Steelers optimistic but realistic after romp

For three frigid hours on Sunday night, the Pittsburgh Steelers

looked like the team cornerback Ike Taylor thought it would be all

along.

Explosive plays on special teams. An effective if at times

unspectacular offense. A defense that kept the dynamic Cincinnati

Bengals under wraps until the game had all but been decided.

Watching how easily the Steelers whipped the Bengals 30-20,

Taylor understands the inclination to look around and wonder why

this didn’t happen oh, say, three months ago. Pittsburgh labored

through a winless September that doomed its postseason chances

before the leaves changed color.

Taylor just doesn’t buy into wondering ”what if.” He’s been

around too long. The Steelers earned all eight of their losses just

like they earned all six of their wins.

”Ain’t no woulda, couldas,” Taylor said. ”The NFL is reality.

It’s a humbling sport. Yeah, you have your ups and downs. This

year, for the most part in a few words we’ve been consistently

inconsistent. When you play in the NFL you’ve got to be

consistent.”

A concept Pittsburgh has been unable to grasp. The Steelers

looked very much primed for a January run when they humbled the

surging Bengals (9-5) in front of a national audience. Yet it came

just a week after the Steelers let the Miami Dolphins frolic in the

snow in a 34-28 victory that all mathematically eliminated

Pittsburgh from the playoffs with three games left.

”The one thing you know is they don’t let you play it over

again,” safety Ryan Clark said. ”You don’t get the Tennessee

Titans game back, you don’t get the Oakland Raiders game back …

For us, it’s about taking it week by week. We won this week, it’s a

good feeling.”

The kind of feeling the Steelers expected to have more often

this fall.

Instead, they bottled most of that emotion and saved it for the

Bengals. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger shaved the beard he’d worn

for the last two months and sprinted to midfield during player

introductions like something more than simply avoiding the

franchise’s first losing season in a decade was on the line.

Slow starts have been an issue all fall for Pittsburgh, which

entered Sunday being outscored 77-43 in the first quarter. The

Steelers narrowed the deficit considerably with an overwhelming 15

minutes. That hardly made it seem like they were counting the days

until the offseason begins.

Safety Will Allen tackled Bengals punter Kevin Huber after a

mishandled snap to set up the Steelers at the Cincinnati 1. Two

plays later, Le’Veon Bell was in the end zone with his sixth

touchdown rushing of the season.

A few minutes later, Roethlisberger loitered in the pocket for

nearly 10 seconds before finding Antonio Brown for a 12-yard

touchdown reception. Barely a minute later, Brown took advantage of

a crushing – and perhaps illegal – block on Huber by teammate

Terence Garvin to spring him for a 67-yard punt return for a

score.

It was 21-0 before the opening quarter ended, freeing the

defense to get after Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton and disrupt

the rhythm and the timing of an offense that came in having won

three straight and topped 40 points in two of the previous three

weeks.

No team has given up more big plays than Pittsburgh, which came

in having allowed 11 plays of 50 yards or more. Cincinnati’s

longest gain was a pair of 19-yard completions. Not really the way

to kick-start a legitimate rally.

”Getting ahead 21-0, we were kind of able to take them out of

their game plan,” Steelers linebacker Jason Worilds said. ”Every

time we come out, we want to set the pace.”

That’s something the Steelers have started to do with regularity

over the last two months. Pittsburgh is 6-4 in its last 10 games

and appears to be improving as the weeks pass. Considering where

the team started from 15 weeks ago, that’s not exactly a

compliment.

Yet it is a testament to a group that has refused to wave the

white flag in what could be the final stand for familiar faces like

Clark, whose contract is up at the end of the season. A career in

television likely awaits the ever-quotable safety, but like his

teammates he’s focused more on next week’s game in Green Bay than

whatever happens when the calendar flips to January.

”We’re just trying to win games and show people that the guys

on this team and the coaches, they want to play,” Clark said.

”They have a lot of fight left in them.”

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org