Preview: Steelers pin hopes on good health, LeBeau

Bill Cowher tied a league record by coaching the Steelers into the playoffs his first six seasons, but Cowher's making NFL history in a less impressive manner at this stage of his career.<br><br> Only one NFL coach has spent more time with one team without ever winning a championship. Bud Grant spent 17 years with the Minnesota Vikings and never won it all. This season will be Cowher's 13th with the Steelers.

Don Shula (22 years with Miami), Grant and Steve Owen (15 with the New York Giants) have gone through the longest overall dry spells, all of which ended in coaching changes.

Chuck Noll, Dan Reeves and Marv Levy matched Cowher's current dry spell of 12 years. Each of those spells ended with a coaching change.

Tom Landry proved a title could be won late in a coaching career. He breathed life into the 1971 Dallas Cowboys, ending an 11-year dry spell for Landry, who took over an expansion franchise. Can Cowher breathe life into the Steelers after 12 years? Three points say no:
1.) It's never been done.
2.) No immediate help from the draft.
3.) No significant free agents have been added.
Point one, of course, cannot be argued, but perhaps point two can be challenged since the Steelers drafted cornerback Ricardo Colclough in the second round and right tackle Max Starks in the third after taking a developmental quarterback in the first.

A more legitimate argument can be made against the third point. Perhaps the Steelers' most expensive signing, Duce Staley, shouldn't be judged on last season's puny output of 463 yards while healthy. Staley did gain over 1,000 yards the previous season before losing his status with the team during a training-camp holdout. Scouts believe he can return to 2002 form.

However, Staley is 29, and while the Steelers might argue he was a significant pick-up they still haven't accorded him first-team status. Jerome Bettis will compete hard enough at camp to deserve carries and perhaps even muddle the scenario further.

Of course, the more necessary improvement from the 31st-ranked rushing game is a healthy offensive line, and the Steelers believe Kendall Simmons, Jeff Hartings and Marvel Smith are healthy. Smith's health is the most important because teams can't win without at least one quality tackle. But is Smith fully healthy? He couldn't say that in late May, and as we learned from Joe Greene and Jon Kolb, pinched nerves in the shoulder-neck area can ruin careers.

The Steelers' defense wasn't nearly as bad as the offense last season, however, the pass defense ranked a lousy 23rd in opponents' efficiency. The Steelers were tied for 20th in interceptions and tied for 19th in sacks. To bolster those rush-and-cover problems, they've elevated four back-ups and drafted the aforementioned cornerback, as well as a pass-rusher in the fifth round.

While it's possible for good health, the maturation of a few young players and a tweak here and there to significantly improve a team, it's certainly not enough to transform the 6-10 Steelers into champions and end Cowher's slide into infamy. So what gives them the notion this team can win it all?

Well, if a new head coach can't be hired, perhaps two new coordinators can provide the necessary breath of fresh air. It appears as if the Steelers are pinning this season's chances on Dick LeBeau and Ken Whisenhunt.

In the latter's case, the Steelers are turning to a first-timer, but Whisenhunt has a quality pedigree. His mentor is Carolina offensive coordinator Dan Henning, who nearly pulled out a championship last season. Whisenhunt also watched the successful Mike Mularkey experiment up close and will probably back away from Mularkey's reliance on tricks, which should make the stick-to-the-fundamentals crowd happy.

Whisenhunt also has a veteran quarterback and (on paper) a veteran corps of pass catchers. Staley and Bettis are also veterans who'll benefit greatly from a healthy line.

In LeBeau's case, the Steelers are turning to an old coaching pro and Cowher will have to put his own ego in storage. He and LeBeau had split previously because of Cowher's heavy-handedness, so one could assume a philosophical agreement has been reached. At the least, there won't be a repeat of the head coach turning a deaf ear to his defensive coordinator's pleas to replace a veteran with a youngster.

Last year, the relationship between Tim Lewis and Jason Gildon soured because the player sensed the coordinator's lack of respect. Judging by the lack of attention being given the since-released Gildon, Cowher may have been the only man in the NFL who thought Gildon was still playing at an adequate level. LeBeau can expect to have more of Cowher's respect than Lewis had.

While Whisenhunt will make only subtle changes and rely on good health for the offense, LeBeau will be asked to return the defense to its previous level of the mid 1990s when he was the coordinator. His M.O.?

"A lot of different fronts, a lot of different blitzes, a lot of people going in a lot of different directions," was how Cowher described LeBeau's defense during spring workouts.

It was certainly an amped-up spring showing, particularly from the young defensive backs as LeBeau schemed with the young sprinters in mind.

"We're kind of experimenting a little bit," defensive backs coach Darren Perry said with a smile that hinted at genuine optimism.

"He's definitely brought some changes, some more pressures," said defensive end Aaron Smith, who rarely becomes excited. He was on this day.

"He loves the game," Smith said of LeBeau. "When you see him with that enthusiasm it's hard not to get infected with it."

Health, maturation, a few tweaks and infectious enthusiasm. It's what the Steelers are counting on.

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