Steelers will learn more about Tomlin in 2nd year
Updated: August 21, 2008, 8:30 PM EST
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PITTSBURGH (AP) - The Bill Cowher-to-Mike Tomlin handoff couldn't have gone more smoothly for the Pittsburgh Steelers last season. The Steelers are convinced they have a coach for the long term, just as they were when they hired Cowher in 1992.

The Steelers could learn a lot more about Tomlin in year two.

Tomlin mostly aced the NFL rookie coach's test: handling players, dealing with the media, earning respect. Little about Tomlin's first season was subject to debate as the Steelers opened 3-0 and 9-3 before finishing 10-6 with a division title. But a limp-to-the-wire finish with four losses in five games, including two home-field defeats to Jacksonville, gave Tomlin an incomplete in Sideline Coaching 101.

Now, some new challenges await.

With the Steelers dealing with what may be their roughest schedule in years, an Alan Faneca-less offensive line and an aging defense, they need the 36-year-old Tomlin to be as good a coach on the field as he is off it.

During a season in which the Steelers could need every edge they can get to hold off the resurgent Browns in the AFC Central, what could be a bigger boost than Tomlin proving he can stand up to Bill Belichick on the sideline?

The Steelers' offense looks to be even better than when the team won its fifth Super Bowl in the 2005 season, with first-round pick Rashard Mendenhall complementing Pro Bowl running back Willie Parker and rangy rookie Limas Sweed added to Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes at wide receiver.

The defense is little changed, although second-year linebacker LaMarr Woodley is now a starter and 2007 first-round draft pick Lawrence Timmons is pushing for playing time at linebacker.

Here's where the coaching comes in. With the Browns (twice), Patriots, Giants, Colts, Jaguars and Cowboys on a schedule that finds the Steelers playing three of their final five on the road, there could be plenty of close games.

That might be a worry.

Last season, the Steelers lost six of their eight games that were decided by seven or fewer points, a troubling statistic for a division champion. It illustrates an inability by the offense to close out games and by the defense to shut down drives in key situations.

The close losses came in a season in which kicker Jeff Reed missed only two attempts, one of more than 60 yards and the other in a cloudburst. Obviously, he wasn't the problem.

Tight games are where an excellent coach can make a difference. If the schedule is as demanding as it appears, injuries become a factor, the offensive line doesn't hold up and the defense shows its age, it's not difficult envisioning the Steelers missing the playoffs.

Not that they expect that to happen.

"I think some people look at it and are a little nervous, but I like the young attitude that we have and I think we can be very good," said Ben Roethlisberger, who was given a $102 million contract after throwing 32 touchdown passes and only 11 interceptions last season.

So does Ward, who said during training camp that "losing to Jacksonville was disappointing, so for me I don't want anything less than a Super Bowl."

That might be a lot to ask given that the Steelers must replace one of the best offensive linemen in team history in Faneca, now with the Jets.

Faneca's replacement is former backup Chris Kemoeatu, who could be one of three new offensive line starters should former Panthers center Justin Hartwig supplant Sean Mahan (expected) and former starter Max Starks beats out incumbent Willie Colon at right tackle (unlikely).

The schedule may test a defense loaded with 30-or-older starters: linebackers James Farrior (33) and James Harrison (30), defensive ends Aaron Smith (32) and Brett Keisel (who turns 30 in September), nose tackle Casey Hampton (31 in September) and cornerback Deshea Townsend (33 in September).

The defense also took a hit when second-year punter Daniel Sepulveda tore a knee ligament during the first practice of training camp and was lost for the season.

Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu is looking for a bounceback season after three separate injuries last year prevented him from being his playmaking self. He spent part of training camp on - where else? - the sideline with a hamstring injury.

What might greatly aid the defense is Parker returning healthy from the broken right leg that possibly cost him the NFL rushing title last season. If he does, the Steelers plan to ease Mendenhall in to the fourth-quarter ball-control role that Jerome Bettis played late in his career, one that keeps the defense off the field when it is effective.

Unlike last year, when the Steelers led the division from September through December, the story line of this season is much more unpredictable.

"I never try to tell a story; I always try to let the story unfold and call it as I see it," Tomlin said. "That's what I intend to do this year as well.