Head coach: Bill Cowher, 14th season
2004 record: 15-1
2004 rankings: Offense, 16th (324.0 yards/game); Defense, 1st (258.4 yards/game)
2005 strength of schedule: 20th (tie)
From SportingNews.com: AFC North overview
For all of the success and all the discoveries, 2004 will ultimately be grouped in the same category as other Steelers near-misses for coach Bill Cowher. Maybe only his Super Bowl loss was more disappointing than watching Pittsburgh dominate the league and then lose to New England in the AFC championship game.
But that pain only masked so many other positives: The coming-out party for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger; the late-career flurry by running back Jerome Bettis and a dominating defense that was a perfect fit opposite Pittsburgh's controlling running game. Aside from Roethlisberger's meltdown in the AFC title game, it was a season of perfection.
Free agency took a healthy bite out of the offense, taking one key wide receiver (Plaxico Burress) and two starting linemen (Keydrick Vincent and Oliver Ross). Granted, three Pro Bowlers still return to the line, but Vincent's and Ross' positions have question marks with the untested Max Starks taking over at tackle and the inconsistent Kendall Simmons stepping back in at guard. Both will need to be solid and dependable if Roethlisberger and the running game are to duplicate last season's success.
Even with great blocking, it may be hard for Roethlisberger to conjure last season's magic. Receiver Cedrick Wilson is not going to be an adequate replacement for Burress, which means Antwaan Randle El must contribute more. And as inspiring as Bettis' resurgence was last season, the Steelers need Duce Staley to stay healthy.
Most of all, Roethlisberger has to play better as the season wears on. Teams will have a better grasp on how to knock him off his game.
The good news for defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is that his front seven returns intact, and that keeps his defense among the league's elite. Several of those players are in the midst of their prime, including defensive end Aaron Smith and linebacker James Farrior. The return of nose tackle Casey Hampton will be a big boost, too. Only New England can rival this front seven when everyone is healthy.
There does need to be some improvement in the secondary, which proved to be the team's weakness against New England. One of the experienced cornerbacks – Willie Williams, Deshea Townsend or Ricardo Colclough – must step up and become a Pro Bowl caliber player. That would take some of the pressure off Pittsburgh's blitz schemes to be perfect late in the season.
What more can you say about kicker Jeff Reed? He carries a streak of 17 consecutive field goals into the season, and no kicker has mastered the awful conditions at Heinz Field as consistently as Reed did last season. That makes him a big edge in home games, especially in the playoffs when it's cold and gusty in Pittsburgh. Punter Chris Gardocki is more dependable than the timing in a Swiss clock, and Randle El remains one of the league's dangerous returners.
The Steelers will finish 10-6 and second in the AFC North.
- Bill Cowher