1. Ben Roethlisberger sees the field, and more.
Quarterbacks coach Mark Whipple was asked what Roethlisberger does best. “He sees,” Whipple said. Isn’t that the truth? On the day Roethlisberger was drafted, the Findlay, Ohio, native was asked which team he rooted for as a kid: Cincinnati or Cleveland. Neither, Roethlisberger said. He was a Joe Montana fan. Then Roethlisberger asked for jersey No. 7 because he’s also a John Elway fan. Both visions are coming to: Roethlisberger played like Elway in Denver last week and he’s playing like Montana in this post-season. Roethlisberger has a passer rating of 124.8 this post-season, giving him a career post-season passer rating of 97.6. The precise Montana had a career post-season passer rating of 95.6, second in league history to Bart Starr’s 104.8 (150 attempts).
2. The Steelers can come from behind.
Saying the Steelers can’t come-from-behind is the national myth that puzzles Steelers fans the most. It’s actually a remnant of an earlier myth that says if you stop the Steelers’ run game, you stop the Steelers. Instead the Steelers have shredded three consecutive playoff secondaries. They haven’t had to come from behind, so the myth has life. But in just his fourth pro game, Roethlisberger rallied the Steelers past the host Cowboys from 10 points down in the fourth quarter. In his 10th game, he rallied past the host Jaguars in the final 1:55 with no timeouts. In his first playoff game, he rallied his team to a fourth-quarter tie against the New York Jets (the Steelers won in overtime). In his second playoff game, the Steelers trailed the Patriots by 21 and Roethlisberger’s touchdown pass cut it to 14. He then had the Steelers at the 3-yard line early in the fourth quarter when Bill Cowher suffered a brain cramp and kicked a field goal. End of comeback, but not end of story, because now Roethlisberger knows what he’s doing.
3. Bill Cowher doesn’t suffer brain cramps anymore.
Under Cowher, the Steelers lost home AFC Championship games in which they were favored by 9.5 (1994) and 10 (2001) points. A dropped Hail Mary allowed the Steelers to escape with a win as 12-point favorites in the 1995 AFC title game. Cowher’s critics say he has a habit of playing “turtle games” as a favorite, a role that involves the wearing of a bulls-eye. This season, Cowher has left his coordinators alone, so Dick LeBeau blitzes at crunch time and Ken Whisenhunt passes. Cowher’s in-season aggressiveness has continued into the playoffs. His two fourth-and-1 conversions against the Colts provided high drama in Pittsburgh households. If the Steelers go down, it won’t be for turtle games. (Although I offer this caveat: NFL Films picked up Cowher on the sideline before the Broncos game last week telling Rod Woodson, “I love being the underdog.” Woodson’s reply: “It’s only numbers, man.”)
4. Jerome Bettis is the greatest big back of them all.
Sure, longevity helps some backs pile up numbers, and longevity has much to do with Bettis’s No. 5 ranking on the all-time rushing board. But that’s not the reason he’s the greatest “big back” of all time. This is: Only two 250-pound running backs have rushed for over 1,000 yards more than one time. The 253-pound Christian Okoye did it twice and the 255-pound Bettis has done it eight times. What about John Riggins? He only weighed 230. Larry Csonka? He weighed 237. Cookie Gilchrist weighed 251, but had only one 1,000-yard season (and three 900-yard 14-game seasons). Bettis once explained that big backs take too much of a pounding to endure, and that he’d learned a long time ago to look for easy landings instead of playing macho head games in the open field. That’s something else most people didn’t know.
5. The Steelers are fine without Plaxico Burress.
Anyone see the televised fit Burress threw after the first Giants series in the playoffs? That sour, losing attitude, that finger-pointing, didn’t stop until Tiki Barber’s exclamation point in the post-game press conference. The Giants were stomped and Burress didn’t catch a pass and he was surely an albatross in the huddle, a grim reaper sent to Tom Coughlin by the football gods. Or something like that. Did anyone see the televised celebration Cedrick Wilson threw after catching a touchdown pass in the corner of the end zone against the Broncos? Anyone see Wilson catch 5 for 92 in that game? Eight for 196 in these playoffs? The Steelers are spreading the ball to a happy bunch of players. The foreboding presence of Burress and his pining for the ball are gone with the wind.
