Steelers fans have a veritable championship scrapbook in their "cranium" (miss you, Myron!). Their memories are as blessed as the franchise's modern history, filled with grandiose images of Super Bowl triumphs.
Likewise, for those reflective fans who enjoy the history of the team as much as the games themselves, there have been a couple of championship heartbreaks. While pride lingers in the hearts of those who bleed Black and Gold, the black cells of the blood that flows through their veins gets a little extra blue after the defeats. Indeed, their insides are bruised, but the journey during those campaigns also leaves the faithful with warm memories in spades!
With any luck, 2011 will mark a return to the NFL's ultimate contest, ending on a much more positive note for Steelers Nation.
Seasoned Steelers veterans lucky enough to proudly observe them in the 1970's recall the first time that silver beauty landed in Art Rooney's hand, a polished base with a shimmering football atop of it- engraved with the name "Lombardi." That same generation remembers Jack Lambert throwing Cliff Harris to the ground after taunting kicker Roy Gerela, glowing on the recollection of a momentous fourth quarter and second crown.
For the Cowboys, beating them once was so nice the Steelers beat them twice. This third championship was followed by the "Blonde Bomber's" beautiful spirals over the top of defenders and into the arms of John Stallworth in Super Bowl XIV.
Today's newest fans, a generation of young men and women who will carry the Steelers Nation deep into the century, also know of success. Their warm, fuzzy reflections include a perfect pass from Randle El to Hines Ward and a legendary catch by Santonio Holmes.
And naturally, they know of Super defeat.
For all Steelers fans, older or younger, each season marks an opportunity to build on a great tradition, building memories that warm the soul for decades to come.
Here are 10 reasons to believe that 2012 will be the next section of a very full album. Indeed, expectations are deservedly high in the Steel City, as fans hope see the Steelers return to the big game and come home with the NFL's finest prize!
Of the reasons the Steelers can return to the Super Bowl are a number of testaments to their team strength and proven abilities. This reason is nothing like that. In fact, the first item on this countdown is a bit....arbitrary.
Nevertheless, it is a trend that gives fans reason to be optimistic.
Any nugget that supports the notion of another Super Sunday is a welcome observation for those who sport Terrible Towels on their waist bands.
Since the arrival of Ben Roethlisberger, the Men of Steel have been very stubborn in seasons following a playoff loss. Championship stubborn!
The only prior postseason loss of Ben's career was the AFC Championship Game to New England. In 2005, the Steelers rallied from a three game midseason skid, winning eight straight games en route to Lombardi Trophy no. 5.
With the loss to the Packers, will the trend continue? Does the Steelers' fire burn hotter and brighter after the agony of defeat?
We'll find out soon.
A win in Super Bowl XLVI would mark the third straight time in the career of Big Ben where the team won the world championship following a playoff loss.
In the AFC, uncommon are those who select a team from the West to represent the conference in February. As such, it seems unlikely, though not impossible, that the Chiefs or even the Chargers—of complete underachievement fame—will contend for the Lamar Hunt Trophy. Both have the talent to surprise, but most fans are not expecting byes from these squads.
Likewise, while the Texans boosted their secondary and the Colts have the longest current stretch of seasons with double digit victories, Houston has a lot to prove, and Indianapolis's unquestioned leader enters 2011 with...well, questions.
Flipping through the pages of a few football previews on store shelves, I noticed a trend.
The consensus choice for AFC Champion is.......
Those doing the elimination process realize that leaves four teams, including Pittsburgh. Of the Steelers' "predicted" hurdles:
One is the Steelers' arch-rival. (More on them later.)
Another has Pittsburgh's number.
And the last of the trio just lost at Heinz Field this past January.
Naturally, nobody will question the important of winning the AFC North. If the Steelers can accomplish this goal, which I believe they will, that leaves the business of securing home field advantage.
