Week one is Groundhog Day for Steelers

If Pittsburgh played every game on opening day they'd be the best team in the league. And after what happened around the NFL on Sunday, they might be anyway.

You could have presented me with any number of scenarios on Sunday morning and none of them would've ended with the Pittsburgh Steelers suddenly being prohibitive favorites in the AFC. But we're one week into the NFL season, which means there are 15 more opportunities for the angry football gods to smite this team for some perceived slight. As Mike Tomlin said during his Tuesday press conference, injuries are as much a part of football as blocking and tackling. And that's why there's a better chance Casey Hampton gets work at wide receiver during a real, live game than the same 22 starters from Week 1 are all on the field come January. So accepting that, coupled with what we already know about the rest of the conference, what does it all mean going forward? Not much, really, but it sure was fun watching another opening day blowout, while the rest of the AFC North performed like it was the first day of minicamp and the playbook was written in Mandarin.

For the Steelers in recent years, the first game of the regular season been anything but suspenseful. In 2003, they waxed the Ravens in what proved to be the highlight of a forgettable six-win campaign; in 2004 against the Raiders, Tommy Maddox got what would turn out to be his last career NFL win; in 2005, the Titans were shellacked on Ben Roethlisberger's nifty 9 of 11 passing performance; two years ago, Charlie Batch replaced a broke-down Roethlisberger to beat the Dolphins in possibly his best game as a professional; and last season, the Tomlin era commenced with a Browns beatdown the likes of which we hadn't seen since Pittsburgh put a similar hurtin' on Cleveland in December '05. And on Sunday, the trend continued.

The Texans are this year's vogue pick; sorta like the Arizona Cardinals of the previous five offseasons: a team loaded with young talent, no track record of sustained success, but still worth a few "hey, this club will surprise some people and make the playoffs" preseason predictions no one will remember when they're 4-8 come November. But you play who's on the schedule, and Houston was first up. Despite the fact that I'm a grown man with a wife and kid, Saturday night I might as well have been an eight-year-old on Christmas Eve, because I had trouble sleeping. Embarrassing? Maybe, but it beats the hell out of eagerly awaiting the start of the season as a Texans fan. Or, worse: a Patriots fan. (On the upside, Pats fans can jump off the bandwagon without recrimination since New England is a Red Sox-first region, and every other sport a distant second. At least that's the excuse we'll be hearing as the season unfolds with one inglorious loss after another. We'll get to see what kind of coaching chops Bill Belichick really has. Seriously, for all the bellyaching some subset of Steelers Nation did about Bill Cowher, the guy won WITH TOMMY MADDOX. He really doesn't get enough credit for that bit of coaching mastery.)

While I was anxious, unlike most nights-before-the-opener, I wasn't concerned. Not only about Week 1, but the rest of the schedule, even though the 2008 version, according to everybody with an opinion, was the most onerous lineup every conceived in the history of mankind. It's quite daunting, apparently. Still, I was unfazed. Which, given my predilection for negativity and an amazing knack for finding the worst in any situation, no matter how rosy-seeming, was akin to a major breakthrough in therapy. Saturday night I wrote down some Steelers-related thoughts and now seems like a good time to share them:

The 2007 season ended more than seven months ago and it seems much longer than that. The Pittsburgh Steelers' frustrating wild-card loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, highlighted by the still-jaw-dropping decision to run the "this'll never work" quarterback sneak on 4th and 6 during a key fourth-quarter drive, haunted (taunted?) me for most of the offseason. It didn't help that the NFL Network would rebroadcast the game, ostensibly to serve as a reminder of how we left things back in January.

But it's a new year according to the NFL calendar and I don't ever remember feeling this optimistic heading into a Week 1 game. Looking back over the Ben Roethlisberger era, I didn't know what to expect during his rookie season; the Steelers were fresh off a six-win season and Tommy Maddox was still the starting quarterback. A year later, hopes were high, but after going 7-5 in the first 12 games, nobody saw a Super Bowl run coming. 2006 was a bust before the first pass was thrown; Roethlisberger crashed a motorcycle and lost an appendix before the summer was out, then proceeded to play like it. And then there was last season, Mike Tomlin's first. The Steelers could've ended up at 6-10 and it wouldn't have been surprising.

But 2008 is different.

On paper, this is the best Pittsburgh defense this decade despite an aged d-line. The offense is chock-full of big-play types, starting with Big Ben. As always, however, the o-line and injuries are concerns, the former more than the latter. Chris Kemoeatu's preseason play, and the addition-by-subtraction Sean Mahan trade are encouraging starts, but the right side of the line can kindly be described as a mess. Tomlin contends that giving the quarterback weapons at the skill positions is another way to neutralize the pass rush. In theory, it makes sense, and Roethlisberger seemed to make a conscious effort to get the ball out of his hands in a timely manner, or at the very least, toss it out of bounds in enough time to avoid getting plastered to the turf by a would-be tackler.

But it's established as scientific fact that the preseason and the regular season are two completely different animals. Will Roethlisberger's well-balanced mix of daring and caution carry over against the Texans? Will the defense be able to stop the run and thwart the pass in the same 60 minutes of football? Or more importantly, is the '08 special teams squad a sham or legit?

Often, games are decided by turnovers and special teams, and I suspect that will be the case this season. (look no further than this, the most stupefying loss in recent memory. A loss, by the way, that kept the Steelers from winning the division and earning a first-round bye. Instead, losing to an outfit that managed mustered 47 total yards, determined Pittsburgh's fate a full three weeks before the '02 regular season was over. My point: everything matters when you're playing 16 games. That you can't even take David Carr for granted is depressing, but it's an NFL reality. Or at least it was on that day.)

Hardly visionary stuff, but I'm happy to report that the defense was a lot better than I expected, the offensive line should collectively win the AFC Offensive Player of the Week, and the same holds for the special teams. Big Ben did a swell job of getting rid of the ball, and Tomlin's theory on skill position players improving the pass blocking proved true, if just for a week. It was as satisfyingly boring a victory as I remember, but also very encouraging, particularly in light of what happened in New England (won on Sunday but lost big for the season), Indianapolis (a peg-legged Peyton Manning couldn't beat a quarterback-less Bears team), Jacksonville (fell to the Titans and lost two o-linemen in the process), and Cleveland (despite losing to the high-powered Cowboys, they should get credit for only allowing 28 points while fielding no real defense to speak of).

After watching the Cowboys throttle the Browns -- not to mention the Cleveland's truly uninspiring 0-4 preseason performance -- I'm even less concerned about this Sunday night than I was about last Sunday afternoon. The Steelers could lose, but barring a catastrophic change of events that include two-thirds of the team getting kidnapped and Casey Hampton actually having to play wide receiver, I don't know how it could happen. Not unless Tim Couch is walking through that door. The Browns are playing like a team that knows it's in over its head, and the offseason hype probably hasn't helped. Sure, they're notoriously slow starters, but they are also notoriously awful against the Steelers. I'll take my chances.

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