- The Washington Times - Friday, November 26, 2004

More than just the remnants of Hurricane Jeanne rained on the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sept. 26 in Miami. Coming off a 6-10 season, Pittsburgh was 1-1 after being drubbed by AFC North rival Baltimore and losing starting quarterback Tommy Maddox to an injured elbow. With veteran Charlie Batch already on the shelf, coach Bill Cowher had no choice but to turn to rookie Ben Roethlisberger.

The Steelers (9-1) have roared through the NFL ever since, along the way becoming the first team in history to knock off back-to-back unbeatens so deep into the season with victories over defending Super Bowl champion New England and NFC top dog Philadelphia.

“They have an excellent team,” said coach Joe Gibbs, whose 3-7 Washington Redskins have the unenviable task of trying to slow the Steelers’ juggernaut Sunday at Heinz Field. “They’re physical. They’re tough. They run the ball. They pound you on offense. They’ve got a young, very mobile quarterback. They’ve got the No.1 defense, and they play great [special] teams. That’s what the NFL is all about.”

No one was saying that about the Steelers last season when Maddox, a journeyman who led the Steelers to the playoffs in 2002, regressed. The running game, long Pittsburgh’s pride, was the AFC’s worst. The defense, while still solid, lost three starters to free agency and didn’t add one. Cowher fired coordinator Tim Lewis and hired retread Dick LeBeau. There were even rumblings of an impending change on the sideline before Steelers owner Dan Rooney extended Cowher’s contract this spring.

“No question there was some retooling that needed to be done,” said Cowher, who has coached the Steelers to eight playoff berths, three AFC Championship games and a Super Bowl appearance during his 13-year tenure. “From the very beginning of the offseason, we had the mind-set of re-establishing the running game. We were 31st last year, and that’s not us. We’re probably pressuring more on defense, but we haven’t changed a whole lot.”

Still, in a division with dependable Baltimore and improving Cincinnati, Pittsburgh seemed destined for mediocrity. Instead, the Steelers have both the top-ranked defense and running game despite losing guard Kendall Simmons, defensive tackle Casey Hampton and safety Mike Logan for the season and playing without running back Duce Staley and cornerback Chad Scott for extended periods. And Roethlisberger is merely having the best season of any rookie quarterback since 1983, when Pittsburgh’s own Dan Marino starred for Miami.

“We’re doing a lot of the little things it takes to win,” Cowher said. “The defense has benefited greatly by the [NFL-best 35:02] time of possession that we’ve had on offense. They’re fresh. We’re playing good situational football on third down [only Green Bay has been as effective on both sides of the ball] and in the red zone [only Philadelphia has been as good]. We’ve had a lot of backup players step in and perform very well.”

Rooney and Cowher deserve some of the credit for that because they have kept the Steelers so stable. Fifteen current Steelers wore the black and gold in Three Rivers Stadium, which closed in 2000. Other than Roethlisberger, all seven of the former backups who are now starters are in at least their fourth year in Pittsburgh.

“We try to sell stability,” Cowher said. “Players in free agency know what they’re coming into. They know they won’t be learning two or three systems in the course of their tenure. [That stability] has allowed us to develop some young players who’ve had to wait their turn, but in the meantime, the system hasn’t changed. Maybe you can recover from a tough year quicker because there isn’t a lot of change.”

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