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Steelers stockpiling wins before tough stretch

10/19/2008

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

CINCINNATI -- Sometimes it can be difficult to focus on a minor quiz when a major test is looming.

That was the situation the Pittsburgh Steelers found themselves in Sunday. But they aced the quiz easily with a 38-10 victory over the winless and hapless Cincinnati Bengals. The hard part starts next week.

The Steelers proved in their past two games that they are maturing. Pittsburgh had every reason to lay an egg in Jacksonville two weeks ago, because the team was banged up and looking forward to a bye week. Instead, the Steelers gutted out a road win over a team that had beaten them four straight times.

On Sunday, Pittsburgh faced the NFL's worst team, which played with backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick replacing the injured Carson Palmer. The Steelers established a double-digit lead in the first quarter, then pulled away for good with three straight touchdowns in the final period. Pittsburgh also beat up Fitzpatrick on the way to a season-high seven sacks.

In what became a competition to see who could get to the quarterback faster, Pittsburgh linebackers Lawrence Timmons, LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison each had two sacks apiece.

"The fun thing about those guys right now is they're competing against one another," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "James Harrison is the bus driver. And if he gets a [big] play off, he's going to let No. 56 [Woodley] hear about it, or No. 94 [Timmons] hear about it, or No. 51 [James Farrior].

"That's how they're playing. The biggest competition is in your backyard, and that's how they approach it."

The Bengals certainly didn't provide much competition for Pittsburgh, especially in the second half. As the lead grew, Pittsburgh dug in its cleats and continued to tee off on Fitzpatrick (164 yards passing, one touchdown). He often scrambled wildly before being spun around like a top and knocked to the ground.

"We didn't protect our quarterback worth a darn today," a disappointed Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said.

The Steelers' offense is being led by an unexpected hero: Mewelde Moore.

Moore gained 120 yards on 20 carries and scored three touchdowns. It was Moore's first 100-yard game with Pittsburgh, as the Steelers used a lot of quick-hitters and several draws to quickly get off the football and dominate the line of scrimmage.

Moore averaged six yards per carry and was often able to get outside. His ability to get to the perimeter gives Pittsburgh's running game a different look from its usual straight-ahead style.

"Coach believes and understands the type of abilities that I have, and they utilized those,'' Moore said. "It really puts the defense in a tough situation."

Moore, who received a game ball from the team, has 219 rushing yards in his past two contests replacing both Willie Parker (knee) and rookie Rashard Mendenhall (shoulder).

"He's become a locker-room favorite, and we make no bones about why we feel the way we do about each other," Tomlin said. "It's based on deeds. This guy is delivering time and time again."

Now that the bye week and the Bengals are out of the way, the meat of the schedule awaits the Steelers. Pittsburgh, which entered the year with the NFL's toughest strength of schedule, has four consecutive games against playoff contenders in a 21-day span.

Here is a quick peek:

Oct. 26 vs. New York Giants (5-1)

Pittsburgh faces the biggest challenge of the next four games right away against the defending Super Bowl champions. New York (5-1) has the same record as Pittsburgh after bouncing back with a win Sunday over the San Francisco 49ers following a bad loss to the Cleveland Browns.

For the Steelers, it will be a chance to get their biggest marquee win to date and further cement their status as one of the NFL's elite. Only the undefeated Tennessee Titans (6-0) have a better record than these two clubs.

Nov. 3 at Washington Redskins (5-2)

The Redskins are another tough opponent. The AFC North team that's able to win games against the NFC East probably will win the division.

The Steelers are 0-1 against the NFC East, which is widely regarded as the toughest division in football. Pittsburgh's only loss came against the Philadelphia Eagles on the road in Week 3.

Nov. 9 vs. Indianapolis Colts (3-3)

The Colts are a tricky team to figure out. But when they're hot, they're hot.

Pittsburgh won't know which team to expect when Indianapolis comes to Heinz Field in three weeks. The Colts, hammered by the Packers on Sunday, could be a lot more healthy than they are right now and any team with quarterback Peyton Manning is dangerous.

Nov. 16 vs. San Diego Chargers (3-4)

Don't be fooled by San Diego's record. The Chargers, who play the Saints in London in Week 8, are in the same "dangerous" category as the Colts.

This is a talented team that happens to be reeling right now after losses in two of its last three games. Similar to the Colts, the Chargers are hard team to forecast several weeks down the road.

The silver lining is that three of the four games during the stretch are at home. The Steelers could come out of this run as one of the last teams standing or fall back int
o the pack of the AFC.