PITTSBURGH (AP) -Maybe it was overlooked in all the post-monsoon talk about terrible fields, missed national anthems, record rainfalls and ankle-deep mud.
The Pittsburgh Steelers, a division leader with eight wins and reasonable expectations of making a deep playoff run, came perilously close to losing to a winless team one week after being beaten by a one-win team.
Sure, the Steelers (8-3) waded through one of the swampiest playing fields in NFL history to beat the Dolphins 3-0 Monday on a last-minute field goal. They also stayed atop the AFC North by one game over the Cleveland Browns (7-4), who have lost twice to them.
Regardless, this isn't how the Steelers wanted to be playing as the season winds down, with an important division game against Cincinnati (4-7) on Sunday night and the New England Patriots (11-0) and Jacksonville Jaguars (8-3) following the next two weeks.
``It's December,'' wide receiver Hines Ward said. ``Teams are starting to separate themselves.''
The Steelers appeared to be doing exactly that while beating division opponents Cincinnati, Baltimore and Cleveland in succession from Oct. 28-Nov. 11, but then came an out-of-nowhere, 19-16 overtime loss to New York Jets.
They also came perilously close to losing to the Dolphins (0-11), who have lost their last 14 games and appear to have a realistic chance of becoming the first team in NFL history with an 0-16 record.
In two games against teams with a combined 1-18 record when they played Pittsburgh, the Steelers scored exactly one touchdown. They were 9-of-28 on third-down conversions. They averaged only 3 yards per carry.
Ben Roethlisberger probably was glad to have a soft landing area Monday night - he's been sacked 12 times in two and 16 times in three games as defenses throw some of the Steelers' very own blitzing schemes right back at them.
``We're going to continue to keep getting it until we stop them,'' said right tackle Willie Colon, who said blitz control is being emphasized in practice this week. ``That's how it is. Every team is going to keep doing (it) because it's an edge for them.''
Roethlisberger has the league's second-highest passer rating and 23 touchdown passes to only nine interceptions. But he has been sacked 35 times in 11 games, a pace similar to when he was dropped 46 times last year.
``It's a copycat league,'' Roethlisberger said. ``You know it's coming. When you see a blitz one time and it's been successful, you know you're going to see it again until you find a way to stop it. We're going to have to find ways to beat their blitz.''
The sacks are affecting the Steelers' offense. Roethlisberger has only three TD passes in three games - and four fumbles - since throwing five TD passes in the first half Nov. 5 against Baltimore.
Of course, it didn't help that he was without top deep threat Santonio Holmes, who sat out Monday with a sprained ankle and may miss Sunday's game, too. Holmes hasn't practiced this week, but will test the ankle Friday.
``I personally feel like I am seeing things better out there and it's just a matter of making sure we're all on the same page,'' Roethlisberger said. ``And I think that will come real soon.''
Given their upcoming schedule, that might be a good idea.
``We have to get better in some areas,'' coach Mike Tomlin said. ``We have to continue to search for perfection and seek perfection. Along the way, we better win.''
Tomlin sees improvement, even if, he said, ``It doesn't show up on the scoreboard.''
``As the season wears on, a personality has taken shape,'' he said. ``I do believe we are capable of playing great defense. I do believe we are capable of playing great situational football offensively: third down, red zone and things that will be critical to us winning close games as we continue to move forward.''
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