September 02, 2009
SI's 2009 NFL Scouting Reports
Pittsburgh Steelers
Projected Finish: 1st in AFC North
Troy Polamalu fits the Steelers' mold: drafted, then developed into an All-Pro.
Bob Rosato/SI
2009 Schedule

This article appears in the September 7, 2009 issue of Sports Illustrated.

If continuity is the key to the defending champions' success, then '09 is looking like another good year.

Seems like Groundhog Day in Pittsburgh. Virtually all the same faces are in the same places, including 19 of the 22 starters who won Super Bowl XLIII. That's remarkable in an era when even good teams typically turn over about 30% of their roster from year to year.

The most noticeable absence is owner Dan Rooney, who remains club chairman while serving as the new ambassador to Ireland. But his son, Art Rooney II, who in 2007 led the search for a new coach that resulted in the hiring of Mike Tomlin, takes the reins with the same all-in-the-family sentiment as his dad. As for the rest of the staff -- from director of football operations Kevin Colbert to the 15 coaches to the medical and equipment personnel: no changes.

When Ross Tucker, a former NFL offensive lineman, visited Steelers camp as a correspondent for this summer, he was shocked at what he saw compared with the five teams he'd played for and others he'd recently seen in camps. "It's like Alcatraz," Tucker says. "No one leaves. It's different, far different, than any other team in football."

One of the two starters who did not return, inside linebacker Larry Foote, who was picked up by the Lions, explains, "There's a formula in Pittsburgh, and they don't stray from it. The front office knows what kind of player to get at each position. When you step into that training facility every day, you know what's expected of you. Then, in the community, you feel the pressure to win every day. You feel how important it is to everyone you meet, everywhere you go. They've got the perfect mix."

A 2002 draft pick who spent seven seasons with the Steelers, Foote wasn't re-signed primarily because the player who was drafted in 2007 and groomed to replace an inside linebacker, Lawrence Timmons, is ready to take over. He and the other new starter for Pittsburgh this year, cornerback William Gay, probably would have won the jobs in any event. Gay, a feisty cover man, split playoff duties with Bryant McFadden last year, and by Super Bowl XLIII they were taking an equal number of snaps. (McFadden wound up signing with the Cardinals.)

Countless factors go 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 three starters on the second Super Bowl team -- running back Corey Dillon, nosetackle Vince Wilfork and cornerback Randall Gay -- were in their first seasons with New England. Injuries matter, of course, and the players have to stay hungry, but continuity is as important as anything.

Former Broncos coach Mike Shanahan was a guest at the Pittsburgh camp for three days this summer and left raving about the team's stability. "The whole defensive staff 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. I can't tell you how important that is, to have every coach be able to teach the system 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 this business. They pick coaches who fit their style."

For the Steelers to win it all again, the design is clear: Play efficiently on offense (they turned the ball over only 25 times in 2008), improve on their rushing average of 3.7 yards per carry, keep pressuring the passer and hang tough through a difficult end to the schedule -- two dates with the Ravens after Thanksgiving and the finale on the road in Miami. The Steelers avoid playing New England and Indianapolis in the regular season, but they probably won't be so lucky if they advance in the playoffs. Which, of course, would be business as usual in Pittsburgh.

-- Peter King


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