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Steelers not sweating bumpy start

- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 28, 2011

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Here's all you need to know about the Pittsburgh Steelers state of mind: The shuffleboard table is still busy.

Moments after fielding a series of questions on why the Steelers don't exactly look like the Steelers through the season's first three weeks, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger joined cornerback Ike Taylor at the table to take on a couple of teammates in what is becoming a weekly battle for locker room supremacy.

To the players, Pittsburgh's so-so 2-1 start is just that, a start. They judge seasons around here by what happens in January, not September.

"I think we're a team that's trying to figure out ourselves," tight end Heath Miller said. "Hopefully, we can do it sooner rather than later."

There's plenty to be concerned about, to be sure. The running game is in a rut. The offensive line is banged up and will go into Sunday's game at Houston (2-1) with its fourth different combination in as many weeks. The defense can't seem to get the ball back.

Even the coach is off his game.

Mike Tomlin lost track of how many timeouts the Steelers had in the final minute of Sunday's 23-20 win over Indianapolis. He called a timeout with 8 seconds and the team in field goal range figuring if there was a botched snap all holder Dan Sepulveda had to do is fall on it and the team would get another shot.

One problem. The Steelers didn't have any more timeouts in case disaster struck. The issue was moot when Shaun Suisham drilled the game-winner. The surprising mental gaffe, however, was not lost on Tomlin.

"I have to get better too," he said. "I am a guy in development from a game management standpoint. I don't run away from that."

And the Steelers aren't running away from their problems, even if they're winning in very un-Steelerlike fashion. The franchise that leads the NFL in rushing since the 1970 merger is throwing it all over the lot.

Sure, Roethlisberger has more weapons at his disposal now than at any time in his career. Still, the inability to running back Rashard Mendenhall is an issue.

Mendenhall has just 148 yards through three games, or 184 yards less than he had through the same period a year ago when opponents were lining up to stop him while Roethlisberger served a suspension for violating the league's personal conduct policy.

The fourth-year back acknowledges he's frustrated. He benefited last year when owner Art Rooney mandated the team return to bruising running game that's become part of the franchise's trademark.

He's not ready to say the offense has gone back the other way even if he didn't exactly endorse offensive coordinator Bruce Arians' gameplan.

"We're just running what's called," Mendenhall said.

Coach Mike Tomlin stressed there's not enough of a sample size to say the Steelers can't run the ball.

"I'll acknowledge that we didn't do well the other night and that we better improve in that area and improve in a hurry because we desire to be balanced offensively," Tomlin said.

Having enough healthy bodies along the offensive line would help. Marcus Gilbert (shoulder), Doug Legursky (shoulder) and Jonathan Scott (ankle) all spent time on the sidelines against the Colts after getting injured. Legursky and Scott didn't practice on Wednesday though Gilbert returned and is expected to play against the Texans. Trai Essex would start at left tackle if Scott can't go while Ramon Foster will fill in if Legursky is forced to sit.

Though the linemen continue to live by their "the standard is the standard" mantra, having different guys line up in different spots every week doesn't do much for cohesion.

"I feel like we lose linemen around here more than any other team and I don't know why," Roethlisberger said. "Those guys need to get into a rhythm but the nice thing is they're not off the street. They know each other and they can play together."

The familiarity hasn't exactly led to success in pass protection either. Roethlisberger spent most of the Colts' game looking over his shoulder for defensive ends Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney and now faces a Houston defense led by former No. 1 overall pick Mario Williams.

"They can fly around," Roethlisberger said.

It's something the Steelers defense has done for years. While the numbers are good _ Pittsburgh is second in the league in yards allowed _ the veteran, Pro Bowl-laden unit has just one takeaway in three games.

There are signs of life, however. Linebacker James Harrison is rounding into form while recovering from a pair of offseason back procedures and produced the game's biggest play against the Colts, a sack of quarterback Curtis Painter that turned into a fumble return for a touchdown by Troy Polamalu.

The unit dubbed "old, slow" and "over" by former player turned analyst Warren Sapp has turned the phrase into a battle cry.

They're fine and they insist they're going to be fine.

Do they look like legitimate Super Bowl contenders? Maybe not yet. It's still September, remember.

The Steelers understand the nitpicking. They'd like to play better. Yet they're 2-1 despite their flaws. There's a lot of teams that wish they could say the same.

"It tells you how mentally and physically tough they are as a team," said Houston coach Gary Kubiak. "When you have the confidence you can win all kinds of ways ... that's what every team is searching for is a way to win all kind of ways and they've been able to do that for a number of years."

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Follow AP Sports Writer Will Graves on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/WillGravesAP

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