1 PITTSBURGH STEELERS

September 04, 2011

Veteran mettle will be tested after a turbulent off-season

When he was not recovering from back surgery, resting in a hyperbaric chamber or taking shots at his teammates and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, James Harrison could sometimes be found floating on Lake Erie. On several days during the lockout—a four-month period during which Steelers players dominated the headlines for all the wrong reasons—Harrison chartered a fishing boat, leaving the land and its complications behind. Defensive end Brett Keisel joined him on some of the excursions, and they would go miles off shore, deep into the choppy waters, fishing for walleye. "I had to take Dramamine," Keisel says.

The Steelers had the kind of turbulent off-season that could sicken a franchise. Receiver Hines Ward, who became a crossover sensation by winning Dancing with the Stars, was arrested on a DUI charge. (He has an Oct. 6 court date.) Running back Rashard Mendenhall took to Twitter to offer his nonmainstream theories on Osama bin Laden and Sept. 11. Then in an inflammatory interview in the August issue of Men's Journal, Harrison posed with a pistol in each hand, called Goodell "a crook and a puppet" (and those were the nicer terms he used), and criticized Mendenhall and Ben Roethlisberger for committing costly turnovers in Pittsburgh's 31--25 loss to Green Bay in Super Bowl XLV. The Steelers, it seemed, were fighting something akin to collective depression. "I definitely didn't appreciate winning [a Super Bowl] until I lost one," says safety Troy Polamalu.

But this Pittsburgh team has showed it's resilient enough to overcome turmoil. Last season Roethlisberger was suspended for the first four games for violating the NFL's personal-conduct policy, and the Steelers went 3--1 in his absence. Harrison incurred more than $100,000 in fines for various hits, and the Pittsburgh defense only tackled harder. Despite the conflicts (or perhaps because of them), the Steelers advanced to their second Super Bowl under coach Mike Tomlin. And after they came so close last year, no controversy looks big enough to trip them up.

Says Roethlisberger, who discussed Harrison's comments in a phone call with the linebacker: "It was nothing. There [were] no lingering affects. He plays the game with a passion that we all recognize, and off the field he's the same sort of emotional guy. That's just who James is. We're fine. We were joking about it that day."

Mendenhall says of Harrison, "Everything's cool. He's my teammate. We're always good."

Their message is uniform: What matters most is what happens on Sundays. It's the perspective of a team dominated by thirtysomethings who realize the Lombardi Trophy is the only goal and the only measure of success. And the most immediate concern will be staying a step ahead of Baltimore in a division that promises to come down, as usual, to those two bitter rivals. The Steelers drafted defensive lineman Cameron Heyward out of Ohio State—another athletic body to throw into Dick LeBeau's 3--4 defensive machine—and are bullish on the prospect of second-year receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown, who played beyond their years in 2010. Pittsburgh also added a solid veteran wideout in Jerricho Cotchery, the former Jet.

Overcoming injuries will also be critical. Harrison had surgery in February to remove part of a herniated disk in his lower back (and follow-up surgery in March). Polamalu won the Defensive Player of the Year award last season but was hobbled by an Achilles injury that clearly slowed him in the Super Bowl. Defensive end Aaron Smith missed most of the season, including the Super Bowl, with a torn triceps. All three say they're now at full strength.

While still tough and demanding, Tomlin has been calibrating his practices to get the most out of his aging players. "We played longer than every team other than the Packers," says Steelers safety Ryan Clark, a 10th-year veteran. "[Coach Tomlin] knows he can come to us and ask, 'Is this too much, guys?' We'll be honest with him." Adds linebacker James Farrior, entering his 15th season: "Rest is the key nowadays. Getting your body back healthy."

In two of the last three seasons the Steelers have either celebrated a Super Bowl victory or mourned a Super Bowl defeat. But their intensity and focus didn't waver in the face of major distractions. Harrison says his vituperative off-season comments were out of anger and frustration, and that his teammates "understand me and I understand them." They've had their wills tested and their bodies beaten. Only a seventh Super Bowl title will make their minds right.