6. The Steelers can cover.
The Steelers ranked 16th in NFL pass defense this season, so naturally fans who haven’t watched them think Dewayne Washington and Chad Scott either a.) still play in Pittsburgh or b.) haven’t been ably replaced. But a closer look at the stats – the pure defensive passing stats – show the Steelers ranked fifth in yards per attempt (6.34), eighth in completion percentage (57.4) and eighth in passer rating (74). In the playoffs against Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Denver, those numbers are nearly the same: 6.4 ypa, 59.6 completion percentage and 75.3 passer rating. The average playoff game by Nos. 1 receivers Chad Johnson, Marvin Harrison and Rod Smith against the Steelers was 3.7 catches for 57.3 yards and a Blutarsky-like 0.0 touchdowns. During the regular season, the average game of those three receivers was 5.6-78.4-0.6.
7. The Steelers throw to their tight end.
When the Steelers drafted Heath Miller in the first round last April, fans wanted to know why they drafted a player who wouldn’t be used for anything more than sealing the corner on running plays. Since Mark Bruener caught a career-high 26 passes as a rookie in 1995, the position had averaged 21 catches, 177 yards and 2 touchdowns for nine seasons. Miller had 21 catches, 211 yards and 6 touchdowns in his first half of a season. What happened? Well, it was another myth that needed shattering. The Steelers do throw to their tight end; always have, or always have wanted to. But Kordell Stewart didn’t look for the tight end much. Once Stewart left, Bruener had slowed down considerably. The new tight end, it could be argued, is Roethlisberger’s No. 1 weapon. Miller has 7 catches for 107 yards and a touchdown in the playoffs.
8. In fact, Bill Cowher throws to win.
Is this Bill Cowher’s best team? The only one close is the 1995 team and those Steelers went into their Super Bowl as 13-point underdogs. They showed heart and lost by 10. That team holds the Steelers’ single-season pass-yardage record. QB Neil O’Donnell’s offense averaged 249 passing yards per game. This regular season, the Steelers averaged 183 passing yards per game, but in the post-season they’ve averaged 218 passing yards per game. Taking it a step further, the Steelers average 157 passing yards in the first halves of these playoff games. Their leads have been so comfortable they’ve worried more about killing the clock after halftime. The Steelers are winging the ball, just like they did in 1995; a common thread in Cowher’s two Super Bowl teams. The other common thread is that both teams had their backs to the proverbial wall at one point in the season: The ’95 Steelers were 3-4 at one point; the ’05 Steelers had to win their last four games to make the playoffs as a wild card. When poked with a stick, Cowher will throw to win.
9. John Mitchell is the assistant coach of the year.
Of the assistants on the team that’s favored to win the Super Bowl, John Mitchell is the one you’ve never heard of but he’s the one doing the best job. The defensive line is the Steelers’ most efficient positional group. Yes, the offensive line has come together and is picking up every blitz; and yes Ken Whisenhunt and Dick LeBeau have been maestros in calling plays; but the Steelers’ defensive line has held the point of attack while eight, sometimes 9 or even 10, linebackers, corners and safeties strike like snakes throughout an organized chaos. Just when you want to run on Troy Polamalu at middle linebacker, you can’t get through Casey Hampton, Aaron Smith or Kimo von Oelhoffen. Those players cite Mitchell – who made his own history as a player under Bear Bryant -- and his rotation of quality back-ups as the reason the Steelers have allowed an NFL-low 3.4 yards per carry this season. (Caveat II: The Steelers have allowed 4.3 per carry in the playoffs, which might be important against the run-heavy Seahawks, but we’re pretty sure it’s not Mitch’s fault.)
10. Kevin Colbert is the GM of the year.
Even though he’d never show up to accept the award (particularly if the WhattaburgerCactus Bowl was being played somewhere), no one is more deserving than Kevin Colbert. Rumor has it he’ll be at the Super Bowl and not watching tape of Senior Bowl practices. Such lapses have been unacceptable in the past, when Colbert led his staff through the drafting of two Rookies of the Year (Roethlisberger, Kendrell Bell) and another (Heath Miller) who could’ve been. Only six players remain from the Tom Donahoe era. Colbert, hired in 2000, has brought in the rest of the team, including Pro Bowlers Marvel Smith, Hampton and Polamalu through the draft and Pro Bowlers Jeff Hartings and James Farrior as free agents. Colbert signed Willie Parker after one draft and Dan Kreider after another. Those are his starting running backs. Colbert’s player evaluations are heavy on character and high on production and heart. The result is perhaps the most interesting mix of characters since the ’85 Bears.