While home turf has not been beneficial to most teams in the last half decade, Pittsburgh has gone to Super Bowls in consecutive postseasons where the football has been played before yellow seats and screaming fans.
Assuming (and hoping for) a division championship, the Jets and Patriots will battle for the East. Despite their recent loss, the following is a fairly basic principle for the Steelers, against a team that they struggle against mightily:
GOING TO GILLETTE STADIUM IS NOT ADVISABLE.
I'm sure fans and the franchise would both love to win there. An eye for an eye, right? But, odds certainly are not in anybody's favor in Boston, especially with the Patriots being due for playoff success.
So, what does this rant about playoff positioning and the Steelers predicted rivals for the AFC crown come to?
Well, two things.
A) Naturally, none of this is guaranteed. Surprises happen every season, and some other team could prove to be in the hunt for a bye week. So, essentially, disregard all of this, right?
BUT, don't disregard it, BECAUSE.....
B) If things go as expected, and I believe they will atop the AFC, the "Stillers" have a huge advantage over AFC East contenders: the NFC West.
Every other NFC division is stout, and the rest of the AFC can deal with them.
And the South possesses one sure-fire win with Carolina, and that's it.
If the Steelers show up against the inter-conference opponents, they can gain a one of two game advantage just by virtue of a favorable NFC schedule.
Should I take the NFC's weakest division for granted? Absolutely not, nor should the Steelers. All NFL games are difficult to win, yet every team among those four has a weakness, a deficiency that Pittsburgh can and must exploit.
In other words, the matchups are there for the Pittsburgh taking. They simply have to play the games, not overlooking anybody. If they can avoid the trap games, such as their trip to Arizona, they'll be in the driver's seat in the final week.
In fact, with this schedule, Pittsburgh must stay hungry. The weekly trial by fire of 2008 is not set up with this roster of opponents, and that isn't entirely good. One could argue that the challenges of a season prepare a team for the playoffs.
I am not among the contingent that believes this schedule will hurt the team. Pittsburgh returns most of its starters from a championship squad, and they should know what it takes to be among the best. If not, this season is doomed before it starts.
If anybody can take advantage of this seemingly desirable schedule, it is the Steelers.
Let's face it, the clear edge in the NFL's most physical modern rivalry goes to the Steelers, winners of the last six games that showcased Ben Roethlisberger vs. Joe Flacco.
In gritty grudge matches, Big Ben has come up like his nickname, his huge plays late in games securing Pittsburgh wins. Contrarily, Joe Flacco (or is it Fluke-o during Steelers weeks?) has seen mighty struggles against the vaunted black and gold defense.
He had a Monday Night fumble that turned momentum in 2008.
He threw the clinching interception during their AFC Championship battle.
Troy's tomahawk chop last season in Baltimore caused a Flacco fumble that ultimately secured a bye week for the six time Super Bowl winners.
Lastly, an ill-advised slew of turnovers this past January, including a amateurish interception by the Ravens' ring leader, made for a Pittsburgh comeback and another Steelers winter win.
On top of the history, the Ravens may have a few concerns heading into early 2011.
The Steelers' Maryland menace made some tough decisions this summer.
Players affected included running back Willis McGahee, receiver Derrick Mason, tight end Todd Heap and defensive tackle Kelly Gregg.
All productive. All gone.
With the exception of Heap, the argument can be made that the remaining players were beyond their prime or expendable. A few outlets have insinuated that the team strategically released players with hopes of re-signing who they could after they tested the open market.
With these productive veterans all out of the lineup, Baltimore will place a lot of faith in their vision and the performance of some first-year replacement parts.
Keeping in mind that this franchise was already winless against Ben Roethlisberger in the Harbaugh/Flacco era for the Balti-birds, this is a huge leap of faith.
Do the Ravens have the talent to win without those players? No doubt.
To beat Pittsburgh? Sure.
Is it a safe bet? No way. In fact, the Steelers' odds of winning the AFC North surely increase with Baltimore's early season likely devoted to developing some chemistry between quarterback and skill talent.
