> Despitebeing one of three teams that ranked in the top¬†10 in total offense(seventh) and total defense (ninth), the Steelers had to win their last gamejust to finish 8-8. The reason? Pittsburgh was tied for 27th in turnovermargin, with eight more giveaways than takeaways. So new offensive coordinatorBruce Arians is working to reduce Ben Roethlisberger's interceptions by gettinghim to take fewer chances. The fourth-year QB was an enthusiastic pupil inoff-season work.
On defensefirst-year coach Mike Tomlin, who admires Tony Dungy's championship 4-3 schemein Indianapolis, met with holdover defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, whoprefers the zone-blitzing 3-4, more than 20 times in the six months afterTomlin got hired. The idea was to draw from both approaches in formulating theSteelers' strategy, with LeBeau sticking to his classic 3-4 base defense--fornow.
> There arevarying theories about Big Ben's jump from 20¬†interceptions, total, in2004 and '05 to 23 last year: He wasn't right physically, after wrecking hismotorcycle in an accident six weeks before training camp and then undergoingsurgery to remove his appendix shortly before the season opener; opponents hadgone to school on him and learned to play his intermediate pass routes moreaggressively; he was too fixated on living the good life away from the field.Roethlisberger calls all of that nonsense. In his opinion, he was just tooimpatient too often, trying to make plays when they weren't there; a study of'06 game tape bears him out. "Here's my little secret about last year,''Roethlisberger said in training camp. "It was bad play by me. My fault.It's not the accident. I was fine. I didn't make an excuse last year, and I'mnot making one now."
A moment laterRoethlisberger cut off a question about the shaky rookie year of wide receiverSantonio Holmes, the deep threat who was supposed to elevate the passing game."He would have had a¬†lot better year if I had been any good,"Roethlisberger said.
One veteranSteeler, who did not want to be named, attributed Roethlisberger's drop-off to"too many hands in his cookie jar," with then coach Bill Cowher,offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and line coach Russ Grimm all involved inscheming and game-planning. They are all gone, and Arians, in addition topreaching patience, is giving his passer more responsibility while adding a fewwrinkles to the playbook. Big Ben will be calling more audibles this year,experimenting with the no-huddle and commanding a more versatile offense,particularly on first down. "We'll still be primarily a run team,'' sayswideout Hines Ward, "but you'll see us in formations on first down that youhaven't seen, like four wides. We'll try to be more unpredictable."
That's a lot oftrust to put in a quarterback coming off his worst season. "There's nodoubt in my mind that the real Ben is the one who took us to the Super Bowl twoyears ago," says Arians, who was the wide receivers coach for thechampionship team. "I've told him, 'Know it before you throw it. Don't takethe unnecessary risks you took last year.' "
There is oneother issue on offense: a suddenly shaky line. The left side is fine; guardAlan Faneca and tackle Marvel Smith enter their fourth year together, anexcellent combo protecting Roethlisberger's blind side and paving the way forsolid running back Willie Parker. But the other three starting jobs along theline were still up for grabs entering the final preseason game. Sean Mahan,Kendall Simmons and Willie Colon had the edge at center, right guard and righttackle, respectively, but porous line play in the first three exhibitionssparked concern.
Much has beenmade of the shotgun wedding of Tomlin and LeBeau. But the combination of theformer's cover-conscious philosophy and the latter's aggressive scheme willwork, because neither man has the Buddy Ryan-type pride of ownership that couldcause dissension. "I've learned so much from Dick," Tomlin says. "Iknow it's going to make me a better coach. Our system will benefit from ideasin both schemes.'' There is likely to be less blitzing--Tomlin wants to protecta shaky coverage secondary that allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 60.3%of their throws last year--but not a major switch from what LeBeau has done inPittsburgh the last three years.
LeBeau has beeneager to get regular work at strongside outside linebacker for rookie LaMarrWoodley, the second-round pick out of Michigan, believing Woodley is theperfect size (6' 2", 265) and agile enough to play off blocks from tightends and tackles.
Joey Porter out(to Miami in free agency), Woodley in--that's the way the Steelers do business.Even after Pittsburgh's first coaching change in almost a generation, somethings never change. Like the Steelers contending for the playoffs.
COACH MIKE TOMLIN(0-0 in NFL), first season with Steelers
HT 6' 3"
HT 6' 3"
SEAN MAHAN (NEWACQUISITION)
HT 6' 3"
HT 6' 5"
HT 6' 5"
SACKS 4 1/2
SACKS 5 1/2
DANIEL SEPULVEDA(R) (NEW ACQUISITION)
NEW ACQUISITION(R) Rookie (college statistics)
> 2006 RECORD8-8 NFL RANK (Rush/Pass/Total): OFFENSE 10/9/7 DEFENSE 3/20/9
9 at Cleveland
23 SAN FRANCISCO
30 at Arizona
21 at Denver
28 at Cincinnati
5 BALTIMORE (M)
18 at N.Y. Jets
26 MIAMI (M)
9 at New England
20 at St. Louis (T)
30 at Baltimore
NFL rank T8
Opponents' 2006 winning percentage .512
Games against playoff teams 5
(M) Monday (T) Thursday
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AN OPPOSINGTEAM'S SCOUT SIZES UP THE STEELERS
> Mike Tomlin's biggest problem as a rookie coachwill be getting players who are just getting to know him to lay everything onthe line for him. That's not always easy. . . . Starting tailback Willie Parkerneeds to get more involved in the passing game, so offensive coordinator BruceArians has to do what the previous regime¬†didn't do--swing the ball out toParker more often. . . . Heath Miller is the perfect physical blocker andsoft-handed receiver at tight end. . . . I don't like the corners. Too soft,with too big a cushion. Tomlin will find he has to draft a couple next year. .. . Wait until the world sees Daniel Sepulveda, the fourth-round punter out ofBaylor. He's a big kid with a Ray Guy leg.
THE KING 500
> STRONG SAFETY
Here's that rare safety who's as comfortable playingphysical against the run as he is being the intimidator in pass coverage. Foryears Pittsburgh has allowed free-agent stars to leave--but this one got therichest contract in team history: five years, $33 million. "The traditionhere is legendary," says Polamalu, "and I always wanted to be a part ofthat."
¬†WILLIE?HE WILL¬†Parker makes the running game go, but his QB must be moreprecise.