PITTSBURGH (AP) — The Pirates could warn the Pittsburgh Steelers of the dangers of playing in Atlanta in October.
The Steelers (5-2), coming off a loss for the first time since Sept. 1, play another in a month-long series of should-win games Sunday at Atlanta (0-7). The Falcons’ start is their worst since they opened 0-9 in their inaugural season.
Of course, the defending Super Bowl champion Cowboys also figured to have an easy time of it vs. Atlanta, but needed Kelvin Martin’s 60-yard touchdown catch with only 1:42 remaining to win 32-28 Sunday.
Not surprisingly, Steelers coach Bill Cowher is trotting out all the time-worn coaching cliches to describe the Falcons: They’re not as bad as their record; they’ve got too much talent to keep on losing; you can’t take them lightly.
Only this time, Cowher seems to mean it. And, as the Pirates learned in the 1991 and 1992 NL playoffs, any trip to Atlanta in October can be an adventure in futility.
“The Falcons were in the playoffs last season and they are a good football team,” Cowher said. “Look at their skill position players. They’ve got talent. This is a team that beat the 49ers last year to get in the playoffs. They’ve had some turmoil at quarterback, but they’re over that.”
The Falcons tried to put an end Tuesday to the Jeff George controversy, releasing the unhappy quarterback nearly a month after suspending him following a sideline blowup. George subsequently rejected a trade to Seattle and apparently will sit out the rest of the season.
Now the question is whether the Falcons will, too.
“But look at the way they played the Cowboys,” Cowher said. “You can’t get caught up in (the Falcons’ record). This is a team that’s waiting to get back on the winning track.”
So are the Steelers, who were outscored 14-0 in the fourth quarter of their 23-13 loss Sunday in Houston. Their offense hasn’t scored a fourth-quarter TD this season and the defense has as many second-half touchdowns in seven games (two) as the offense.
It’s not that the Steelers offense isn’t getting chances. Pittsburgh scored only six touchdowns in 24 trips inside the 20-yard line, a 25 percent success rate that ties it with Buffalo for lowest percentage in the league. Those 24 trips have produced 19 scores, but 13 were field goals.
“We’ve not been efficient, and we’re going to sit down and look at what we’re doing and why it isn’t working,” Cowher said. “It’s not a time to panic. … But we are going to take a look at it and work on it.”
There also is a growing concern that quarterback Mike Tomczak, who has played two consecutive subpar games, may be falling back into familiar habits that have troubled him throughout his 12-season career.
Tomczak has been surprisingly effective on deep passes, and Charles Johnson’s 21.4 yards per catch average leads the NFL. But Tomczak repeatedly overthrew his receivers even on simple screen passes Sunday, and Houston’s eight-man front put heavy pressure on Tomczak that led to two fourth-quarter fumbles.
“We’re getting field goals when we should be getting touchdowns,” said running back Jerome Bettis, who was held under 100 yards for the first time in six weeks. “We’ve got to get back to scoring touchdowns.”
Meanwhile, Cowher said wide receiver Ernie Mills showed “dramatic improvement” in practice last week and could be activated by Sunday. He hasn’t played since tearing a knee ligament in the Super Bowl and must be activated by next week if he is to play this season.