PROJECTED LINEUP

WITH 2010 STATS

OFFENSE

2010 Rank: 14

QB BEN ROETHLISBERGER

ATT 389

COMP 240

PCT 61.7

YARDS 3,200

YD/ATT 8.23

TD 17

INT 5

RATING 97.0

RB RASHARD MENDENHALL

ATT 324

YARDS 1,273

REC 23

TTD 13

FB DAVID JOHNSON

ATT 0

YARDS 0

REC 4

TTD 0

WR MIKE WALLACE

REC 60

YARDS 1,257

AVG 21.0

TTD 10

WR HINES WARD

REC 59

YARDS 755

AVG 12.8

TTD 5

TE HEATH MILLER

REC 42

YARDS 512

AVG 12.2

TTD 2

LT JONATHAN SCOTT

G 16

SACKS 5

HOLD 5

FALSE 3

LG CHRIS KEMOEATU

G 15

SACKS 5

HOLD 4

FALSE 2

C MAURKICE POUNCEY

G 16

SACKS 3

HOLD 1

FALSE 0

RG RAMON FOSTER

G 12

SACKS 6

HOLD 2

FALSE 1

RT WILLIE COLON*

G 16

SACKS 9

HOLD 2

FALSE 4

RB MEWELDE MOORE

ATT 33

YARDS 99

REC 26

TTD 0

WR EMMANUEL SANDERS

REC 28

YARDS 376

AVG 13.4

TTD 2

DEFENSE

2010 Rank: 2

DE AARON SMITH

TACKLES 15

SACKS 0

INT 0

NT CASEY HAMPTON

TACKLES 20

SACKS 1

INT 0

DE BRETT KEISEL

TACKLES 33

SACKS 3

INT 1

LB LAMARR WOODLEY

TACKLES 50

SACKS 10

INT 2

LB JAMES FARRIOR

TACKLES 109

SACKS 6

INT 0

LB LAWRENCE TIMMONS

TACKLES 132

SACKS 3

INT 2

LB JAMES HARRISON

TACKLES 100

SACKS 10½

INT 2

CB BRYANT MCFADDEN

TACKLES 82

SACKS 2

INT 2

SS TROY POLAMALU

TACKLES 63

SACKS 1

INT 7

FS RYAN CLARK

TACKLES 90

SACKS 0

INT 2

CB IKE TAYLOR

TACKLES 59

SACKS 1

INT 2

DB CURTIS BROWN (R)

TACKLES 26

SACKS 0

INT 1

SPECIALISTS

K SHAUN SUISHAM

FG 14

FGA 15

XP 19

PTS 61

P DANIEL SEPULVEDA

PUNTS 56

GROSS 45.5

NET 39.1

*2009 stats

BOLD: Projected starter

Italics: New acquisition

(R) Rookie: College stats

TTD: Total touchdowns

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN

SACKS: Sacks allowed

HOLD: Holding penalties

FALSE: False starts

2011 SCHEDULE

2010 RECORD: 12--4

September

11 at Baltimore

18 Seattle

25 at Indianapolis

October

2 at Houston

9 Tennessee

16 Jacksonville

23 at Arizona

30 New England

November

6 Baltimore

13 at Cincinnati

20 BYE

27 at Kansas City

December

4 Cincinnati

8 Cleveland (Thu)

19 at San Francisco (Mon)

24 St. Louis (Sat)

January

1 at Cleveland

COACH: MIKE TOMLIN

AGE: 39

FIFTH SEASON WITH THE STEELERS (48--23)

The youngest coach ever to win a Super Bowl has become the face of the Steelers' franchise, demanding accountability, toughness and high performance from his men. From relative obscurity, Tomlin has quickly risen to the level of the game's coaching elite, making the Steelers an annual favorite to win the Super Bowl. He looks as entrenched as his predecessors, Bill Cowher and Chuck Noll.

SPOTLIGHT

MAURKICE POUNCEY, Center

For his second NFL training camp, Pouncey arrived in Latrobe wearing a pair of plush Steelers-logoed slippers. "Size 15s," Pouncey says. "You have to get them a little big." Few rookies played bigger last season than the 6'4", 304-pound center out of Florida, who displayed the quick feet, bulldozing strength and sharp mind of an elite offensive lineman. He was a key cog in Pittsburgh's ground game, which sprung Rashard Mendenhall for a career-high 1,273 yards and 13 touchdowns, and he anchored a line that gave Ben Roethlisberger better protection than he'd had in years. (He was sacked fewer times per game than in any of the previous five seasons.)

As a rookie Pouncey, 22, started every regular-season game and the first two playoff games before sustaining a left-ankle sprain that sidelined him for the Super Bowl. During the lockout he returned to Gainesville, worked out with his old college team and underwent "a heavy rehab" on the ankle, he says. Pouncey tweaked the ankle again in Week 3 of the preseason but was expected to be ready for the opener. With Pittsburgh having released tackles Max Starks and Flozell Adams, two starters from last year, Pouncey must stay healthy and help a new line coalesce quickly. He doesn't believe the slippers are too big to fill.

PHOTOAL TIELEMANS (TOMLIN) PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER (HARRISON)THE HITMAN COMETH Harrison vented about Goodell and some teammates, but if he can (cleanly) focus his rage on opponents, the Steelers will be fine with it. PHOTOAL TIELEMANS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)