View Full Version : Consistency the result of a plan, not luck for Steelers

09-10-2010, 11:33 PM
NFL 2010 season preview: Consistency the result of a plan, not luck for Steelers
Friday, September 10, 2010
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Do the Steelers have a window of opportunity to claim more Lombardi trophies and, if so, how long might it remain open wide enough for them to win another Super Bowl?

The entire system in the NFL was cobbled together through the years to allow each of its teams to compete for championships. Former commissioner Pete Rozelle called it "parity," and his administration fought for the Any Given Sunday theory.

From the draft, the schedule, revenue sharing, the waiver system and the salary cap, the system supposedly helps losing teams climb the ladder and erodes the ability of winning teams to maintain their perch near the top.

Yet, the Steelers have been able to overcome the forces designed to keep a franchise from remaining a championship contender for long, and they have done it for two decades under two coaches, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin, years after Hall of Famer Chuck Noll set the standard for the organization in the 1970s. Theirs has not been a feast-or-famine approach during that period since 1992, of short success and then rebuilding toward the next window.

But did the third-place finish in the AFC North last year signal the closing of a window that produced two Super Bowl winners in four seasons? Or was it merely a glitch, like that of 2006 when they also followed a Super Bowl victory with a season out of the playoffs?

"There's never been a window issue here," claims wide receiver Hines Ward, 34. "This team has always done a great job of mixing the older guys with the younger guys with the middle guys, we've always done that."

Still, their defense features six starters over 30 including their entire line, and that defense showed signs of wear last season when it allowed five fourth-quarter leads to evaporate into losses.

"Experienced," defensive end Aaron Smith, 34, said and then laughed.

That experience also includes nose tackle Casey Hampton, 33; end Brett Keisel, 32 in nine days; linebackers James Farrior, 35; and James Harrison, 32; cornerback Ike Taylor, 30; and safety Ryan Clark, 31 next month.

"But they're bringing young guys in now like Ziggy," Smith noted of end Ziggy Hood, their first-round pick in '09. "When guys wind up being done, they can come in and take that spot and not miss a beat."

Smith points to other young players such as linebackers LaMarr Woodley, who replaced Clark Haggans, and Lawrence Timmons, and of Harrison replacing Joey Porter and three linebackers they drafted this year.

"Stuff like that, and they bring those guys in and give them a couple years before they have to do it,'' Smith said.

Wide receiver Antwaan Randle El brought back some new perspective when he rejoined the Steelers this year. He helped the Steelers win a Super Bowl in the 2005 season, then spent the next four with the Washington Redskins before returning as a free agent.

The Redskins have been a dismal failure under deep-pockets owner Daniel Snyder, even though they are among the top revenue teams in the NFL. They won three Super Bowls from 1982-91 and have done little since, even after bringing back Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs for a second go-around.

Yet the Steelers keep adding Super Bowls to their trophy case and remain competitive, even under a new, young coach who was not the hottest of prospects when they hired him.

"You have guys who have been drafted here and are still here and will be here for years to come,'' Randle El said. "That's what you have to look at. It's not always pulling guys in from free agency. You have a crew that's always together, working together, and know each other. There's a bond."

Sticking to a plan, he said, is vital.

"You got to get it and then you can't do a whole lot of deviation from it. You got to have a plan and stay with that plan. You can't [always change coaches], that just doesn't work. As a player, you don't want that. You don't want to play for one guy one year, and then switch to a whole new coordinator and you go through the whole process, then you get that done and you go through the whole process again."

A major reason behind the Steelers' success has been their consistency with coaches and systems. They've had only three coaches since 1969. They have run a 3-4 defense for nearly three decades. When Mike Tomlin took over in 2007, he kept most of the coaching staff under Cowher, including his defensive coordinator, Dick LeBeau, and he promoted wide receivers coach Bruce Arians to offensive coordinator.

That stability means players are not constantly learning new systems, new ways of doing things and trying to fit square pegs into round holes the way the Redskins are trying to do with Albert Haynesworth, an expensive 4-3 defensive tackle they are trying to thrust into a 3-4 line. Steelers scouts know what types of players to look for to fit those systems.

Tomlin quickly adapted to the philosophy. He was schooled in the 4-3 defense using a Cover-2 philosophy in the secondary. Yet, he has allowed LeBeau to do his thing with the 3-4, and they have continued to draft players to fit that defense since his arrival.

While he put his stamp on his football team, Tomlin has assumed a Steelers' philosophy that did not exist in his two previous stops as assistant coach in Minnesota and Tampa Bay.

"It's a minimalist approach to operate at a high level," Tomlin said. "They are extremely consistent goals. We aspire to be world champs every single year. There's great clarity in that. A minimalist approach in that we try to limit the number of cooks in the kitchen, if you will, with a 'help' mentality in terms of everyone has responsibilities but everyone is open to the concept of helping others.

"When you have a minimalist approach to people in that regard, it creates a unified atmosphere, the less people you have in the mix you have pushing toward a similar goal, the less chance you have of getting derailed. That's the business model we follow, and one I embrace."

So, while there is age on defense, the Steelers have gone through a transformation even since their 2005 Super Bowl season. Their entire offensive line has changed, their entire backfield and their starting outside linebackers. Their starting split end in Super Bowl XL was Randle El. Their starting split end in Super Bowl XLIII was Santonio Holmes. Their starting split end this season is second-year pro Mike Wallace.

"One guy goes, a young guy steps up," said Chris Hoke, Hampton's backup nose tackle since 2004. "It seems like whenever a guy has left, they find a good replacement or even better, so I don't think our window of opportunity has gotten any much smaller."

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