Adding to these changes the fact that the defense is another year older, despite what the "Top 100 Players of 2011" ranking would have fans to believe. With the Steelers fielding their most balanced and fast offense in ages, the Ravens defense is certainly not a lock to dominate in these contests.
While the Steelers kept most of their roster intact, Baltimore spent the offseason finding replacement parts to rebuild the offense around the team's "newer, faster" vision.
But the Steelers, who have dominated the key games of this rivalry since 2007, are not the favorites in the AFC North? I think not.
I sense that Baltimore may have been a bit eager to dump and dive—dumping these players and diving into a free agency that did not yield the desired results, in spite of Ravens fans' spiel to the contrary. This was not entirely by design, and Joe Flacco could struggle early in the season, namely Week 1 against Pittsburgh.
Expect Pittsburgh to win the AFC North, securing at least one home playoff game this January.
With Redman showing a great balance of speed, shiftiness and power, Pittsburgh will have great flexibility at running back.
Most likely, Mendenhall will handle the bulk of the carries with Isaac entering the game for short distance and relief situations, but having two runners that can control the tempo of a football game is a wonderful luxury.
In 2010, Ben Roethlisberger played well after his return, but the Steelers certainly benefited from a return to balance on offense.
With the running game having success once again, and third-and-one no longer a passing down, the Steelers offense will be even more potent this season. Mendenhall carries the burden of his Super Bowl fumble, and wisdom should whisper in his ear to treat the misfortune as motivation for his greatest season yet.
Beyond that, hopefully, it is equally motivating for Rashard to continue his improvement with protecting the football.
Additionally, Mewelde Moore is a proven change of pace back that can make huge plays at opportune moments. Steelers Nation should be rife with optimism about both the team's grind (running) and glory (passing) games.
With a healthy offensive line—a big "if" considering the events of the most recent exhibition—the offense should hopefully have time to gel. That fluidity, coupled with the athleticism of all three members of the running back brigade, should turn a couple of late 20-17 leads into victories.
When the mission late in any particular playoff game could be to keep the ball out of the hands of Brady, Manning or truly any NFL starter, the ability to ice leads with a balanced offense will be critical.
The better equipped the Steelers are to gain four yards on a given down, the better their chances of returning to the big game. With Redman and Mendenhall carrying the load, the Steelers may have one of the most under-appreciated sets of backs in the NFL.
There has been great debate about the effect of the shortened offseason on NFL franchises. Months are lost for new players to familiarize themselves with everything from the playbook to where to get groceries. Without time for adjustment, new faces in football places are understandably a bit more unfamiliar with their new locale, both professionally and personally.
For example, a team like the Washington Redskins does not benefit from the condensed version of an NFL summer. Fans can debate the magnitude of the impact, but denying the impact itself is the essence of silliness. With new players on the roster, a coaching staff that is still novel to Maryland and an unproven track record, valuable time has been lost in building strength, knowledge and camaraderie.
For teams that are building an identity, those lost weeks are a route ran the wrong direction of a coverage assignment totally missed.
For franchises returning most of their roster, the most successful of those squads already know where they are headed.
Make no mistake that the Steelers, like other contenders who are without a great degree of change (such as Green Bay), enter camp with a distinct advantage.
They can focus on getting better. Period. Opposed to scrambling to catch up, the Steelers are simply itching to gear up!
No new quarterbacks are flipping through offensive plays handed down from brand new coordinators. Free agent from other franchises are not assimilating themselves into a totally revamped structure.
Essentially, the circus is not in town, and the Steelers already know who they are.
In other words, no distractions and just getting better is the theme for the team that is the defending AFC Champion.
They are among teams that are much more well-equipped to handle lost time than others in the midst of change, plain and simple.
