Saturday, January 31, 2009

UNC's Parker finds a home with Steelers

Running back had a rocky career at North Carolina.

By Charles Chandler
cchandler@charlotteobserver.com
http://www.charlotteobserver.com
Posted: Friday, Jan. 30, 2009

The Steelers are 6-0 in the postseason when running back Willie Parker is in the starting lineup. DOUG BENC – GETTY IMAGES


TAMPA, Fla.

As difficult as it was to endure a lot of bench time in college at North Carolina and getting overlooked in the NFL draft, Willie Parker says he doesn't wish for a different career path.

“If I could turn back the hands of time, I wouldn't want to change anything,” said Parker, the Pittsburgh Steelers' running back who is preparing to play in his second Super Bowl in four years.

“I went to two Pro Bowls. This is my second Super Bowl. What if I did get drafted? It probably wouldn't be this way. I would probably be with a different group of guys, but I'm glad I'm with (these) guys.”

Parker is one of the keys to the Steelers' chances Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals.

He already holds the record for the longest touchdown run in Super Bowl history – a 75-yarder three years ago in a win againstSeattle.

“After you break a record, coming from where I came from, it changes a lot of stuff,” said Parker. “People started to notice me a little more.”

Parker is enjoying a strong end to a frustrating season. He missed five games with injuries and was held under 1,000 yards (791) for the first time since he was rookie in 2004.

He said he wasn't completely healed until the regular-season finale, when he rushed for 118 yards against Cleveland.

He followed that with a 146-yard, two-touchdown performance against San Diego in the playoffs.
“I feel great right now,” he said. “What more can you ask for? I prayed all throughout the season when I was banged up that one day I would get back to being myself, and get back to 100 percent … and God blessed me with it.”

The Steelers are 6-0 in playoff games with Parker in the starting lineup. He was on injured reserve last season when they lost a first-round game to Jacksonville.

“I'm around a great group of guys. It's not all about me,” he said. “Every time we lose, whether I'm a part of it or not, I take the defeat, too.”

Parker has rushed for 4,999 yards in five pro seasons, which virtually no one would have expected after his disappointing college career.

As a freshman in 2000, he was second on the Tar Heels team with 355 yards rushing, but struggled for playing time after John Bunting replaced Carl Torbush as coach.

He ran for 400 yards as a sophomore, but his yardage declined in each of his final two seasons, bottoming out at 181 as a senior in 2003.

Parker has admitted to not getting along with Bunting and the North Carolina coaches, but he doesn't put all the blame on them.

“I'm not going to say they missed out on me because it goes both ways,” he said. “It wasn't just the coaches. It was me and the coaches. We were feuding. We both missed out on each other.”

However, Parker said doesn't regret communicating his disappointment.

“I'm glad I voiced my opinion,” he said. “I'll voice my opinion now, too, if I feel something is not right.

“You only live once. You can't let your time pass by. When I was at UNC, I wanted to be the running back. It kind of passed me by.”

Parker said his enthusiasm about the Tar Heels' football program has been “rejuvenated” the past two years since Butch Davis took over for Bunting as coach. Parker said he began returning to North Carolina to work out with other players at school facilities.

“It's a new era,” he said.

Parker's interview session with reporters Thursday was interrupted when Steelers backup quarterback Charlie Batch approached with a video camera, asking questions.

Parker likes to play the Madden video football game and sometimes acts as the Steelers coach. Batch wanted to know if Parker takes himself out of the lineup in goal-line situations.

No, Parker replied, explaining that he never gets in goal-line situations because he always makes long runs for touchdowns.

“Selfish,” joked Batch.

Actually, Parker was plenty generous the last time he played in the Super Bowl, giving his championship ring to his father.

On Sunday, he'll try to earn another.

“That would be real big for me,” he said.

All eyes on Steelers' Troy Polamalu in Super Bowl

Safety has license to make 'guesses' and almost always gets them right

Dan Pompei On the NFL
Chicago Tribune
http://www.chicagotribune.com
January 31, 2009


TAMPA —You can debate whether Troy Polamalu is the best player in the Super Bowl, but there's no denying the Steelers' safety is the most intriguing.

No one else draws eyes quite like Polamalu, given the way he flies around fearlessly, the way he blows up ballcarriers, the way he plays the ball in the air, the way he makes plays at all levels of the field …

Even the way he wears his hair.

Many of those who attend Super Bowl XLIII will follow his every step—including Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner. More than anyone, he wants to know where Polamalu is at all times.

