 games, it can't be."

It won't be if the Steelers heed Gandy's advice, and if they follow leaders such as Porter and wide receiver Hines Ward, who like Porter played brilliantly in defeat against the Raiders.

It's time for these Steelers to stop worrying about the Super Bowl and to start having some fun again for a change.

Don't think; just play.

And do so with passion and emotion.

Such an approach can take any team a long way.

And it can still take this one to where it needs to be.

Mike Prisuta is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

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