THE BELIEF Havingfinally figured out how to bring their A game when it matters most, theSteelers will overcome the loss of their locker-room leader (and three keystarters), uncertainty over their coach's future and the fallout from theiryoung quarterback's scary motorcycle crash to make another championshiprun.
THE REALITYRepeating is hard for any team, but the off-season distractions wereextraordinary for this Super Bowl champion. For starters, coach Bill Cowherpurchased a home in Raleigh and moved in his wife and youngest daughter,prompting speculation that 2006 will be his final season with the Steelers.Then quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was nearly killed in a June 12 motorcyclewreck in downtown Pittsburgh.
The good news isthat both men are intensely driven to make this season memorable-Cowher becausehe's wired that way, and Big Ben because he's still peeved that he came up sosmall in Super Bowl XL. Though at 23 he was the youngest QB to guide his teamto an NFL title, Roethlisberger, in the aftermath of Pittsburgh's 21-10 victoryover Seattle, looked and acted like a golfer who'd just won the Masters aftereveryone else had signed incorrect scorecards. "That experience drivesme," says Roethlisberger, who went 9 for 21 with no touchdowns and twointerceptions. "People say, 'Well, he won a Super Bowl, but look how heplayed.' Now I've got to prove people wrong again, just like I did as arookie."
Before taking offon his motorcycle without a helmet, Roethlisberger had shown signs of maturity,asserting himself in off-season workouts and helping fill the leadership voidcaused by beloved running back Jerome Bettis's retirement. "I love the wayBen has kind of taken control of this team," says Cowher, whose status asSteeltown's commander in chief remains uncertain. In August the team announcedthat talks on an extension for Cowher, whose contract expires after the 2007season, had broken off, raising the possibility that his status as the coachwith the second-longest tenure in the Big Four professional sports could endafter 15 years with his hometown team.
In the meantimethe Jaw is drawing on all the motivational might he can muster, proclaimingthat the Steelers weren't the NFL's best team in 2005, merely the one that gothot at the right time, and reminding his players that they didn't even wintheir division last year.
Nice try.Pittsburgh looks every bit as loaded as the 2004 team that went 15-1 beforelosing the AFC title game to the Patriots, and the '05 squad, which became thefirst No. 6 seed to win it all. None of Pittsburgh's losses through free agency(multiple threat Antwaan Randle El, defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen, safetyChris Hope) should be too damaging. Hanging on to offensive coordinator KenWhisenhunt, Cowher's doppelg√§nger and heir apparent, may turn out to have beenthe most important move of all. "We went through a lot together last year,and most of the core guys are back," says Whisenhunt, who interviewed forthe Raiders' coaching job in February before removing himself fromconsideration. "And we've got a quarterback who's more vocal and morefocused and ready to have some fun."
How much funremains to be seen. Just don't expect the Steelers to crash.
7 MIAMI (T)
18 atJacksonville (M)
8 at SanDiego
22 at Atlanta
29 at Oakland
3 TAMPA BAY
(M) Monday (T)Thursday
NFL rank 5
Opponents' 2005winning percentage .531
Games againstplayoff teams 6
AN OPPOSINGTEAM'S SCOUT SIZES UP THE STEELERS
> It's goingto be hard to continue to win with a quarterback who has a high rating one weekand a low one the next. Ben Roethlisberger has to be more consistent.
> If there'san underrated player on this team, it's defensive end Aaron Smith. He knows hisrole, he plays it well and he's durable.
> Joey Porteris the beneficiary of good schemes. A lot of his sacks come on unblockedstuff.
> Pittsburghmay have reached when it took Santonio Holmes in the first round, but it wasn'ta good draft for receivers.
> ReplacingJerome Bettis's leadership will be hard, but with Willie Parker, Verron Haynesand Duce Staley they've still got good runners.
> TroyPolamalu is a difference maker. He wins games.
Coming off a verygood year, Heath Miller should join Todd Heap and Tony Gonzalez at the nextlevel of tight ends.
It took adramatic play in the left corner of the end zone by a quick-reacting rookie forthe Steelers to escape with a stunning divisional playoff upset at Indianapolislast January. McFadden, who, playing in the dime package, deflected PeytonManning's potential game-winning pass to Reggie Wayne with 31 seconds left,will soon make a run at veteran DeShea Townsend's starting right cornerbackjob. In the meantime McFadden will play in nickel and dime sets while honinghis clamp-down coverage skills.
COACH BILL COWHER(141-82-1 in NFL), 15th season with Pittsburgh
SACKS 10 1/2
RYAN CLARK -- NEWACQUISITION
NFL RANK (RUSH/PASS/TOTAL)
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