Mostly he will be "in the box," near the line of scrimmage. Steelers secondary coach Ray Horton said Polamalu was assigned to play where the big boys make their living about 60 percent of the time this year, more on first and second downs. You won't find him blitzing much, if at all. Horton said he believes Polamalu hasn't blitzed once all season.

"With increased playing time, [linebacker] Lawrence Timmons is blitzing more," Horton said. "Plus LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison, they're sack masters. So we don't need to bring him as much. We can drop him in coverage and have him complement our pressure and intercept the ball on the back end."

That explains how Polamalu has eight interceptions and no sacks this year.

In the past, the Steelers used Polamalu much more as a blitzer.

"My role has changed more or less because of Lawrence Timmons," Polamalu said. "He comes in and provides mismatches with running backs when he blitzes. That has made our defense more dynamic."

Most of Polamalu's interceptions come in zone defenses. Some have come from Polamalu taking "educated guesses." Polamalu is given the freedom to do something outside the defensive call if he suspects the offense is about to exploit the Steelers.

"He doesn't just do what he wants to do," Horton said. "He takes calculated risks on what he sees pre-snap from watching film. If he thinks there is a 75 percent chance he's going to get a certain play, he goes with it."

In the course of a game, Polamalu may deviate from the called defense about a dozen times. Horton says Polamalu has not been burned on a big play by abandoning his assignment all season.

"In the five years I've been here, he probably has done it 150 times and been right 135 times," Horton said.

In the first quarter of the AFC championship game, the Ravens went for it on fourth-and-1. Polamalu abandoned his assignment, jumped over Ravens center Jason Brown and stopped Joe Flacco's quarterback sneak for no gain.

He later explained he strongly suspected it was a run because the Ravens brought in Adam Terry as a tackle eligible on the play. From film study, Polamalu knew the Ravens had run all but once when Terry was in a game as a tackle eligible.

"You learn to appreciate guys with the playing qualities he has, because quite simply he does what you don't teach," coach Mike Tomlin said. "You can't teach people to play the game the way he plays the game. His intuition, his physical gifts, his perception of the game is unique."

dpompei@tribune.com

To Steelers' Harrison, 'kindness is weakness'

By Jim Wexell, Beaver County Times Sports Correspondent
http://www.timesonline.com/
Published: Thursday, January 29, 2009 11:32 PM EST

TAMPA, Fla. -- All types of reporters have descended upon the Super Bowl. One of the politicos asked James Harrison what he might say to the President if he got to the White House.

“I’m not going to the White House,” snapped Harrison. “All right?”

And so ended another media session for Harrison, who looked more tired than he does at the end of one of his legendary workouts. It was the second Steelers press conference of the week, and reporters sensed he was done and they left him alone.

James Harrison was the 14th of 14 children in the merged marriage of James and Mildred Harrison of Akron, Ohio. James Jr. looks like his dad, but acts like his mom.

“He’s like me,” Mildred said. “You be nice to people, they take kindness as a weakness. They truly do.”

And so the chip on James Jr.’s shoulder was planted. But …

“He wasn’t a hard-headed child,” his mom said. “I’d tell him something and he knew that’s what I meant. I didn’t have to worry about him.”

Mildred could recall two “whuppings” James Jr. received: once by his dad for playing with the guns in the attic, and a second for being out after the street lights came on.

Neither parent realized their son’s brute strength until he picked his 250-pound grandmother out of the bathtub, into which she’d fallen, and carried her to her bed.

“We weren’t home at the time,” Mildred said. “But he said, ‘I picked her up like a baby and carried her and put her in the bed.’ He was 15 or 16 years old. He’s always been very strong.”

And that strength served him well on the football field. He transferred from Hovan Catholic after his freshman year to a school with a long tradition of losing.

“He went to Coventry, the first suburb outside of Akron,” said Zac Jackson, who works for ClevelandBrowns.com. “I went to Manchester, the next one down. We were the small-school football powerhouse. Coventry was always the big rival. They always stunk, but it was always going to be a one-touchdown game, even though the talent was four touchdowns. It was that type of rivalry.

“But when James came that all changed. They had like 91 athletes on that team and James was the scariest of them out there. He was known in communities for miles around as somebody you didn’t mess with — on the field or off.”

Harrison was the team’s star running back and linebacker, and the Akron Beacon-Journal did a large feature on him.

“He said this is the year we’re coming through Manchester,” Jackson said. “Everything you don’t say, he would say.”

