As change comes for Steelers, can winning ways be saved?
By Nate Davis, USA TODAY
PITTSBURGH It's been only two years since guard Alan Faneca threw the block that sprung Willie Parker on a tide-turning, 75-yard touchdown run in the Pittsburgh Steelers' 21-10 Super Bowl win against the Seattle Seahawks.
Two years since tailback Jerome Bettis and linebacker Joey Porter provided the emotional fuel that propelled the team to its fifth title.
Two years since coach Bill Cowher finally hoisted the Lombardi Trophy after chasing it for 14 seasons.
Now all of these championship pillars, save Parker, have taken a bow and hit the road; Parker's merely looking at the prospect of going from leading man to a co-starring role.
Yes, the times they are a changing in the Steel City, not exactly typical for Pittsburgh fans who have enjoyed so much stability for the better part of 40 years. Not only is there turmoil in the team's ownership that could force the team out of the Rooney family's control for the first time in generations, but depending on how some positional battles unfold, the Steelers could have 10 new starters from the Super Bowl XL team.
"Those changes are a part of today's NFL," says Mike Tomlin, who replaced Cowher last season and led the Steelers back to the top of the AFC North after they missed the postseason following the Super Bowl run. "It's the era of free agency.
The reality is, on the average, teams turn over at least a quarter of their (roster) year in and year out.
"There are big names you can point to in any city players or coaches that move on, that's part of it."
Faneca left for pastures that were greener literally and figuratively, signing a five-year, $40 million pact with the New York Jets. And though the Steelers offensive line was hardly in a position to lose its best player after quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was sacked an AFC-high 47 times, Tomlin says the blame can be spread.
"Like a quarterback, sometimes they (the line) get too much credit and too much blame," he says. "Protection of the quarterback is an 11-man job. The line's got to protect; the quarterback's got to get (the ball) out; receivers got to chip and get into alleys. But we've got the makings of a rock-solid offensive line."
That optimism aside, many observers still expected Pittsburgh to address the line in the draft. But the Steelers weren't going to reach for a player with the 23rd pick after watching seven tackles come off the board before their selection. So they toed the company line.
"We're always interested in drafting the best available players, regardless of position," Tomlin says. "We feel like that limits mistakes that come with reaching."
And in Pittsburgh's view, the best available player was Rashard Mendenhall, the draft's top-rated running back in some quarters. He doesn't fill a glaring need considering Parker was leading the league in rushing when he suffered a season-ending broken fibula in his leg in Week 16.
But Tomlin promised to ride Parker "until the wheels come off" last season, and when they did, there was no Bus in the garage to take the Steelers where they wanted to go. In their playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, they ran the ball 26 times
and managed all of 43 yards.
Parker, who "was a little surprised" by Mendenhall's arrival, is taking it in stride and recognizes he's likely to see a reduced workload.
"I understand," says Parker, who has averaged more than 21 carries a game since 2006, while conceding the move could prolong his career. "They felt like we didn't have any running backs when I went out.
I want to be the best, and whatever makes me better, I'm all for it."
Roethlisberger can't be much better than he was in 2007. He set single-season franchise marks for touchdown passes (32) and passer rating (104.1).
He hasn't had a bad offseason, either. After angling for a new contract and a bigger receiving target Plaxico Burress was still a Steeler when Roethlisberger broke into the NFL Big Ben received both. He signed an eight-year, $102 million deal in March, and the Steelers landed 6-5 wideout Limas Sweed in the draft a month later.
Like Mendenhall, Sweed might quickly find himself earning playing time, especially if four-time Pro Bowler Hines Ward, 32, is slow to rebound from offseason knee surgery.
If the rookies contribute and the line jells, an already capable offense stands to make a jump from its No. 17 ranking in 2007.
It's hard to imagine the defense getting much better it was the top-rated unit in the NFL last season. But it did show signs of wear down the stretch as the Steelers ended the season by losing four of five games.
Consequently, the defense will sport fresh legs since the Steelers also upgraded a strength in the 2007 draft, taking linebackers Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley in the first two rounds.
