Favorable schedule looms for Steelers
Midway through the 2005 season, the Steelers are 6-2 and sitting a half-game behind the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North.
This bodes well for a team that owns a win against Cincinnati and faces a second-half schedule that is not overly challenging.
The Steelers final eight games are Cleveland (3-5) on Sunday night at Heinz Field; at Baltimore (2-6); at Indianapolis (7-0 entering Monday night's game); Cincinnati (7-2); Chicago (5-3); at Minnesota (3-5); at Cleveland; and at home against Detroit (3-5).
Coach Bill Cowher, who is 21-3 in his past 24 regular-season games, has been a strong finisher in recent years. He went 8-0 down the stretch last season. His second-half record in the previous four seasons combined is 24-7-1.
Cowher's next two games loom large. The Steelers can improve to 4-0 in the AFC North, setting up an opportunity to position themselves for home-field advantage in the playoffs entering their game in Indianapolis on Nov. 28.
Much can happen between now and then, but as it stands today, the Steelers are proving they're a contender, despite having to escape with wins against lightweights Baltimore and Green Bay the past two weeks.
"The bottom line is, we're winning," wideout Hines Ward said. "Can we play a lot better• Yes, we can. Do we have a lot of improving to do• Yes, we know that. But as long as you're winning games in this league, that's really all you can ask for. We're finding ways to win."
And they're doing so by tapping into their depth. An example of this occurred in the Packers game this past Sunday.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (knee) and tailback Jerome Bettis (quadriceps) did not play, and No. 1 tailback Willie Parker (ankle) left early in the third quarter, as did All-Pro linebacker James Farrior (knee).
The Steelers plugged the holes with seldom-used reserves.
= Charlie Batch, who hadn't started a game in nearly four years, took over for Roethlisberger and managed the offense. Batch's statistics (9 of 16 for 65 yards and an interception) were suspect, but he didn't hurt the Steelers chances of winning the game.
= Duce Staley filled in for Parker. He rushed for 76 yards on 15 carries and scored a touchdown in the fouth quarter.
= And special teams standout Clint Kriewaldt replaced Farrior, and was part of a unit that held quarterback Brett Favre and the Packers scoreless in the game's final 22 minutes.
"Like coach says, every week it's a different guy stepping up to the plate," said safety Tyrone Carter, who replaced the injured Mike Logan in pass-coverage packages and intercepted a pass that led to Staley's game-clinching score. "It just shows the depth of the team; it shows the character of the team, the organization. They have faith in the guys behind them. Everybody just steps up, man. Any given day, it's a new guy. It's not the same guy all the time."
Batch, who will likely start against Cleveland on Sunday night while Roethlisberger takes an extra week to heal from minor knee surgery performed last Thursday, elaborated on Carter's comments.
"We have unselfishness on this team, and guys have accepted their roles," he said. "If things weren't going well, guys would complain and kind of cause chaos throughout the locker room. But it's something this team has not done. We have one common goal and that's to win a Super Bowl."
Midway through the season, the Steelers are positioning themselves for such an opportunity.