The week before the game, with Coventry sporting an unlikely 8-0 record, Harrison was suspended for responding to racial taunts with obscene gestures.

He was ejected and had to miss the next week’s game against Manchester, and Manchester won.
“It was one of the biggest gifts Manchester football ever got,” Jackson said. “That’s a legendary game.”

Three months later, the parents of a boy who’d been shot in the rear end with a BB gun pointed the finger at Harrison, and a legal fight was under way. Harrison was exonerated when an assistant coach finally took responsibility, but the damage had been done. Harrison’s many scholarship offers from the best big schools in the nation had dried up. He was left with Kent State.

At Kent State, Harrison became All-MAC first team outside linebacker his senior season and finished third in the league’s Defensive Player of the Year voting. He led the MAC with 15 sacks, and his victims included Byron Leftwich, Drew Brees and one Ben Roethlisberger. Yet, Harrison wasn’t drafted in 2002. Did it have to do with character issues?

“No way,” said a scout with the Steelers. “If he came out today, we’d have the same problem with his size and speed.”

Harrison had two choices: sign with the Steelers or the Baltimore Ravens. The Steelers only offered him a free-agent contract.

“He was late for the rookie camp,” said Mike Archer, then the linebackers coach with the Steelers under Bill Cowher.

Harrison reported to the Steelers, but glared holes through coaches who tried to correct his mistakes.

“He was a different cat,” Archer said. “He was a surly street kid. He reminded me of Greg Lloyd a little bit. He didn’t trust anybody. He eventually developed his trust in some of those guys. The guys who did a good job with him that year were Joey (Porter) and Jason (Gildon) and Clark (Haggans). Those guys kind of took him under their wing and said, ‘Hey, you can play in this league. You’ve got the strength, but you’ve got to learn and they’re trying to help you learn.’

“And then once he accepted that, then he really began to make progress where I could tell he cared about football, because he would ask questions.”

Harrison’s first taste of pro ball came in the preseason game that opened Detroit’s Ford Field.

He was scheduled to play the second half because of an injury to Gildon, but Gildon’s replacement, Haggans, got hurt on the opening kickoff and Harrison had to play the entire game.

“He played very well that day,” Archer said. “I remember Bill saying after the game, ‘This guy’s got a chance.’ And he asked me, ‘If we cut him, do you think anybody will pick him up?’ And I said, ‘Coach, I don’t know.’

“Thank goodness nobody did and we signed him back. And he played that day with a broken thumb. Nobody knows that, because when practice started the next week for the regular season, after he cleared waivers, he was on the practice squad.”

Harrison was activated near the end of the season, but was cut again in the 2003 camp. He was again signed to the practice squad, then released in October.

He was picked up by the Ravens at the end of the season, sent to NFL Europe, and was cut by the Ravens.

The Steelers called him a week before the 2004 training camp after Haggans broke his hand lifting weights.

That’s when the legend of James Harrison began to unfold.

Harrison replaced an ejected Porter right before the Cleveland game that year and played well.

The next year in Cleveland he slammed a fan who had run out onto the field. He was a special-teams star, but didn’t become a full-time starter until Mike Tomlin came along in 2007.

Harrison was the team’s MVP that season, and the league’s Defensive MVP the next. Now he’s on the verge of starting his first Super Bowl.

“He had a chip on his shoulder because everyone told him he was too short, he was too slow, he was too this, he was too that,” Archer said. “And he got cut and people said he can’t play. Well, that drove him. That motivated him even more to do it.”

He still wears that chip on his shoulder.

What was his career turning point?

“Maturing,” Harrison said. “Handling situations different. And then getting the opportunity to play.”

Arians welcomes the pressure of the big game

Saturday, January 31, 2009
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/


Robin Rombach/Post-Gazette

Hines Ward and Bruce Arians



TAMPA, Fla. -- What's up with the Steelers coaches? They come to the Super Bowl and turn into scholarly men? One day, Mike Tomlin is quoting Robert Frost. The next day, offensive coordinator Bruce Arians is talking about some poet who shares his outlook on football and life.

" 'If you haven't gotten into the arena and tried because you're afraid, what's the sense of living?' " Arians quoted the man.

Darn him.

That sent me on a wild chase.

I must have spent five minutes Googling that yesterday and still couldn't find it.

But I did trip over this gem from an unidentified author. Surely, Arians can relate.

