In a change engineered by offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey after ranking last in the AFC at avoiding turnovers last year, the Steelers are running a controlled passing game with lots of short passes. It's a classic example of West Coast principles. Pittsburgh hasn't completely abandoned its old smash-mouth approach born in the Chuck Noll era, but this is something of a departure from that style. "Call it what you want to, but they're still Pittsburgh," Ravens cornerback Chris McAlister said. "They still like to run the ball. That's the base of any offense because if you can't run you can't pass."
The wrinkles to what Pittsburgh is doing, though, features quarterback Tommy Maddox's deep spirals and a deep group of receivers. Mularkey has earned a reputation for trickery, and the Steelers are constantly shifting formations and employing motion to throw defenses off-guard. Although coach Bill Cowher benched burly runner Jerome Bettis in favor of shifty Amos Zereoue, this is far from a finesse outfit. It still has rugged fullback Dan Kreider. "They're still a physical football team," Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said. "They disguise what they're doing effectively. I think Mike utilizes his talent pretty well. "We both have talented players, and I think we match up fairly well. Both teams are going to try to play on their terms and, hopefully, that will be us."
A former first-round bust who was selling insurance a few years ago, Maddox beat out Kordell Stewart and was named the 2002 NFL Comeback Player of the Year. He passed for 2,836 yards and 20 touchdowns, including a 473-yard game with four touchdowns against Atlanta, but also tossed 16 interceptions. His 62.1 completion percentage is the highest in Steelers' history. Pittsburgh ranked fifth in offense last year, averaging 24.1 points. "Running the football is something that we are not going to deviate from," Cowher said. "We still think that's the backbone of what we want to get done."
Since Cowher arrived in 1992, the Steelers have rushed for more yards than any team in the NFL with 24,136 yards. "The Pittsburgh Steelers will always be the Steelers and we are always going to run the football," Maddox said. "We strive for balance." In a 31-18 win against Baltimore last year, Maddox completed his first 11 passes with two scores. The Ravens want to generate more of a pass rush against him. "He's not as mobile as Kordell is, but he's a great pocket passer," outside linebacker Adalius Thomas said. "We want to stop the run first and then get after the quarterback, get Maddox rattled and just keep bringing heat."
Towering Steelers wideout Plaxico Burress caught 78 passes last season for 1,325 yards. Hines Ward had 112 receptions for 1,329 yards as the duo led the NFL in combined receiving yards along with 19 touchdown catches. Slot receiver Antwaan Randle El contributed 47 catches for 489 yards. "All of them can threaten you down the field," Ravens safety Ed Reed said. "You just have to be cautious and do your job." Nolan downplayed the idea of a chess match between himself and Mularkey's elaborate schemes. "Both teams are made up of players and that's really what it's all about," Nolan said. "As coaches, we try to put them in the best situations. We're excited about what we have."
NOTES: Running back Musa Smith (knee) is out and cornerback Alvin Porter (groin) is doubtful. Both sat out Thursday as the Ravens shifted practice to M&T Bank Stadium because of rain. Cornerback Tom Knight (hamstring) and center Casey Rabach (knee) are questionable.