Tuesday, September 04, 2007
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The cuts have been made, the long preseason has ended and the Steelers enter a new season under a new coach with a new attitude.
Whether it means they will return to being a playoff contender or not is another matter, and that will be determined starting Sunday in Cleveland.
Their reign as Super Bowl champs ended when Indianapolis beat Chicago in February, but their haughty outlook disappeared long ago after they lost six of their first eight games to open defense of their championship.
There was more than a new coach guiding the Steelers as they began practice yesterday for the regular-season opener.
"I think it's a little more grounded feeling," said defensive end Aaron Smith. "Last year, coming off the Super Bowl, even if we didn't play well in the preseason we still felt we could just come back and turn it on maybe. I think guys have a different attitude this year."
Preseason victories are said to be as meaningless as a snowball in summer, but tell that to the Steelers who went 0-4 in the preseason last year and saw the losing continue for half the regular season. They were 4-1 this year, their most preseason victories in 10 years.
And they're absolutely delighted the long preseason is over.
"I think we're all itching to go," defensive end Brett Keisel said. "This five preseason deal, we're all itching to get into a game that really counts when the chips really fall. I think once that happens we'll have a better feel for what type of team we have and how many guys in here are ready to go to battle for 60 minutes."
The Steelers have an incredibly easy schedule, on paper, to start the season. They play at Cleveland (4-12 last season), at home against Buffalo (7-9), are home to San Francisco (7-9), and visit Arizona (5-11). If they are not 4-0 or 3-1 coming out of that, it could be another long season because the road quickly turns harsh with their next four games against Seattle, Denver, Cincinnati and Baltimore.
If, indeed, it was a Super Bowl hangover that helped sink them in the first half of last season, they are determined not to repeat it.
"I think everybody came back focused," said receiver Hines Ward, who will practice today, six days after surgery on his broken nose. "We wanted to make sure what happened last year doesn't happen again this year. I think [with] that mind-set of everyone getting hungry, wanting to come out and compete and laying it on the line each Sunday we'll be all right."
Even though coach Mike Tomlin tried to keep their minds off Cleveland until the final preseason game against Carolina Thursday night, Ward joined quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in saying they looked at the Browns.
"The whole week we were playing Carolina, but eventually our mind was getting ready for Cleveland," Ward said. "That's where it starts for us, it's our first division game and it's a chance to get off to a right start. Cincinnati and Baltimore are playing [next Monday night]. So two teams will have one up. It's an important game for us, not only for our season but [for] the Coach Tomlin Era that we can go forward."
Indeed, a loss to the Browns would be no way to start a new era. Chuck Noll won his first game as the Steelers' coach in 1969 against Detroit, and Bill Cowher won his first in 1992 at Houston. Neither was expected to win. Detroit went 9-3-1 after losing to the Steelers, who never won again. Houston had won the division at 11-5 in 1991 and was playing the Steelers at home.
Since the Browns returned to play in 1999, the Steelers are 14-3 against them, including a playoff victory. Every year they lost to the new Browns ('99, '00 and '03), the Steelers did not make the playoffs.
It is an early must-win game for the new coach, and therefore there is perhaps the most pressure on a new coach to win his opener in franchise history.
"It's big," Smith said.
"It's not just another game," Keisel said. "Everyone knows about our rivalry. Both teams don't like each other, still. To be able to start the season, we want to start on the right note. We have to go through a team I think most of us feel is one of our biggest rivals. It's a division opponent. It's a must win."