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Big win masks offensive shortcomings

| Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2008

Even in the giddy aftermath of the Steelers' come-from-behind win Sunday, coach Mike Tomlin could not sugarcoat another performance by the offense that ranked somewhere between uneven and abysmal.

Tomlin bristled at a suggestion that the offense had been terrible in the Steelers' 20-13 win over the Dallas Cowboys, but he acknowledged it was, "very poor."

"I agree with that," Tomlin said. "We have to get better."

The problem for the Steelers is they are running out of time.

It is the second week of December and the offense still seems to lack an identity, still struggles to run the ball with consistency and still has trouble with defenses that can rush the quarterback.

The Steelers are 10-3 and have the second-best record in the AFC. Sunday's victory, however, did nothing to dispel the notion that they are winning because of a for-the-ages defense -- and in spite of a forgettable offense.

The Steelers rank 26th in the NFL in total offense (302.8 yards per game), and their 3.6 yards per carry puts them 29th in the league in that category. Ben Roethlisberger, meanwhile, has been sacked 38 times because of protection issues up front as well as the Steelers quarterback's tendency to hold on to the ball too long.

The upcoming schedule is anything but favorable for an offense that is trying to find itself.

The Steelers' next two opponents, the Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans, rank second and third, respectively, in the NFL in total defense.

The Steelers are first in that category -- they haven't given up 300 yards of total offense in a game this season -- and the widening gap between the offense and defense is such that it's natural to wonder if frustration will set in among some of the players.

"This is a team," inside linebacker Larry Foote said. "It's been like that since I got here and I just follow suit. We set the tone with the younger guys, when they get in here that there isn't any finger-pointing and we're a team."

The Steelers looked like a complete team in their 33-10 win over the New England Patriots two weeks ago. Their offense controlled the line of scrimmage, churned out more than 160 rushing yards and got a pair of touchdown passes from Roethlisberger.

If the offense appeared to turn a corner in New England, it stepped on the equivalent of an uncovered manhole Sunday.

The Steelers rushed for 70 yards -- 15 fewer than Dallas rookie running back Tashard Choice -- converted just three of 16 third-down attempts and were stopped twice on Dallas' 1 in the fourth quarter. In the first half, when Roethlisberger misfired on 12 of 18 pass attempts, the Steelers forced four turnovers but only turned those miscues into three points.

"It's frustrating early on because we couldn't do what we wanted to do for whatever reason," Roethlisberger said. "We left a lot of plays out there. We answered the bell when we had to."

The offense produced 10 points in the fourth quarter to tie the score and set the stage for Deshea Townsend's game-winning interception return for a touchdown.

Roethlisberger completed 8 of 12 passes for 122 yards and a touchdown after a Nick Folk field goal gave the Cowboys a 13-3 lead late in the third quarter. He performed considerably better while playing with a sense of urgency.

And a sense of urgency is the approach the Steelers may need to take as they try to fix their problems on offense with only three weeks left in the regular season.

But, as Tomlin said after the Steelers had beaten the Cowboys, "It is good to make corrections with a victory in our pocket."

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