What It Takes To Be Super: The Pittsburgh Steelers
By Jeff Falconio
The Pittsburgh Steelers are no strangers to the NFL's grandest stage. The Steelers are vying for a record sixth Vince Lombardi trophy. Such a lengthy track record of success mixed with three AFC Championship game appearances in the last five years have made the Steelers not just the class of the NFL, but all of professional sports. However, not that long ago the Steelers appeared the be on their way to being an afterthought.
The Steelers hosted the 2001 AFC Championship game against New England but two special teams touchdowns lifted the Patriots to the Super Bowl. The following year the Steelers won the newly-formed AFC North and made a trip to the divisional playoffs. But in 2003 a five game losing streak effectively closed their Super Bowl window. In just one year Pittsburgh went from Super Bowl contenders to 6-10 (sound familiar?). 2004 didn't look like it would be much better. In a Week Two loss to Baltimore, quarterback Tommy Maddox went down with an injury, forcing the Steelers to turn to a rookie quarterback.
Enter Ben Roethlisberger. Surrounded by an improved ground game and a scoring defense that jumped from 15th to first Roethlisberger led the Steelers to 14 straight wins to finish 15-1. But again the Steelers fell to New England in the conference title game. However, while Pittsburgh remained the shadow of the Patriots, a Super Bowl roster was once again being formed. With star players like Hines Ward, James Farrior and Alan Faneca (who would leave for the Jets after 2007) already in place, the Steelers hauled in several starters in 2003 & 2004. Aside from Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh picked up Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor and Max Starks. But the biggest pickups would be two undrafted free agents: running back Willie Parker who eventually replaced Duce Staley as the top back and linebacker James Harrison, 2008's AP Defensive Player of the Year.
With a re-stocked roster the Steelers returned to the playoffs in 2005. Riding a four game winning streak to end the regular season, the Steelers reeled off four more wins including Super Bowl XL. After nine previous playoff appearances, Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher finally had a championship and stepped down after the 2006 season.
You must understand that the Steelers change head coaches about as often as the U.S. Mint changes the color of money. So it was a bit surprising that Pittsburgh chose Vikings defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin over in-house favorites Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm (both of whom are now in Arizona). But the young Tomlin proved his worth immediately by guiding Pittsburgh to back-to-back division titles.
In his first year Roethlisberger was asked to protect the football and manage the game. Don't take risks and do not throw interceptions. But starting with Pittsburgh's run to Super Bowl XL, Roethlisberger began to emerge. To complement the more confident Roethlisberger the Steelers loaded up at wide receiver with Santonio Holmes, Limas Sweed and Nate Washington (another undrafted free agent) along with the veteran Ward. Roethlisberger posted a team record 32 touchdowns in 2007 and with many weapons at his disposal, Roethlisberger became the best fourth quarter signal caller in the NFL in 2008.
But for 35 years now the Steelers have been known for one thing: the Steel Curtain defense. 2008 was no exception. Pittsburgh's defense pounded nearly every opponent while finished the year ranked number one in virtually every major defensive category. Only twice during the regular season did the Steelers allow more than 21 points in a game. Using the 3-4 scheme Pittsburgh is loaded at linebacker with Farrior and Harrison teaming up with LaMarr Woodley and Larry Foote. Polamalu patrols what seems like the entire field while the Steelers rely on a number of defensive backs to shut down any passing attack.
After giving up an early touchdown to San Diego in the divisional playoffs the Steelers settled in and did not allow the Chargers to reach the end zone until Pittsburgh was firmly in control. Parker put up 146 rushing yards and scored twice, good numbers considering Pittsburgh's rushing attack has suffered throughout the year. In the AFC title game against the Ravens the Steelers defense again made the difference. Pittsburgh held Baltimore to less than 200 yards of offense while forcing four turnovers. Polamalu's pick six late in the fourth quarter iced it and the Steelers were on their way to their seventh Super Bowl appearance.
Pittsburgh has rarely relied on free agency. From the super teams of the 1970's to the perennial playoff contenders of the 90's to the current group, the Steelers build almost exclusively though the draft. Their consistency at the coaching position (only three since 1969) and philosophy of physical play has carried on for more than a generation. This consistency of excellence puts Pittsburgh front and center and once again one win away from another Super Bowl title.