Rookies enter a situation where their services are not immediately needed. It's business as usual. If we were going to see a long work stoppage, that lockout couldn't have timed itself better for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Frankly, the Steelers enter this season with the most talented roster of gamebreaking receivers they've had since the acrobatics of Swann and thoroughbred kick of Stallworth.
Grooming the young fast starters will be Hines Ward, a veteran force who is still productive. In the offseason, the versatile Ward showed off his dance moves. Now, he want to show everybody that he's still got it on the gridiron.
Not that there's any doubt, yet truthfully, the all-time leading receiver in franchise history has seen a statistical decline recently. With a commitment to increasing his production, I don't think anybody can count out Hines.
On top of his route running, he is a retriever at receiver, able to snag balls that leave fans' mouths wide open. From his ball catching skills to his willingness to block and carry out all running plays, his influence will be nothing but positive on a unit that possesses a great deal of speed and youth.
Atop of Hines, another veteran added to the roster is Jericho Cotchery, who will clinch the No. 4 receiver slot. As a member of the Jets, Cotchery built chemistry with Chad Pennington, Brett Favre and Mark Sanchez, atop a slew of other backups who have taken snaps for the gang o' green. He showed off his experience and skill in the exhibition against Philadelphia.
In the coming days, his work with the starters will be just as productive.
Taking their tips from the vets are Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown. Brown has been electrifying this August, carrying his momentous playoffs into the preseason. Will anybody ever forget "3rd and 19?"
Certainly, Brown and Limas Sweed made very different impressions against the Ravens in the playoffs.
The most dangerous Steelers receiver is Mike Wallace, who led the AFC in yards per catch last season. While Wallace and Roethlisberger build chemistry last season, opportunities were left on the field. I expect those chances to be converted into huge gains in 2011.
With a deep threat, two veteran ball snaggers and a duo of youngsters with rocket fuel in their bellies, I have something in my own gut: the feeling that these wideouts will make life miserable for defensive secondaries this season.
While the defense is getting older, many of the veteran players are either in their prime or at the very end of that peak. Recently, with the long-term signing of Lamar Woodley and Lawrence Timmons, the team showed its typical wisdom, prepping for the future.
On offense, veterans meet youngsters, especially at receiver, where Hines Ward will groom a trio of potentially dynamic stars of tomorrow. Ben Roethlisberger will hand off to young runners while being protected by a line that features a second-year all-pro amongst an array of starters with varying experience.
To quote an NFL slogan from a few years back: "BELIEVE IN NOW."
For the Steelers, the time is now. Absolutely RIGHT now.
So many people want to believe the Super Bowl loss, much like the Colts' defeat in Super Bowl XLIV, ends a stretch of AFC dominance in Pittsburgh. However, reaching the peak is not finite with regards to length.
With a roster consistent with last year's champions, there is no reason to believe that glory has passed.
A wonderful balance of experience (not age) and exuberance (not youth...well, okay...youth!) means Pittsburgh may be directly in the middle of their peak.
No matter their history or penchant for scouting great talent, nobody knows what tomorrow will bring and yesterday has left its memories on all Steelers faithful.
With a championship pedigree already proven, a very balanced roster enters 2011:
a) Knowing that they are capable.
b) With just enough demons to motivate them.
c) without enough demons to distract or hold them back (such as quarterback suspensions).
Yes, fans question the play of the offensive line, but what else is new? The secondary, another area of focus among critics, is underrated, being among league leaders in 2010 for yards allowed per pass.
Having signed key veterans, obtained great talent in the draft, and gathered a great crew of football players, Pittsburgh is in the middle of a Venn Diagram. What is on the right side is yet to be determined, but everything feels right in place where it merges!
Taking things for granted? Overconfident?
Not this time. Not on Mike Tomlin's watch.
With the merciless heat of training camp behind them, the Steelers returned to their indoor practice facility this past week, and Mike Tomlin surprised veterans with a physical, full-length session.
If anybody felt any notion of complacency, Tomlin did his job at trying to dissaude it.