Just don't expect them to scrap their 3-4 look, which suits the personnel, for the Tampa 2 scheme Tomlin coached as an assistant with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Minnesota Vikings.
"(It's) a continual evolution schematically," he says, "solely to play to the strengths of our players."
Woodley will take over for departed Clark Haggans on the outside, while Timmons is breathing down Larry Foote's neck for one of the interior jobs. "I really think it's just a matter of time until they throw him in there," Foote says of Timmons. "And it looks like he can play."
Which is all that really matters for Pittsburgh's new cast of characters when the curtain rises. Who knows? Some positive reviews might mean a Super Bowl encore is on the way.
AROUND THE FIELD IN PITTSBURGH
Quarterback: Statistically, Ben Roethlisberger had his best season in 2007, earning his first Pro Bowl ticket. His ability to move in the pocket is underrated, though he takes a few too many sacks. Charlie Batch is his understudy. Rookie Dennis Dixon is an intriguing talent but is coming off anterior cruciate ligament knee surgery.
Running back: Willie Parker was on his way to a rushing crown before a broken leg ended his season. He's fully healed, but his days as a 1,200-yard back might be at an end with top draft pick Rashard Mendenhall in the fold. The rookie set an Illinois record with 1,681 rushing yards last season. Free agent pickup Mewelde Moore is an excellent receiver.
Wide receiver: Santonio Holmes' star is on the rise, but Hines Ward is on the back end of his career. His numbers have been in decline since 2002, and offseason knee surgery won't help. Talented Nate Washington needs to improve his consistency. Limas Sweed might have been a bargain in the second round after a wrist injury ruined his senior year at Texas.
Tight end: Coming off his best year, Heath Miller will see his role in the offense continue to expand. At 270 pounds, backup Matt Spaeth looks more like a third tackle, but he has good hands.
Offensive line: "Those guys are coming together," coach Mike Tomlin says. Good thing considering seven-time Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca is gone. Max Starks will try to reclaim his right tackle job from Willie Colon and start opposite Marvel Smith. Kendall Simmons is entrenched at right guard, and Chris Kemoeatu should replace Faneca. Justin Hartwig was signed to play center, meaning Sean Mahan is the top reserve.
Defensive line: Nose tackle Casey Hampton heads a group that does the dirty work in a 3-4 defense. Ends Aaron Smith (biceps) and Travis Kirschke (ankle) should be ready for the season.
Linebacker: James Harrison blossomed into a Pro Bowler in his fifth season after replacing Joey Porter on the outside. Second-year LaMarr Woodley will try to follow Harrison's lead as he takes over for Clark Haggans. The Steelers hope another sophomore, Lawrence Timmons, will push Larry Foote inside. "Guys are capable of a big jump in their second year," Tomlin says. Steady veteran James Farrior rounds out the starting quartet.
Secondary: Strong safety Troy Polamalu's hellbent style has earned him four Pro Bowl nods; it also might have helped him miss eight games since 2006. Free safety Ryan Clark is coming back from a splenectomy. Deshea Townsend and Ike Taylor are the corners; Bryant McFadden is the nickel back.
Special teams: No issues with kicker Jeff Reed or punter Daniel Sepulveda. Tomlin says Mendenhall might return kickoffs with Willie Reid. Moore is solid as a punt returner, though Holmes wants a crack at the job. Kick coverage continues to be an albatross.
Coaching staff: Though he restored the Steelers to the playoffs in his inaugural year, Tomlin expects the same improvement and effort from himself as he does his players. The club did appear to run out of gas late last season. Bruce Arians opened up the offense in 2007, and Roethlisberger thrived. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is among the best at his profession.
Outlook: The AFC North is never a cakewalk, and the Cleveland Browns look like an imminent threat to the Steelers. But Tomlin's not worried about anything outside his locker room, believing the sky's the limit for his club. If the line protects Roethlisberger and the first- and second-year players perform reasonably well, Tomlin could be on the money.