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Steelers off to 3-1 start, but schedule gets tougher

The next month might give the Steelers a much better indication of whether they truly are a playoff team, or if the excellent start was just another of those very common NFL early season anomalies brought about by a favorable schedule.

PITTSBURGH (AP) - The Pittsburgh Steelers are 3-1, certainly a passable record for a team that has gone through two quarterbacks, a hurricane and a makeover of both the offense and defense.

The next month might give them a much better indication of whether they truly are a playoff team, or if the excellent start was just another of those very common NFL early season anomalies brought about by a favorable schedule.

The Steelers already have half as many victories as they had while going 6-10 last season, but have yet to beat a winning-record team. The combined record of their beaten opponents - the Raiders (2-2), Dolphins (0-4) and Bengals (1-3) - is 3-9.

The schedule gets tougher, with the Browns (2-2) at home Sunday, followed by the Cowboys (2-1) on the road and the Patriots (4-0) and Eagles (4-0) at home. They get a break by playing possibly their two toughest opponents all season at home but, because they do, will have only three home games during the second half of the season.

"We've got a lot of work to do," linebacker James Farrior said Monday. "It's still early in the season and anything can happen, but we like where we're at right now."

They also got off to a relatively fast start last season, going 2-1, only to see their season fall apart as they lost five in a row and six of seven.

Farrior doesn't see anything like that happening, even with rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger still learning the league and his own offense.

Roethlisberger has only one turnover - an interception on his first throw last week in windy Miami - in winning his first two starts in place of injured starter Tommy Maddox. At the same time, a defense that forced only 25 turnovers last season already has 11 in four games, a pace that would give the Steelers 44 for the season.

Dick LeBeau has emphasized creating turnovers since he returned as defensive coordinator earlier this year, but there's not a defensive coach at any level of football that doesn't do that.

The key, according to Steelers safety Chris Hope, is being in position to create them.

"We're just playing aggressive and everybody is getting to the ball - it's been our strongest point thus far," Hope said. "When you get to the ball and everybody plays aggressive and plays fast, good things happen for you."

Especially against teams such as the Dolphins and Bengals that have struggled mightily on offense.

Despite Rudi Johnson's 123 yards rushing, the Bengals twice failed to score on drives that reached at least to Pittsburgh 40 with Cincinnati up 17-14 in the second half. Two late Cincinnati drives ended with Carson Palmer-thrown interceptions.

"He (Johnson) was patient and hard to tackle at times," Hope said. "We also missed a few tackles here and there."

According to Farrior, that's a few more than the Steelers can afford to miss Sunday against the Browns' Lee Suggs, who ran for 82 yards and a touchdown to help beat the Redskins 17-13 Sunday. Suggs, the former Virginia Tech star, played after missing three games with a neck injury.

"They're definitely going to try to come out and power the ball, seeing what they saw (the Bengals do)," Farrior said. "We're going to be prepared for it. He (Suggs) looks like a good, gifted back, and I think he has a little more speed than Rudi."

The Steelers also are encouraged by winning two close games, also rallying in the fourth quarter to beat Oakland 24-21. The two fourth-quarter comebacks are a turnaround from last season, when they were 0-5 in games decided by seven or fewer points.

"When we need to make plays and score touchdowns, we are," wide receiver Hines Ward said.

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