Parker makes the running game go, but his QB must be more precise.
at N.Y. Jets
at New England
at St. Louis (T)
The King 500
28Troy Polamalu, Strong safety
Here's that rare safety who's as comfortable playing physical against the run as he is being the intimidator in pass coverage. For years Pittsburgh has allowed free-agent stars to leave -- but this one got the richest contract in team history: five years, $33 million. "The tradition here is legendary," says Polamalu, "and I always wanted to be a part of that."
The Cowher era is over, and a new staff is opening up the game plan. Big Ben, for one, hopes to really tick with a freer hand
Despite being 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
game just to finish 8-8. The reason? Pittsburgh was tied for 27th in turnover
margin, with eight more giveaways than takeaways. So new offensive coordinator
Bruce Arians is working to reduce Ben Roethlisberger's interceptions by getting
him to take fewer chances. The fourth-year QB was an enthusiastic pupil in
On defense first-year coach Mike Tomlin, who admires Tony Dungy's
championship 4-3 scheme in Indianapolis, met with holdover defensive coordinator
Dick LeBeau, who prefers the zone-blitzing 3-4, more than 20 times in the six
months after Tomlin got hired. The idea was to draw from both approaches in
formulating the Steelers' strategy, with LeBeau sticking to his classic 3-4 base
defense -- for now.
WHERE THEY'RE HEADED
There are varying theories about Big Ben's jump from
20 interceptions, total, in 2004 and '05 to 23 last year: He wasn't right
physically, after wrecking his motorcycle in an accident six weeks before
training camp and then undergoing surgery to remove his appendix shortly before
the season opener; opponents had gone to school on him and learned to play his
intermediate pass routes more aggressively; 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 too impatient 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'm not making one now."
A moment later Roethlisberger cut off a question about the shaky rookie year
of wide receiver Santonio 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 veteran Steeler, 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 in scheming and game-planning. They are all gone, and Arians, in
addition to preaching patience, is giving his passer more responsibility while
adding a few wrinkles 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,''
says wideout Hines Ward, "but you'll see us in formations on first down that you
haven't seen, like four wides. We'll try to be more unpredictable."
That's a lot of trust to put in a quarterback coming off his worst season.
"There's no doubt in my mind that the real Ben is the one who took us to the
Super Bowl two years ago," says Arians, who was the wide receivers coach for the
championship team. "I've told him, 'Know it before you throw it. Don't take the
unnecessary risks you took last year.'"
There is one other issue on offense: a suddenly shaky line. The left side is
fine; guard Alan Faneca and tackle Marvel Smith enter their fourth year
together, an excellent combo protecting Roethlisberger's blind side and paving
the way for solid running back Willie Parker. But the other three starting jobs
along the line 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
right tackle, respectively, but porous line play in the first three exhibitions
Much has been made of the shotgun wedding of Tomlin and LeBeau. But the
combination of the former's cover-conscious philosophy and the latter's
aggressive scheme will work, because neither man has the Buddy Ryan-type pride
of ownership that could cause dissension. "I've learned so much from Dick,"
Tomlin says. "I know it's going to make me a better coach. Our system will
benefit from ideas in both schemes.'' There is likely to be less blitzing -- Tomlin
wants to protect a 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 in Pittsburgh the last three years.
LeBeau has been eager to get regular work at strongside outside linebacker
for rookie LaMarr Woodley, the second-round pick out of Michigan, believing
Woodley is the perfect size (6' 2", 265) and agile enough to play off blocks
from tight ends 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, some things never change. Like the Steelers contending for the
playoffs. -- Peter King