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Steelers poised to make another run

| Sunday, Dec. 7, 2008

After the first week in December of 2005, the Steelers were 7-5 and in danger of missing the playoffs. They didn't lose a game the rest of the way and became the first No. 6 seed in NFL history to win the Super Bowl.

The Steelers are setting themselves up for a less daunting run to the Super Bowl this season.

They are 9-3 and sit atop the AFC North. If the season ended today, the Steelers would earn the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs and the spoils that come with it: a bye week and at least one home game in January. They would also need only two victories to get to Tampa, the site of Super Bowl XLIII.

Of course, there is still plenty of unfinished business. A tough schedule isn't any easier in the end as it was in the beginning or middle. And the Ravens, who are just a game back of the Steelers in the AFC North, haven't given any indication that they are going away.

With four games left in the regular season and a maximum of four wins in the postseason needed to win a world championship, here are four reasons why the Steelers will capture what would be an NFL-record sixth Super Bowl.

And four reasons why they will fall short of their goal.

Four reasons to believe

Dee-fense! — The Steelers are No. 1 in the NFL in run defense, pass defense, total defense and scoring defense. In short, they are as forgiving as a slab of concrete and as impenetrable as one too.

Give defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau one outside linebacker that can torment quarterbacks, and he can make life miserable for opposing offenses. Give him two, as the Steelers have with James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, and it almost seems unfair.

"In order to be great, you've got to rush and apply pressure to the quarterback," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "We're getting it consistently from both edges. Just as James starts to get a lot of attention, LaMarr finds a way to bring some of the attention back to him and balance it out."

Big Ben — Ben Roethlisberger's season doesn't compare statistically to the one he had in 2007, when he set a Steelers single-season record with 32 touchdown passes.

Still, the shoulder problems that have hampered Roethlisberger appear to be behind him. And as dominant as the Steelers have been defensively, they don't need Roethlisberger to win games for them but merely to stay away from turnovers and to make plays within the offense -- much as he did in 2005, when he became the youngest quarterback in NFL history to win a Super Bowl.

While only 26, Roethlisberger has already played in seven postseason games and experience at the most important position in football is vital in the playoffs.

Veteran leadership — The Steelers have plenty of holdovers from the 2005 title-winning team, and key players like wide receiver Hines Ward, defensive end Aaron Smith and inside linebacker James Farrior have hardly given way to youngsters.

The bonus to the bevy of Steelers veterans still performing at a high level is that they are keenly aware of what it takes to win a championship.

"I think it's very valuable to have that kind of experience," Farrior said, "and know what to expect and know what you're going to be going through and share that with the other guys."

Offense coming together — The Steelers have struggled to find an identity this season though they might have hit on a formula in last Sunday's 33-10 win over the Patriots: Mix the run with the pass, and then pound the ball on the ground once the defense has given the offense a lead.

The offensive line has improved, and the Steelers have enough playmakers at the skill positions to keep opposing defenses off balance.

The key for the offense is to build on what the Steelers did in New England. They rushed for 161 yards and got 172 passing yards and a pair of touchdowns from Roethlisberger.

"We are not there yet," Roethlisberger said, "but we are starting to come around, and hopefully, it is the right time."

Four reasons to doubt

Suspect up front — A patchwork offensive line has shown signs of coming together, but Roethlisberger has still been sacked 33 times. The Steelers have had trouble keeping him upright against the kind of defenses they will see in the playoffs.

"Earlier in the season, we were doing a lot of things poorly as an offense in terms of protection," center Justin Hartwig said. "Now, we are not making mental errors, our technique is getting better, and Ben has done a great job of getting rid of the ball."

Today's game could be a watershed one of the offensive line.

Dallas leads the NFC with 40 sacks.

Philadelphia and New York are second and third, respectively, in that category, and they dropped Roethlisberger 14 times combined in earlier Steelers' losses.

If the Steelers can't provide adequate protection for Roethlisberger against the Cowboys, that doesn't bode well for a lengthy postseason run.

Running game — The Steelers' 161 rushing yards against the Patriots represented their most in a game since the first week of the season. Still, they rank 22nd in the NFL in rushing (106.7 yards per game), and the kind of injury-riddled season Willie Parker has had makes it difficult to tell how much the Steelers will be able to depend on the two-time Pro Bowler.

Even if Parker stays healthy, with health being a relative term at this time of the season, the Steelers don't have the kind of big back (i.e. Jerome Bettis in 2005) that can consistently grind out tough yards.

That is criticial to keeping drives alive and capitalizing on scoring opportunities -- and can sometimes be the difference in the postseason when teams are pretty evenly matched.

Injury factor — No team has done a better job than the Steelers of weathering injuries, but they have players they can ill-afford to lose.

A great defense is merely a good one without defensive end Aaron Smith, strong safety Troy Polamalu or Harrison to name a few.

And as well as backup quarterback Byron Leftwich has played when called upon, the Steelers are probably not a Super Bowl-caliber team without Roethlisberger at the controls.

Special teams — The Steelers have largely shored up the problems that plagued them last season in an overlooked but critical phase of the game. Still, while Gary Russell has been a pleasant surprise as a kickoff returner, he is not a threat to break a long return. The Steelers have yet to get a big punt return, either.

More worrisome is the fact that the Steelers are 22nd in the NFL with a net punting average of 36.6 yards. Paul Ernster was such a disaster in the three games he punted that the Steelers brought back 36-year-old Mitch Berger, who has battled hamstring problems.

If the Steelers find themselves in a close, low-scoring game that turns into a battle of field position, their situation at punter could put them at a disadvantage.

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