When Mike Tomlin took the reins from Bill Cowher last season, he said he was taking over a playoff team with the talent and desire to return to the postseason. He said he had a marquee quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger who could put the disasters and mishaps of 2006 behind him and return to the form he had displayed in his first two seasons.
As it turned out, the rookie head coach was right.
Tomlin also said that he would run Willie Parker, his Pro Bowl running back, "until the wheels came off," and one of them then did – in the 15th game of the regular season, when Parker, the NFL's leading rusher at the time, fractured his fibula.
Tomlin enters his second season much the same as he did his first – confident in his ability, trusting of his players and eager for the challenge, even though the Steelers have the toughest schedule in the league. But he's not taking anything for granted.
2008 TEAM PREVIEWS
AFC EAST: BUF | MIA | NE | NYJ
AFC NORTH: BAL | CIN | CLE | PIT
AFC SOUTH: HOU | IND | JAC | TEN
AFC WEST: DEN | KC | OAK | SD
NFC EAST: DAL | NYG | PHI | WAS
NFC NORTH: CHI | DET | GB | MIN
NFC SOUTH: ATL | CAR | NO | TB
NFC WEST: ARI | SEA | SF | STL
"This is the second lap around the track for me, if you will," Tomlin says. "That being said, every lap is different. I expect it to be. And we've got to roll up our sleeves and get back to work."
Despite his reputation as a pass-oriented coordinator, Bruce Arians relied on the run last season, though he often did so out of one-back or even empty formations.
However, Arians believes in throwing deep four to five times a game and isn't afraid to employ multiple formations, including three tight ends. He also likes to give his quarterback control of the offense, letting him audible and change protections at the line of scrimmage.
Dick LeBeau's blitzing style of defense is not built to spend much time on the field because it relies on aggressiveness and disguise. That failed far too often last year, one of the reasons the defense faltered late in the season despite ranking No. 1 overall in the league.
Nonetheless, the 3-4 defense is built to pressure the quarterback from the outside and confuse him with coverages.
Outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley: A second-round draft choice last year, Woodley will replace Clark Haggans at left outside linebacker and team with Pro Bowler James Harrison to give the Steelers their best pass-rushing tandem since Jason Gildon and Joey Porter.
Woodley, a converted defensive end, has the strength to bull rush, along with the quickness and technique to beat tackles to the outside.
As long as the Steelers have Roethlisberger, they will be in every game. Throw in Parker, a two-time Pro Bowler, and good receivers in Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes and tight end Heath Miller, and the offense has a chance to be very productive.
With the tough schedule, the Steelers must get off to a fast start. If they don't, repeating as division champions will be difficult.
SN prediction: 11-5, first in AFC North.
Gerry Dulac covers the Steelers for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Sporting News.