Hines Ward’s four straight Pro Bowl appearances are more than any receiver in team history, surpassing Lynn Swann’s total of three.
Fifth on the NFL career rushing list with 13,294 yards, Jerome Bettis is only 72 yards from No. 4, but that is a moving target in Curtis Martin.
The Steelers replaced the playing surface at Heinz Field, which ranked 27th among the 31 NFL fields in a poll taken of players.
The Bus is on board
“I think the team has a chance to be a Super Bowl-contending football team. If they weren’t I wouldn’t come back.” -- Jerome Bettis, a native of Detroit, home of the next Super Bowl.
Ben Roethlisberger unsuccessfully lobbied the Steelers to keep Plaxico Burress, but he has to like the attitude of new receiver Cedrick Wilson. “With my talent and his arm, we can really make some things happen,” Wilson says.
After not playing in a dome the past two seasons, the Steelers could play in three this year: at Minnesota, at Indianapolis and at Houston, if the Texans close their retractable roof. That would be one more than the Steelers played in the previous eight seasons.
The Prophecy: "After plunging to the second-worst ranking in rushing in the NFL (in 2003), head coach Bill Cowher and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt vowed to recommit to the ground game."
The Lie: "The Steelers look like a team on the decline, and their record indicated it (in 2003)."
— Athlon Sports Pro Football 2004
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Twenty-five seasons have passed since the Steelers last won a Super Bowl, and a new generation hungers for a championship of its own in Pittsburgh. After coming close so often over the past decade, the president of the franchise believes it's time to add another Vince Lombardi trophy to the club's aging quartet.
"I think for the people who have been around for awhile now, I think we all feel like it's time," Art Rooney says. "We've been close and we have to take that last step."
The Steelers were the surprise of the NFL last season when, behind a rookie quarterback, they became the first team from the AFC to go 15-1. But they also became only the second 15-1 NFL team not to reach the Super Bowl when they lost the AFC Championship game at home for the fourth time in 11 years.
Nothing less than a Super Bowl will be good enough this season, even though they suffered losses in free agency. Coach Bill Cowher worries that it will be difficult to match last year's determination by a team embarrassed with its 6-10 record in 2003.
"Going into this season there will be talk of this football team being one of the preseason favorites," Cowher says. "Those are the things you have to fight. Complacency can create a lot of disappointment if you are not careful. I think that is the challenge we have."
No rookie quarterback ever produced a better record in one season than Ben Roethlisberger did when he started 13 games and won them all in the regular season. He broke Dan Marino's 21-year-old rookie records for pass completion percentage and passer rating. He earned AFC Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, and his No. 7 jersey was the league's hottest seller.
Great. Now, can he do it again or will the sophomore jinx bite him? His performance fell off badly in two playoff games, but his coaches may put even more on his shoulders this season, something Roethlisberger wants.
"I think it would be great if we can open up the offense a little more," he says.
Tommy Maddox, who opened the door for Roethlisberger when he was hurt in the second game last season, is more than capable as the backup. Maddox has shown he can guide an offense into the playoffs and is willing to work with the young phenom. Charlie Batch will compete with Brian St. Pierre for No. 3.
The Steelers should be strong in the backfield provided Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley hold up. Bettis, 33, considered retirement, but after leading the team with 941 yards rushing he decided in the spring to give it one more try to reach his first Super Bowl.
Staley will open the season again as the starter. He was on his way to his best season with 707 yards after seven games before a hamstring injury held him to just 41 carries the rest of the regular season. Provided he stays healthy, Staley will get the bulk of the carries and Bettis will be used at the goal line.
"My job is backing Duce up," Bettis says. "If he goes down, I have to be ready to go. You have to prepare yourself every season as if you'll take all the carries."
Two other capable backs wait in the wings. Verron Haynes plays on third downs but has been limited by injuries in his career. Speedy Willie Parker gained 102 yards at Buffalo and has the look of a future star. Dan Kreider is one of the better blocking fullbacks in the league.
