The bad news is that one of those teams is the Baltimore Ravens, who at 5-1 have a built-in cushion in the AFC North Division for whichever team wins tonight in Cincinnati, even if the Ravens lose this afternoon in Houston.
The Steelers, of course, have been here before. In 2006 they started 2-3 and finished 8-8. In 2003 they started 2-3 and finished 6-10.
So history points out there’s not really much good news – no matter how poorly everyone else is playing – in starting 2-3.
“But I think we’re doing well,” said left tackle Max Starks. “I think guys are in good spirits and we know what we need to do. That’s the most important thing. We know what we need to do. It doesn’t have to be talked about. It doesn’t have to be harped on. We don’t need to be treated like children. We’re grown men. We know what position we’re in.
“We’re very close,” he added. “We’re still in the hunt, even though we have a 2-3 record. That’s the biggest thing: to be at 2-3 and still relatively in the middle of the pack right now.”
In 2002, the Steelers rose to 2-3 by going into Cincinnati and beating the Bengals 34-7. Those Steelers went on to finish 10-5-1 and were still in position to draft a superstar – Troy Polamalu – to fix their need of a defensive playmaker.
Polamalu isn’t available today because of a calf injury, so the Steelers will look to the lethal combination of James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley to make plays tonight in Cincinnati.
The two pass-rushing stars have played together for only one quarter this season, and even though Woodley left with a hamstring injury the Steelers managed to beat the Philadelphia Eagles that day.
Both players are confident they’re 100 percent healthy and have no reason to believe they won’t finish today’s game. Their bullseye is on second-year quarterback Andy Dalton, who’s been sacked 17 times already this season.
Last season as a rookie starter in all 16 games, Dalton was sacked only 24 times.
Due to injuries and departures, the Bengals are playing with a rebuilt interior consisting of LG Clint Boling, journeyman center Jeff Faine and rookie RG Kevin Zeitler.
Not only has the Bengals’ pass protection failed, their running game with new feature back BenJarvus Green-Ellis ranks 21st in the NFL, and their third-down conversion percentage of 26.7 ranks dead last.
Still, Dalton has two legitimate weapons in wide receiver A.J. Green (43-628-6) and tight end Jermaine Gresham (25-306-2). Slot receiver Andrew Hawkins (25-329-2) is a quick, darting threat as well.
Defensively, the Bengals rank worse than the Steelers in yards allowed per game, points allowed per game, passing yards allowed per game, and rushing yards allowed per game. But in spite of ranking 26th in the all-important passer-rating allowed category, the Begnals are second in the league with 20 sacks. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins leads all NFL interior linemen with 6 sacks.
“Geno Atkins has applied a lot of pressure from the interior position but he also forces it out to his edges, to his defensive ends, who then take advantage of that in being tall, 6-6, 6-7 with really long arms,” said Starks. “They can reach out and take advantage of that, strip balls, get sacks. So, yeah, it is a collaborative effort when you look at it like that, but you do have to beat them one-on-one or contain them one-on-one to make sure they’re not as effective as a group.”
The Steelers will need rookie right tackle Mike Adams to play well in his first career start. If Adams and the rest of the Steelers can keep Ben Roethlisberger relatively clean, holes can be found.
Holes must be found, otherwise the Steelers at 2-4 would be looking to ride out the string as they did in 2006 and 2003 instead of staying close to the Ravens.
“You have to pay extra attention to all division games because, yeah, the Ravens have won some games,” Starks said. “But when I looked at them and watched them, I was like, ‘How did they win that one?’”
Starks chuckled, but agreed that on the flip side the Steelers should’ve won the games they lost, but for a few plays that went the other way.
“But that really doesn’t matter now,” he said. “What matters is that this is important and we have to keep pace with Baltimore.”