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> 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 off-season work.
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 sparked concern.
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.