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Steelers cure road woes behind unlikely stars

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Steelers cure road woes behind unlikely stars

PITTSBURGH (AP) Running backs streaking through open holes into the secondary. A defense that showed some swagger and backed it up with solid play. A fourth-quarter lead on the road that ended with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger snapping the ball in victory formation instead of watching an opponent drill the game-winning field goal following a spectacular collapse.

Yep, the Pittsburgh Steelers are back. For the moment anyway.

Pittsburgh's decisive 24-17 win over Cincinnati on Sunday night did more than snap a four-game road losing streak and give the Steelers (3-3) a much-needed momentum boost, it also provided a reminder that there are few teams in the league as resilient as the guys wearing black and gold.

It's why coach Mike Tomlin didn't act surprised after third-string running back Jonathan Dwyer rushed for a career-high 122 yards behind an offensive line missing two starters.

Pittsburgh preaches the importance of ``next man up.'' Against the Bengals the next men played an awful lot like the guys they were replacing.

``The standard is the standard here,'' Dwyer said. ``We lost our franchise player, Maurkice Pouncey, and Doug (Legursky) stepped up tremendously. It shows how talented we are and that we try to live up to that high standard.''

One the Steelers failed to meet in critical situations during befuddling road losses to Oakland and Tennessee. Yet instead of flinching after Chris Rainey's 11-yard touchdown sprint early in the fourth quarter put Pittsburgh in front, the Steelers flexed.

Three times the Bengals had the ball in the final 14 minutes with a chance to tie the score. Three times they punted, the last coming with 3:57 to go. Dwyer helped make sure Cincinnati's offense never came back on the field, sealing it with a 32-yard dash that allowed Pittsburgh to run out the clock.

While starter Rashard Mendenhall and backup Isaac Redman watched from the sideline in sweats, Dwyer kept chipping away at Cincinnati's defense until it finally broke.

``Two of my teammates and my brothers went down, but it was an opportunity,'' Dwyer said. ``As a unit, we wanted to fill that void.''

It wasn't just the running game, however, that showed some signs of life. Pittsburgh's secondary endured a withering 10 days of criticism after Tennessee stormed back in the final 5 minutes to steal a 26-23 win on Oct. 12.

No player took more heat than cornerback Ike Taylor, who was torched for the game-tying touchdown against the Titans on a night he was also flagged twice for pass interference and once for defensive holding.

Tasked with trying to corral the hottest receiver in the NFL in second-year wideout A.J. Green, Taylor responded by playing like someone who considers himself one of the better cover men in the league.

Though Green did manage an eight-yard touchdown reception in the first half - on a pass Taylor just missed knocking down - it was the only time Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton was able to get the ball to his budding star.

The final ball thrown Green's way was a tribute to Taylor's terrific night. On third-and-10 at the Cincinnati 11 on what would be the Bengals' final drive, Dalton chucked it high and out of bounds while trying to hit Green down the sideline.

Linebacker LaMarr Woodley, whose interception late in the second quarter helped Pittsburgh tie the game just before the half, figures the Steelers simply returned to a formula that's made them one of the most consistent teams in the league over the last decade.

``We got off the field on third down,'' Woodley said. ``We got a turnover that put the offense in good field position to put points on the board. At the end of the day, that's all you ask. We put pressure on their quarterback. Ike Taylor did a good job against their top receiver.''

Pittsburgh held the Bengals to 105 yards on their final 10 possessions. While the Steelers didn't register a sack, they forced Dalton into an off night and shut down Cincinnati's running game after getting gashed on an early 80-yard touchdown drive.

It was a needed return to normalcy for Pittsburgh, which improved to 12-2 at Paul Brown Stadium while sending the Bengals to their third straight loss. The Steelers play six of their final 10 games at Heinz Field - where they've been nearly unbeatable the last two-plus seasons - and with injury-ravaged Baltimore (5-2) suddenly looking very vulnerable, Pittsburgh appears right back in it.

Then again, the Steelers never really thought they were out of it. Sure, they needed to make up some ground. They hope arguably their best game of the season is just the start.

``We got ourselves into a hole,'' Tomlin said. ``The first thing we've got to do is stop digging. We did that; now we've got to build on it.''

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Otto Porter Jr. begins 2018-19 season with way too few shot attempts in Wizards' loss

Otto Porter Jr. begins 2018-19 season with way too few shot attempts in Wizards' loss

The initiative to get Otto Porter Jr. more attempts from three this season is not off to a great start.

