Collier: Steelers have seen this crossroads before

Thursday, November 04, 2010
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

At the busy intersection of the short-term and long-term memories in the football mind of Earl Heath Miller, the Steelers' All-Pro tight end, you can find almost all that is relevant about where his team is and where it is going.

In the literal sense it's merely going to Cincinnati, departing Sunday for a second consecutive national television appearance the following night, but fatefully speaking, no one knows where it's going, only that the sight of prowling Bengals brings Mike Tomlin's team a vague yet unmistakable sense of foreboding.

What Miller's teammates need most urgently for this primetime smackdown is a point total significantly higher than 10, the number the offense deposited in the Big Queasy, the number that might have swollen into a more competitive sum had Miller not fumbled at the New Orleans' 35, ending a 25-yard reception and a three-game road win streak at the same fourth-quarter instant.

Mistakes by Miller are so rare they tend to freeze in time, perhaps in this case because it came with the Steelers trailing, 13-10, and pumping adrenaline-laced momentum, but more likely because it's little less than shocking to see Miller step away from his customary relentless excellence, even for one play.

"It's disappointing when you let your teammates down like that," Miller said before Wednesday's practice. "But if you spend a lot of time dwelling on it, it makes it hard to move forward. The ball just came out. I wish I'd had a better grip."

The grip was fine as he spun away from Saints corner Malcolm Jenkins, but when linebacker Marvin Mitchell T-boned him just as Miller was breaking free, Mitchell's right paw raked the ball loose. Miller walked to the sideline, slapping himself in the head with a looping left, and the Saints launched the clinching drive from that point.

But as the Steelers move forward into the Bengals' jungle, it's the long-term memory that can really spook them. What are those lyrics from "Les Miserables"?

But the Tigers come at night

With their voices soft as thunder

As they tear your hope apart

And they turn your dream to shame

Or is that one of those alternate verses to the national anthem?

In either case, a year ago this month, the Steelers rode a five-game winning streak into their second meeting with the Bengals. It went something like this:

Troy Polamalu re-injured his knee and left in the first half, never to return in 2009.

Ben Roethlisberger stunk, cobbling together a passer rating of 51.5 on 20-for-40 passing, included an interception.

The offense did not score a touchdown, but Cincinnati kickoff return man Bernard Scott did, racing 96 yards for the numerical difference in an 18-12 Bengals victory.

More pointedly, the Steelers didn't win again for more than a month, and thus either watched the postseason on television or found other weekend diversions.

"I remember the offense sputtering," Miller said. "The defense kept us in the game for the whole day, but we couldn't really get anything going. They baffled us on third down."

That's some long-term memory.

The Steelers went 3 for 15 on third down the last time they saw the Bengals, the 20 percent conversion rate standing as the worst one-episode performance all year.

That game can be accurately characterized as the fulcrum of the 2009 season, which started with six wins in the first eight games, then flipped toward none in the next five. It shouldn't be any less urgent come Monday.

"We need to understand what we're up against going into this game," said Miller. "This is a make-or-break game in their season and we're only 1-1 in our division. We need to really play well if we're going to go in there and get a victory."

Should the Steelers fall to 5-3 Monday night, they'd be looking hard at 5-4 with the Nov. 14 arrival of the New England Patriots, the No. 1 in team in many of the so-called rankings. NFL rankings are just for fun, as opposed to college rankings, which are purely for irritation.

But that's probably another column.

Though not for me.

Oakland's resurgent Raiders (resurgent meaning solidly mediocre) follow the Patriots to Pittsburgh, and since the Steelers couldn't manage to beat them at Heinz Field in December, you're looking all the way to Buffalo the Sunday after Thanksgiving for something that can even masquerade as a likely victory.

The Steelers shouldn't have to gerrymander a viable threat out of Cincinnati's recent history. Disregard that 2-5 record Marvin Lewis' team is dragging around. He's the reigning NFL Coach of the Year. His team won all six of its AFC North games a year ago, and eight of the past nine. He's desperate and so are they as they try to erect the first three-game winning streak against the Steelers in 20 years.

Seems plenty enough to keep you focused.

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