SEEMS LIKEGroundhog Day in Pittsburgh. Virtually all the same faces are in the sameplaces, including 19 of the 22 starters who won Super Bowl XLIII. That'sremarkable in an era when even good teams typically turn over about 30% oftheir roster from year to year.
The mostnoticeable absence is owner Dan Rooney, who remains club chairman while servingas the new ambassador to Ireland. But his son, Art Rooney II, who in 2007 ledthe search for a new coach that resulted in the hiring of Mike Tomlin, takesthe reins with the same all-in-the-family sentiment as his dad. As for the restof the staff—from director of football operations Kevin Colbert to the 15coaches to the medical and equipment personnel: no changes.
When Ross Tucker,a former NFL offensive lineman, visited Steelers camp as a correspondent forSI.com this summer, he was shocked at what he saw compared with the five teamshe'd played for and others he'd recently seen in camps. "It's likeAlcatraz," Tucker says. "No one leaves. It's different, far different,than any other team in football."
One of the twostarters who did not return, inside linebacker Larry Foote, who was picked upby the Lions, explains, "There's a formula in Pittsburgh, and they don'tstray from it. The front office knows what kind of player to get at eachposition. When you step into that training facility every day, you know what'sexpected of you. Then, in the community, you feel the pressure to win everyday. You feel how important it is to everyone you meet, everywhere you go.They've got the perfect mix."
A 2002 draft pickwho spent seven seasons with the Steelers, Foote wasn't re-signed primarilybecause the player who was drafted in 2007 and groomed to replace an insidelinebacker, Lawrence Timmons, is ready to take over. He and the other newstarter for Pittsburgh this year, cornerback William Gay, probably would havewon the jobs in any event. Gay, a feisty cover man, split playoff duties withBryant McFadden last year, and by Super Bowl XLIII they were taking an equalnumber of snaps. (McFadden wound up signing with the Cardinals.)
Countless factorsgo into repeating as Super Bowl champion; only the Patriots, in 2003 and '04,have done it in the last 10 years. They had little turnover as well: Just threestarters on the second Super Bowl team—running back Corey Dillon, nosetackleVince Wilfork and cornerback Randall Gay—were in their first seasons with NewEngland. Injuries matter, of course, and the players have to stay hungry, butcontinuity is as important as anything.
Former Broncoscoach Mike Shanahan was a guest at the Pittsburgh camp for three days thissummer and left raving about the team's stability. "The whole defensivestaff has [coordinator] Dick LeBeau's system down to a T," Shanahan says."They've all been here five, six years at least, every defensive coach. Ican't tell you how important that is, to have every coach be able to teach thesystem just the way the boss wants it taught. That's part of why they win.Imagine having three [head] coaches in 40 years. That doesn't happen in thisbusiness. They pick coaches who fit their style."
For the Steelersto win it all again, the design is clear: Play efficiently on offense (theyturned the ball over only 25 times in 2008), improve on their rushing averageof 3.7 yards per carry, keep pressuring the passer and hang tough through adifficult end to the schedule—two dates with the Ravens after Thanksgiving andthe finale on the road in Miami. The Steelers avoid playing New England andIndianapolis in the regular season, but they probably won't be so lucky if theyadvance in the playoffs. Which, of course, would be business as usual inPittsburgh.
WITH 2008 STATISTICS
22--10 in NFL, third season with Steelers
Second-year RBRashard Mendenhall returns from a broken collarbone to back up Parker; Essexfills in for Darnell Stapleton (knee surgery) and could take over fulltime.
Twelfth-yearveteran CB Deshea Townsend (20 tackles, 2 INT) will play the nickel and couldpush for a DB slot.
TTD: Total touchdowns
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2008 RECORD 12--4
NFL RANK (Rush > Pass > Total)
OFFENSE 23 > 17 > 22
DEFENSE 2 > 1 > 1
10 TENNESSEE (T)
20 at Chicago
27 at Cincinnati
4 SAN DIEGO
11 at Detroit
9 at Denver (M)
22 at Kansas City
29 at Baltimore
10 at Cleveland (T)
20 GREEN BAY
3 at Miami
NFL Rank: 29
Opponents' 2008 winning percentage: .434
Games against playoff teams: 6
Defying the strength-of-schedule rankings last year, the Steelers had, onpaper, the toughest slate of opponents yet finished 12--4 and went on to winthe Super Bowl. Pittsburgh has an easier path, on paper, this season, thoughthe NFC North figures to be much improved. Two matchups with the Ravens standout in an otherwise soft stretch in November and December.
Lawrence Timmons, Linebacker
WATCHING THE STEELERS this summer, one thing wasevident: They might be much more athletic on defense now that Timmons, asideline-to-sideline playmaker, takes the place of Larry Foote. "He hasrockets in his butt," defensive end Brett Keisel says of Timmons. "Hecan run like I haven't seen a lot of guys run."
Pittsburgh picked Timmons in the first round of the2007 draft even though he had started only 13 games at Florida State. "Weknew his first couple of years would be developmental," says director offootball operations Kevin Colbert. "But that's O.K. I think it's good tohave patience with talented players like Lawrence." Many Steelers,including Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes and 2008 defensive player of the yearJames Harrison, have sat more than they played the first couple of years asthey learned the team's system. (Harrison, in fact, was cut twice by theSteelers before he finally caught on.)
Last year Foote was mostly a first- and second-downplayer specializing in stopping the run. Timmons is expected to be anevery-down linebacker and third pass-rushing weapon behind Harrison and LaMarrWoodley, who combined for 27½ sacks last year. Just what the quarterbacks ofthe AFC North need: another member of the Pittsburgh front seven buzzing aroundin their backfield for two games a season.
LUC LECLERC/US PRESSWIRE
HOMESCHOOLED Troy Polamalu fits the Steelers' mold: drafted, then developed into an All-Pro.
RANDY LITZINGER/ICON SMI