Ben Roethlisberger hopes to cheer up frustrated coach Bill Cowher, and more importantly, help Pittsburgh climb right back into the thick of the AFC North race when the Steelers visit the division-leading Cincinnati Bengals.
The Steelers, the reigning division champions, lost Roethlisberger to a hyperextended knee during a Monday night win at San Diego two weeks ago.
The second-year signal-caller watched in frustration from the sidelines last Sunday as backup Tommy Maddox, the quarterback he replaced early last season en route to leading the Steelers to the AFC Championship game, squandered what appeared to be a sure win in overtime.
Maddox, who threw three interceptions in his first meaningful start in 13 months, fumbled a snap with Pittsburgh in field-goal range on the opening drive of overtime. Rather than fall on the football, Maddox tried to pick it up and Jacksonville recovered.
After the Steelers defense held, Maddox fired a poorly thrown pass that Jacksonville’s Rashean Mathis intercepted and returned for a game-winning touchdown, handing the Steelers a 23-17 home defeat.
Cowher spent his Tuesday press conference accepting blame for the loss, both for his decision not to yank Maddox and put in third-stringer Charlie Batch, and for not using running back Jerome Bettis more during the second half.
“It was probably one of the most frustrating losses I’ve experienced in my 14 years here,” Cowher said. “When you walk away from that game, as all coaches do, you sit back and you reflect. A lot of the decisions that were made and the choices that you had, ultimately you are responsible for all of it.
“Certainly I accept that responsibility, and I am responsible.”
Maddox wasn’t as willing to take blame. Instead, he blamed the wind, the booing fans and, in so many words, his own teammates. Maddox seemed bothered more by the booing than his own play, saying the jeering wasn’t deserved because “I’ve got a track record here.”
Roethlisberger can restore order by continuing his impressive record as an NFL starter. Since taking over for Maddox last year, the first-round pick has lost just once, earlier this season to New England, in 19 career regular season starts.
Roethlisberger lobbied to play last week, but Cowher didn’t want to risk playing him only six days after he avoided what could have been a season-ending knee injury. However, it turns out Maddox may have played not only with a calf injury but with an injured shoulder.
Cowher was clearly irritated he didn’t know about the injury until Monday, and seemed so agitated with Maddox’s performance he wouldn’t disclose which shoulder was injured.
“Nobody was made aware of anything during the course of the game,” Cowher said.
Wide receiver Hines Ward took part in some of the Steelers’ drills Thursday but remains questionable for this game.
“He didn’t do everything, but he did a lot of things,” Cowher said.
Ward was held out of last Sunday’s loss, the first game he’s missed in his eight-year career
While the Steelers try to pull themselves together, the Bengals are enjoying their best season in well over a decade.
The Bengals haven’t had a winning record or made the playoffs since 1990, the last time they got off to a good start. A 31-23 victory Sunday in Tennessee left them alone atop the division—a position they would like to fortify with a win over the Steelers.
“I feel like we’re in a great spot,” said quarterback Carson Palmer, the league’s second-highest rated passer behind Roethlisberger.
“We’ve done a good job to get here. Now, we’ve got to stay on top. They’re the division champs and they’re where we want to be. It’s a huge game for us.”
Five of the Bengals’ first six games were against teams that didn’t have winning records last season and are below .500 this year—Cleveland, Minnesota, Chicago, Houston and Tennessee.
Given their schedule, the Bengals figured to go 4-2 or 5-1 if they played well. They didn’t expect to be in control of the division, which they will be with a win over Pittsburgh, which has won five of the last six meetings.
“You never know what game means what until the end of the year,” linebacker Brian Simmons said. “But do we want to win this game? Yeah. We’re at home, it’s a divisional game, it’s Pittsburgh—all those things. This is a big game for us, no doubt about it.”