Deja vu all over again

<b>PITTSBURGH --</b> In 2001, the Steelers led the NFL in rushing and defense and were 21st passing the ball. It added up to a 13-3 record.

The passing game improved the next two years, but the Steelers compiled a combined record of 16-15-1.

On Tuesday, coach Bill Cowher finally admitted what most had known.

"I am as guilty as anybody of getting a little enamored with the wide-open part of it," he said of an emphasized passing game.

But those 2001 Steelers are back. With a renewed emphasis on the running game, they are 4-1 with a chance to take a 5-1 record into the bye week with a win Sunday at Dallas.

Those 2001 Steelers also started 5-1 before losing a nail-biter against the Baltimore Ravens in game seven.

So, do the players sense 2001 being played all over again?

"No. I wouldn't say that. Not yet," said guard Alan Faneca. "I mean, we didn't realize that then until later in the season. It's too early yet."

"We can't hang our hat on nothing yet," said fullback Dan Kreider. "We haven't really done anything. We have to keep plugging away."

Sense a trend here?

Sense a coach in a team's ear here?

Anybody wanna step up here?

"In 2001," said receiver Hines Ward, "you couldn't be any more balanced than we were. I really think we're starting to hit that mold again: commit ourselves to the run and have two thousand-yard receivers. If we can do that, we can find ourselves in the playoffs."

So this season is reminding you of 2001?

"Yeah, it really is," Ward said. "I think our offensive line is starting to jell with one another and they're healthy. That's big. I think the biggest question mark we had coming into the year was the offensive line and I think they answered all the critics.

"We can kind of see the similarities on the team. If we go out and don't turn the ball over, continue to complement our defense, and then, yeah, you can see a lot of similarities with 2001."

Starting with the record, of course. But even the margin of victory is exactly the same. After five games in 2001 and 2004, the Steelers outscored their opponents by 18 points.

In breaking the stats down even further, the same receivers have similar production: Ward led Plaxico Burress in receptions, 31-13, after five games in 2001, and is leading him this year, 34-15.

The passer is much better this year. Even though he's a rookie, Ben Roethlisberger has a passer rating of 91.3, compared to Kordell Stewart's 65.2 at this point in 2001. Stewart, however, made up for it with 168 yards rushing after five games.

While Duce Staley has 71 percent of the Steelers' rushing yardage this year, Stewart and Jerome Bettis combined for 73 percent of the 2001 rushing yardage after five games.

The 2001 Steelers through five games had a run-pass ratio of 57-43. These Steelers have a run-pass ratio of 59-41.

"That year we were run first," said Kreider. "We've kind of gotten back to that mentality this year a little bit as far as working the play action."

Defensively, the Steelers have the same defensive linemen but only one of the same linebackers, Joey Porter. The safeties are gone, and cornerback Deshea Townsend has moved into the lineup opposite Chad Scott.

The buck linebacker (Earl Holmes/James Farrior) and the strong safety (Lee Flowers/Troy Polamalu) were/are the tackles leaders both seasons.

Statistically, the defensive similarities carry through. In 2001, the Steelers allowed 3.9 yards per carry and a 69.4 passer rating through five games. This year, the Steelers allow 3.7 per rush and a passer rating of 62.4.

While the scheme, many of the players and the statistics through the first five games correlate with the Steelers' 2001 defense that finished first in the NFL, the main difference this year is coordinator Dick LeBeau.

"I think scheme-wise it's similar to how it's always been," said Aaron Smith. "What's different is the attitude and approach that he takes to it. He believes in us and we believe in him. That mindset starts at the top and works its way down."

So, this season is comparable to 2001?

"Nah, not right now, no," Smith said. "It's still the same in the locker room, but as far as the season? No."

You're staying humble aren't you?

"Yeah. We've got a long ways to go right now."

NOTES - Staley, Townsend and Jeff Hartings returned to practice Thursday.

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