With his articulation and demeanor, the Steelers coach is easy to understand, yet his players often refer to his understanding of them personally, having his finger on the pulse of the squad.
Like Bill Cowher before him, Tomlin has seen a Super Steelers squad fall well short of expectations the subsequent season.
If anything, this should be more motivation for the successful coach to give his foot on the pedal. So far, all signs point to taking nothing for granted.
If Pittsburgh goes back to the Super Bowl for a fourth time in six seasons (aside from the loss; sound familiar?), it will not be with a roster largely developed by his mentor. It will be his own chapter of the Steelers legacy. In truth, his first championship came three years ago.
Yet, the court of public opinion still awaits the next one—the one that shows he can do it again.
With four playoff appearances and two Super trips in his four seasons, it is clear that Tomlin is doing something right. Or, should it be said, a whole lot right...
The head coach is quickly engraving his name on the bedrock of Steelers history, alongside those of Steelers greats Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher. That's not bad company in the 'Burgh, or anywhere for that matter!
The Steelers recently equipped for the future, signing Lamarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons and staking their claim to the franchise's future. The moves should work to help continue the long tradition of great Steelers defense, especially among linebackers.
Atop these special talents, James Harrison needs to put the rulebook aside and play like a man possessed. If his heart matches his words, he will use his disgust with the recent advent of "fluffy football" to beat some sense into the NFL through its offenses.
Outside of the senselessness of officials and rules makers that never sat down to speak with Chuck Bednarik, the Steelers defense will exact a physical brand, from veteran James Farrior to nose tackle Casey Hampton.
Running against the modern Steel Curtain is a lesson in futility, but the secondary is a focus area for those skeptics who questions the unit's overall strength.
In reality, albeit not as outstanding as the defensive front, the defensive backfield was likewise stout. Ranking among league leaders in opponents' yards per pass attempted, the Steelers secondary finished second to only Green Bay in the category.
Remember the last time those squads met?
Make no mistake that a healthy Steelers defense is a nightmare for offensive coordinators. The exception is against offenses that successfully spread the field, such as New England or, more painfully, Green Bay.
The observation is partially unfair, if only for the injured Troy Polamalu in Super Bowl XLV. If he sustains his health, this crew has all the talent and more to correct their Achilles' heel and stifle NFL offenses.
Certainly his style of aggressive, physical play lends itself to injuries, so the fans will simply have to cross their fingesr. Asking Troy to tone it down is a mistake. If it's a matter of risk versus reward, the Steelers defense typically benefits from the gamble. After all, it is Troy's undying intensity that makes him the finest safety in the game today.
For such a remarkable unit, finding a way to upgrade the defensive scheme to successfully limit the "Bane of Brady" and those like him would almost assure Pittsburgh's rank as front-runners for the Lombardi Trophy. How to do that?
If Dick LeBeau can't answer that question, nobody can.
The name Ben Roethlisberger has its own entry in the Pittsburgh Steelers thesaurus.
Beneath it reads:
Say what you want about him personally. He's a professional phenom.
With a field general whose resume reads so awesomely comes the top reason that Pittsburgh can return to the Super Bowl.
"He holds the ball too long."
"He doesn't read defenses."
"He doesn't put up big numbers."
Here is my answer to such silliness.
The ultimate playmaker, Ben is the franchise quarterback the Pittsburgh Steelers had been looking for since Terry Bradshaw.
With Roethlisberger came the second era of championship football in Steelers history. It's no coincidence.
In the clutch, he's won more often than not. He is mobile, able to extends plays and a deceptively skilled runner. He throws as well on the run as the pass. He....
For those already unaware, there is no hope for salvation. The unenlightened are welcome to carry their anti-Ben biases for the duration of his career and beyond, only to miss one of the biggest reasons for this wave of success.
Quite simply, Steelers Nation: "In Ben We Trust." With the football in his hands, there is always a chance for great things to happen.
Including Super Bowls.