Roethlisberger and Pittsburgh’s starting offense looked mediocre in the preseason, causing concern for Cowher.
“Would I have liked to see us be more in sync in the passing game? Yes,” said Cowher, entering his 13th season as Steelers coach. “And that’s the one thing I come out of the preseason saying, ‘I wish we would have done better.’ But we are where we are.”
Following a season in which he became the first quarterback in NFL history to win his first 13 starts, Roethlisberger saw limited playing time in four exhibition games and failed to engineer one touchdown-scoring drive. He was 16-of-36 for 145 yards with two interceptions, often making overthrows or bad reads.
Roethlisberger isn’t too worried.
In preseason action, the Steelers never implemented a true game plan and often made conservative play calls. Plus, Roethlisberger didn’t get much time to work with two of his top targets—leading receiver Hines Ward held out the first two weeks of camp and Pittsburgh was reluctant to overuse highly touted rookie tight end Heath Miller.
“We’re going to put together our first game plan and, hopefully, come out and execute it,” Roethlisberger said. “The big thing is, we want to work on the little things. If we can put the little things together, the big picture will come together and, hopefully, it will be pretty nice.”
A big reason Roethlisberger was so successful last year is he was backed by one of the NFL’s top rushing attacks. That won’t be the case Sunday.
Bettis will miss the opener with a strained right calf and it’s uncertain when he’ll return. Staley hasn’t been ruled out of Sunday’s game, but has practiced only once with the team since undergoing knee surgery a week into training camp.
Bettis stepped in for an injured Staley midway through last season and gained nearly 1,000 yards while rushing for 13 touchdowns. Staley appeared in 10 games and had 830 yards.
Speedy third-stringer Willie Parker will start after rushing for 112 yards on 11 carries in the preseason.
“The biggest concern I have is making sure we understand that we aren’t going to pick up where we left off,” Cowher said.
He hopes his defense can.
No team in the NFL gave up fewer points or yards than the Steelers last season, though they were unable to slow down Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in a 41-27 defeat in the AFC championship game.
Pittsburgh’s defense, which could be missing Pro Bowl linebacker Joey Porter (knee), may face a challenge in the opener from a McNair-led Titans offense that has Norm Chow calling the plays.
Hired away from Southern California during the offseason, Chow is expected to open up Tennessee’s offensive attack and showcase McNair’s talents if the 10-year veteran can stay on the field. He missed half of last season, including the final five games, with a sternum injury.
The co-MVP in 2003 now could have a better chance to remain healthy because Chow’s offense calls for quick passes to a wide variety of receivers.
“Very few basic five-step drops and no seven-step drops at all in the ballgame,” Titans coach Jeff Fisher said. “We’ll set (McNair) up and use play-action. You have a tendency to buy yourself more time when you use play-action protection.”
Chris Brown and Travis Henry, along with Bettis and Staley, should be considered among the best running back tandems in football. Also like Bettis and Staley, though, staying healthy is a big issue. Brown missed the exhibition opener with tight hamstrings, and Henry hasn’t played since that game due to a sprained toe.
Brown rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season but injuries caused him to miss five games for a second straight year, causing Tennessee to acquire Henry from Buffalo. Henry rushed for about 2,800 yards and 23 TDs over the 2002 and 2003 seasons before getting hurt last season and losing his job to Willis McGahee.
“I’m confident we’re going to be all right once the season starts, getting in the flow of things, just start things off good and keep them running,” Brown said last week. “We both know the offense. We know all the situations. We’re going to go out and whoever coach wants in there is going to go in there and perform.”
2004 STANDINGS: Titans - 4th place, AFC South. Steelers - 1st place, AFC North.
2004 TITANS LEADERS: Offense - Billy Volek, 2,486 passing yards and 18 passing TDs; Brown, 1,067 rushing yards and 6 rushing TDs; Mason, 96 receptions; Bennett, 1,247 receiving yards and 11 receiving TDs. Defense - Kevin Carter, 6 sacks; Andre Dyson, 6 INTs.
2004 STEELERS LEADERS: Offense - Roethlisberger, 2,621 passing yards and 17 passing TDs; Bettis, 941 rushing yards and 13 rushing TDs; Ward, 80 receptions and 1,004 receiving yards; Plaxico Burress, 5 receiving TDs. Defense - Aaron Smith, 8 sacks; Troy Polamalu, 5 INTs.
2004 TITANS TEAM RANK: Rushing Offense - 116.9 yards per game (14th in NFL); Passing Offense - 226.0 ypg (10th); Total Offense - 342.9 ypg (11th). Rushing Defense - 119.8 ypg (18th); Passing Defense - 237.9 ypg (26th); Total Defense - 357.8 ypg (27th).
2004 STEELERS TEAM RANK: Rushing Offense - 154.0 ypg (2nd); Passing Offense - 170.0 ypg (28th); Total Offense - 324.0 ypg (16th). Rushing Defense - 81.2 ypg (1st); Passing Defense - 177.2 ypg (4th); Total Defense - 258.4 ypg (1st).
LAST MEETING: Sept. 28, 2003; Titans, 30-13. At Pittsburgh, McNair had more touchdown passes (3) than incompletions (1), and linebacker Rocky Boiman scored on an interception return and sacked Tommy Maddox for a safety.
STREAKS AND NOTES: Titans - RB Brown’s 4.8 yards per carry last year was tops among players with at least 200 attempts. … McNair is the winningest QB and most accurate passer in franchise history with a 72-45 record and 59.3 completion percentage. … Tennessee has won 10 of the last 12 meetings with Pittsburgh, including a 2002 playoff game. Steelers - QB Roethlisberger led the NFL last season with a 118.5 fourth-quarter passer rating. … WR Ward, seeking his fifth straight 1,000-yard season, has made a reception in a club-record 104 consecutive games. … The Steelers have won 14 straight regular-season games, four shy of the league record set by the Patriots last year.
2004 ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Titans - 3-5 on the road; Steelers - 8-0 at home.
INJURIES: Titans - QUESTIONABLE: RB Henry (toe); CB Reynaldo Hill (ankle); TE Erron Kinney (chest); LB Cody Spencer (abdomen); DT Randy Starks (knee); TE Ben Troupe (foot). Steelers: OUT: RB Bettis (calf). DOUBTFUL: RB Staley (knee). QUESTIONABLE: CB Willie Williams (groin). PROBABLE: LB Clark Haggans (groin); LB James Harrison (hamstring); CB Chidi Iwuoma (shoulder); CB Bryant McFadden (knee); LB Porter (knee).