Notebook: Important to look back

<b>PITTSBURGH - </b> It's been three years and eight months since the Pittsburgh Steelers opted against altering their future by opting against quarterback Chad Pennington. <br><br> He would've been the first so-called franchise quarterback taken by the team since Terry Bradshaw in 1970, but it was not to be, and it sent the experts into a tizzy. <p> "Chad Pennington is a franchise signal-caller," Mel Kiper shouted that day on ESPN. "Pittsburgh will regret not taking him three years from now."

Well, the time has passed and the 5-8 Steelers have many needs. A quarterback for the future is one of them. Any regrets about passing on Pennington?

"I don't think it serves any purpose to go back there," said Steelers Coach Bill Cowher.

But it does, because another draft will come soon and the past must be examined.

Pennington, of course, is also quarterbacking a 5-8 team, the New York Jets, but a broken wrist that cost him seven starts this season is the reason.

In his first year as starter, after serving a two-year apprenticeship, Pennington led the NFL with a 104.2 passer rating and a 68.9 completion percentage. In 18 career starts, Pennington has a 105.6 passer rating and a 68.6 completion percentage. Today's game will mark his first start against the Steelers.

To the Steelers' credit, they instead drafted a productive wide receiver in Plaxico Burress, who has 220 catches for 3,381 yards in less than four seasons. The numbers top those of Pro Bowler Hines Ward (218-2,559) and nearly the combined numbers of Hall of Famers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth (227-3,881) through their first four full seasons.

The Steelers also found a quarterback to hold them over in 32-year-old Tommy Maddox, who's made 24 starts over the last two seasons and has an 81.1 passer rating and a 60.0 completion percentage. They're not exactly Pennington numbers, but they're not bad. And in the won-loss column, Maddox is 12-10-1 (.521) and Pennington is 11-7 (.611).

Anything learned? Any regrets? Replies?

"I don't think it serves any purpose to go back there," said Cowher.

Jets center Kevin Mawae has been to four consecutive Pro Bowls, and Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton says Mawae's deserving, even though at 289 pounds he's a relative lightweight.

"Those are the guys who give me the most problems, centers that are quicker," said Hampton, who weighs more than the 330 pounds at which he's listed and has played against Mawae twice. "Stronger centers I can pretty much overpower them. But the quick ones, they get on you real quick so you just back off the ball a little bit and try to keep them from reaching real quick. The center from Denver (Tom Nalen) is real quick, real good. I played a decent game against him."

Last Sunday, the Oakland Raiders ran between the tackles on 14 of 16 plays spanning four first-half possessions against the Steelers. The Raiders gained 96 yards on those 14 carries, including a 22-yard touchdown run by Tyrone Wheatley. But the Raiders fell behind and scrapped their running game. They finished with 122 yards rushing on 23 carries.

"They had some success cutting the ball back," Hampton said. "A lot of times I'd get up the field and they cut right back behind the center. We've got to be more gap sound. That's the struggle right now. Everybody wants to make a play. We just have to be more gap sound."

Is Mawae the key to the Jets' running game?

"I think so. He does a lot of pulling and stuff like that. We're going to try to put me head up over him a lot more to try to keep him from getting out of there and getting on the linebackers."

Troy Polamalu has seen it before. He was a junior at Southern Cal the year PAC-10 champ Oregon watched a BCS championship-game bid go instead to Nebraska, which had been blown out of its conference championship game by Colorado, 62-36.

Nebraska lost to Miami, 37-14, in the national title game, while Oregon finished 11-1 with a 38-16 over Colorado in its bowl game.

The same scenario has unfolded for USC this year, and Polamalu can't explain it any better this time around.

"The only thing I can really say is that we should've beat Cal," the Steelers' rookie safety said. "We shouldn't have been in this situation."

Polamalu still calls USC "we" because he remains in close contact with former teammates and his uncle, the running backs coach.

"They're kind of upset," Polamalu said, "but if you turn around and lose this game, you kind of prove the BCS right. And the only way you're going to lose this game is to start worrying about that, that you should be in the national championship game."

USC will play Michigan in the Rose Bowl, pitting its smallish front defensive seven against Michigan's typically huge offensive line.

USC's average front-seven defender is 6-2¼, 245.7 pounds. Michigan's average front-seven defender is 6-3¼, 257.9 pounds. Polamalu didn't flinch.

"I don't think they're going to have a chance running the ball," he said of Michigan. "Look at Auburn. They're big and have the best trio of running backs in the nation. If there is any strength to our defense it's definitely stopping the run. We've always been small and we've never had problems stopping the run. It's always been the pass."

Steel City Insider Top Stories