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October 6, 2012

Steelers are at critical juncture

PITTSBURGH — Ben Roethlisberger can’t stand Philadelphia. It’s not personal exactly, it just comes with the territory when you play in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers quarterback will sit in the stands when the NHL’s Flyers visit the Penguins and give the visitors an earful.

“I like to watch the fans boo the Flyers,” he said.

“I boo, too.”

Roethlisberger laughed as he spoke, a rare moment of levity for a team facing a rare early season moment of crisis. The Steelers have performed with a metronome-like consistency under coach Mike Tomlin, starting 6-2 in each of his first five seasons.

Three weeks into 2012, Pittsburgh (1-2) already has the “2” as Philadelphia (3-1) visits today. Another loss would put the Steelers in a precarious position behind AFC North frontrunners Baltimore and Cincinnati.

“(Being) 1-2 lets us know that ‘Hey, we can’t dig ourselves a deeper hole,’ ” said Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark.

The Steelers insist they’re not panicking – they never do – and point out the Eagles provide so many challenges their slow start is the last thing on their minds.

“It’s Philly week for us,” Tomlin said. “(The start) is somewhat storytelling. I don’t do that. I just simply live the journey.”

It’s one the Steelers hope starts to smooth out a bit. Having a healthy James Harrison, Troy Polamalu and Rashard Mendenhall should help.

Harrison and Mendenhall – both coming off knee surgery – are expected to play for the first time this season while the strained right calf that’s kept Polamalu sidelined since the opener appears good enough to go.

If Harrison and Polamalu are 100 percent, the Steelers will have their starting defense on the field for the first time since Jan. 1. They’ll need every ounce of experience necessary to rein in a Philadelphia offense that is among the NFL’s most dangerous behind quarterback Michael Vick.

Only an inability to hold onto the ball has slowed the Eagles over the season’s first month. Philadelphia is fifth in the league in total offense but second in turnovers. The team’s NFC-leading dozen giveaways have forced the Eagles to find ways to win late in games, a position Vick has thrived in. He is the first quarterback since 2000 to engineer three fourth-quarter comebacks in the season’s first four weeks, including a 19-17 triumph over the reigning Super Bowl champion New York Giants last Sunday night.

Vick has no real theory on what’s working for Philadelphia when things get tight.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I really can’t tell you the reasons why we’re winning the games in the fourth quarter. The only thing I know is we’re winning them.”

And the Steelers are losing them.

Pittsburgh’s defense has allowed opponents to score on seven of eight second-half possessions in its two losses. Peyton Manning lit the Steelers up in the opener and Carson Palmer did the same in Oakland two weeks ago, rallying the Raiders from a 10-point deficit to pull off a 34-31 stunner.

The defeat combined with an early bye week left the Steelers with plenty of time to stew. The defense rallied around Hall of Fame coordinator Dick LeBeau after Oakland claimed Pittsburgh had become predictable.

“They’re putting heat on our coach, our general,” said linebacker Larry Foote. “We’re going to get the heat off him.”

Getting a hand on Vick would go a long way toward restoring some of the bite to a unit that has just five sacks through three games. While the 32-year-old Vick doesn’t look to run as much as he did in his youth, there are few quarterbacks in the league more dangerous with the ball in his hands.

Tracking him down will be a challenge for a unit that couldn’t get much pressure against decidedly more stationary targets in Manning and Palmer.

“Yeah you better get to him,” Clark said. “Sometimes with Michael Vick it’s not about necessarily making the play as it is stopping him from making the play.”

For all their firepower, however, the Eagles have hardly been overwhelming on the road. They needed a late flurry to escape Cleveland with a win in the opener and were crushed in Arizona two weeks ago. And their two home victories were nail-biters over Baltimore and New York.

Then again, last time Tomlin checked style points aren’t included in the standings. The Steelers have looked flawless at times offensively behind Roethlisberger, hogging the ball for over 35 minutes a game and wearing down opposing defenses with their relentless string of third-down conversions. All those pretty stats, however, have made little impact in the win column.

“They’re 3-1, I think that speaks for itself,” Tomlin said. “They’re stepping up at critical moments. They made a defensive stop late against Baltimore. They did what they had to do to get out of the stadium last week.”

It’s a formula the Steelers have used for years. The mixture has been a bit off early in 2012, though tackle Max Starks insists it’s still early in the season regardless of what happens today.

“It’s the first quarter of the season,” he said. “If – capitalize IF – if (we fell to 1-3), it wouldn’t be something that would be complete sense of urgency to make sure ‘Oh my God, we’ve got to circle the wagons, we’ve got to change all these things, we’ve got to change ourselves.’ No, you’ve just got to grind it out.”

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