That right there is called an understatement. Because it would be one thing if Porter only took a couple of them, but he literally took zero against the Heat on Thursday night in the Wizards' 2018-19 regular season opener.

Yes, one of the NBA's best three-point shooters didn't even get off a single attempt from long range. That is simply hard to justify, especially after a preseason in which the team had a stated goal to shoot more threes than ever before.

It wasn't just threes. The often deferential Porter was even more gun shy than normal. He only took seven total shots in the 113-112 loss and topped out at just nine points.

Porter, in fact, had just one field goal attempt until there was 1:19 remaining in the first half, when he got two of them on the same play thanks to a rebound on his own miss.

Porter still affected the game in other ways, per usual. He had 11 rebounds, three steals and three blocks and finished +1 in +/- rating.

But for Porter to reach the next level as a player, he has to add volume to his efficient scoring numbers.

"We will look at the film and figure it out," head coach Scott Brooks said. "It's not like we go into the game wanting to only shoot 26 threes [as a team] and Otto shoot zero."

Brooks continued to say the problem is a combination of several things. More plays could be called for Porter and his teammates could look for him more often.

But ultimately, it's up to Porter to assert himself and take initiative. Granted, that may have been easier said than done against the Heat, who boast one of the best perimeter defenders in basketball in Josh Richardson. They are a scrappy team with athletic and hard-nosed defenders on the wing.

For Porter, though, that shouldn't matter. Ultimately, his share of the offense is up to him. The ball is going to swing around often enough for him to create his own opportunities.

Porter only taking seven shots is a bad sign considering Thursday was a better opportunity to get shots than he may receive in most games. The Wizards added Dwight Howard this summer and last season he averaged 11.2 shots per game, 3.4 more than Marcin Gortat, whom he replaced in the starting lineup.

It won't be easy, but the Wizards need Porter to take matters into his own hands.

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Despite late penalty, Todd Reirden doesn’t want to see Nathan Walker change his game

Despite late penalty, Todd Reirden doesn’t want to see Nathan Walker change his game

The Caps looked like they were in good shape in the third period on Wednesday. With a 3-2 lead in the final frame against a New York Rangers team that had played the night before, Washington looked like they were starting to wear down the blue shirts and tilt the ice in their favor.

But everything changed just before the midway point of the period.

Nathan Walker, in the lineup for the first time since Oct. 4, chased down Neal Pionk behind the Rangers net as Pionk went to collect the puck. Walker put his arms around the Rangers’ defenseman to slow him up and he was called for holding.

“That was the safest thing possible for me to do is to wrap him up and take him in the corner like that,” Walker said to NBC Sports Washington on Friday. “Personally, I didn't think it was a good call on the ref's side, but that's the way it goes.”

Just over a minute later, Chris Kreider deflected a shot that was going wide past Braden Holtby for the power play goal to tie the game at 3.

A third period mistake that tied the game from a player in and out of the lineup could have been a devastating moment for Walker, but head coach Todd Reirden was adamant after the game that he did not want Walker to lose his aggressiveness or change the way he plays as a result of Wednesday’s mistake.

“I insert him to be aggressive and his intensity was something we needed,” Reirden said. “I thought he won a lot of puck battles earlier in the game and at different points. He's pursuing the puck trying to force a turnover and it ends up as a call against. That's I think a tough call in that situation, but we're able to pick him up and if there's a guy on our team that we want to rally around and try to come back for, it's someone like that with a work ethic and just commitment and dedication and how he is as a teammate.”

Luckily for Walker, the Caps were still able to get the win thanks to Matt Niskanen’s overtime goal. Those were nervous moments for him watching as the team tried to overcome his mistake.

“It's definitely nerve-wracking for sure,” Walker said. “You kind of feel like you're the reason why they got back into the game. I personally thought we were all over them in the third period up until they got that goal. I think we still played really well, but obviously the play with the lead is a lot nicer than playing tied up 10 minutes to go in the third. It was nerve-wracking, but it was good that the guys came through and we got the two points at the end of the day so that's the main thing.”

The fact that Walker’s mistake did not end up costing the team will make it easier for Reirden’s message to sink in. It’s his aggressiveness that makes him valuable. One mistake should not make him change that aspect of his game.

Said Reirden, “It's something that if he stops hunting pucks and creating havoc up ice then he's just a very average player that's going to find himself in and out of the league.”

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