The Plaxico Burress Era ended when the enigmatic wideout departed for the Giants in free agency. Antwaan Randle El and free-agent pickup Cedrick Wilson will get a chance to replace Burress. One of them will play in the slot.
Wilson was the team's only real free agent signing after he spent his four previous seasons in relative obscurity in San Francisco. The Steelers believe they have a player on the rise.
Randle El or Wilson will present smaller targets for Roethlisberger, but they will be faster ones and, they hope, more dependable than Burress. Among the most dependable in the league at flanker is Hines Ward, a four-time Pro Bowler who could finish as the Steelers' leading receiver of all time. His 80 receptions for 1,004 yards came on a team that ran the ball over 60 percent of the time.
The Steelers have not been strong at tight end since Mark Bruener's heyday, but that could change since they drafted Virginia's 6-foot-5, 256-pound Heath Miller in the first round.
A team that loses two starters on the line and adds none can be headed for trouble. But the loss of right tackle Oliver Ross and right guard Keydrick Vincent has not bothered the Steelers, except for their loss of depth.
For one, Kendall Simmons returns at right guard after a torn ACL in training camp ended his 2004 season before it began. He started his first two seasons before the injury. Max Starks, a third-round draft choice last year, moves in at right tackle. He's the team's biggest player at 6-foot-7, 337 and performed well as an extra tackle in short-yardage as a rookie.
Guard Alan Faneca and center Jeff Hartings both were first-team All-Pro, and left tackle Marvel Smith made his first Pro Bowl. The Steelers' depth is not strong. Chukky Okobi is a good backup center, and Barrett Brooks is a veteran who can play guard or tackle on either side.
The Steelers may have the best defensive line in the NFL -- for a 3-4 team. It's a big reason they were No. 1 against the rush and it's also the deepest area on their team.
Two out of three are Pro Bowlers: Left end Aaron Smith made it last year and nosetackle Casey Hampton made it in 2003. Hampton missed the final 10 games (and the playoffs) of the '04 season with a knee injury but will return to start. Chris Hoke stepped in for Hampton in the second half of the season and proved more than capable.
Right end Kimo von Oelhoffen shows no signs of slowing down at 34, and if he does, backup ends Travis Kirschke and Brett Keisel are regarded highly by the coaching staff.
Two of the four starters made the Pro Bowl last season, team MVP James Farrior and Joey Porter. Larry Foote played so well next to Farrior that the team let Kendrell Bell walk as a free agent, re-signed Foote and gave the job to him. Clark Haggans returns as the starter on the outside opposite Porter.
But there's not much depth. Clint Kriewaldt serves as the No. 1 backup inside, and James Harrison grabbed the top backup job on the outside away from Alonzo Jackson. The No. 2 pick in 2003, Jackson has been a disappointment, and his roster spot will be on the line this year. The Steelers hoped he could provide relief for Haggans and Porter on the pass rush because those two play every down.
The Steelers would like to upgrade a secondary they changed radically last season. They hope second-year corner Ricardo Colclough can challenge Willie Williams, 34, for the starting job. Williams took over for an injured Chad Scott at midseason and played so well Scott was released. Deshea Townsend, 30, returns on the right side with Ike Taylor behind him.
Troy Polamalu proved to be a delight in his first year as the starting strong safety, and his strong season was rewarded with an invitation to the Pro Bowl. Chris Hope gave the team more speed at free safety but his coaches wish he also made more big plays and interceptions.
With punter Chris Gardocki and kicker Jeff Reed, the Steelers are in good hands with their feet. Reed signed a long-term contract and enters the season with a string of 17 successful field goal tries, two short of Gary Anderson's team record. He has a strong, accurate leg. Gardocki has been dependable with an NFL-record 1,045 punts without a block over 14 seasons.
Their losses in free agency and their rough schedule will preclude the Steelers from matching last season's 15-1 record. Teams just don't lose 40 percent of their offensive line, a dynamic receiver and a player such as Bell and find improvement.
Yet, they have capable replacements and, instead of a sophomore jinx, perhaps Roethlisberger will perform better than he did as a rookie. Their passing game was efficient, and if they successfully open it up, the whole offense should improve.