The galleries are full of critics. They play no ball, they fight no fights. They make no mistakes because they attempt nothing. Down in the arena are the doers. They make mistakes because they try many things. The man who makes no mistakes lacks bold.

Now that has Arians written all over it.

The man will be on the field tomorrow night at the Super Bowl -- in one of the world's biggest arenas -- trying to coax one more win out of the Steelers offense. Chances are he will make a mistake or two with his play-calling against an improved and aggressive Arizona Cardinals defense that has forced 12 turnovers and seven sacks in this postseason. What coordinator doesn't make a bad call? But even his many harsh critics must agree: He won't lack bold.

"Even when I play golf, if I have a choice between laying up and going for it, I'm going for it every time," Arians said.

This all came up because I asked Arians about the heat -- often misplaced -- that he took during the season when the offense struggled. It's simmering now that his guys look as if they might be peaking. Willie Parker has run for 100 yards in two of the past three games. The much-maligned offensive line hasn't just paved Parker's way, it's kept Ben Roethlisberger relatively clean. Roethlisberger didn't throw an interception in the two playoff games and had a 90.8 passer rating. Santonio Holmes has turned into a big-play machine. Hines Ward wants to show the world he can play on a bad knee ...

But the pot will boil again quickly if the Steelers lose to the Cardinals. The great defense won't be blamed unless it gives up five Larry Fitzgerald touchdowns. Roethlisberger won't be fingered unless he throws four picks. Parker won't take the fall unless he loses three fumbles.

I'm telling you everybody will blame Arians.

That would be especially ugly because of the Ken Whisenhunt factor. Whisenhunt, the Arizona head coach, was the Steelers' offensive coordinator before Arians and called a pretty sweet game when the team won Super Bowl XL.

Heaven help Arians if he's on the wrong end of the score tomorrow night with that guy.

"I could have stayed a quarterbacks coach or a wide receivers coach," he said, shrugging. "I could have stayed out of the limelight. But that's not me. I love the pressure. I love that bull's-eye on my back. I love having the responsibility in my hands."

People forget Arians was on the Super Bowl XL staff as Bill Cowher's receivers coach. "Whizzie was fantastic to work with," he said of Whisenhunt, who implemented many of the passing-game ideas Arians brought from the Cleveland Browns, where he was the coordinator.

"That's probably the strongest staff I've ever been on," Arians said. "Everyone checked their egos at the door and said, 'Let's get it done.' "

That's Arians' philosophy now. "I'm one of those coaches who likes to ask the guys what they like to do," he said. That's true with Roethlisberger, certainly. "He's said from day one, 'This is not my offense, Ben. It's yours,' " Roethlisberger said. But it's also true with a player such as backup running back Mewelde Moore, who had to step up as No. 1 when Parker and Rashard Mendenhall were hurt earlier in the season.

"Mo likes the field spread so that's what we tried to do," Arians said. "He did a real nice job for us."

That's what pleases Arians the most, that his offense hung in enough to make it to the Super Bowl despite losing Parker and Mendenhall, as well as tackle Marvel Smith and guard Kendall Simmons from a line that already had been rebuilt after guard Alan Faneca and center Sean Mahan left.

"I'm really excited for those guys up front, really proud of 'em." Arians said. "They've been overcriticized all season, but they've come on fantastically.

"It's funny, I was driving one day and I heard somebody on the radio say that [line coach] Larry Zierlein should be fired. I'm thinking, 'You gotta be kidding me. The guy should be coach of the year for the work he's done with those guys.' "

That's not likely to happen.

Nor will Arians get his due even if the Steelers ring up 40 on the Cardinals.

"You just can't change some people's minds even if you win a Super Bowl," he said, shrugging again.

Not that Arians cares much.

A second ring would be more than enough to stroke his ego.

"I want it for these players. It's all about those guys," Arians said.

"Coaching is like teaching. You want your students to do well. That's where your satisfaction comes from. You prepare them all week, then they have to take their test on Sunday in front of millions."

In the arena.

Where the doers are.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com.
First published on January 31, 2009 at 12:00 am

Super Bowl Diary: James Farrior

By James Farrior, FOR THE TRIBUNE-REVIEW
http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/sports/steelers/
Saturday, January 31, 2009

TAMPA, Fla. -- Steelers inside linebacker James Farrior probably enjoyed his greatest season in the NFL in 2008. He racked up a team-high 146 tackles -- the third-highest total of his career -- and was captain of a defense that ranked No. 1 in the league in total defense, No. 1 in pass defense and No. 2 in run defense.

Farrior was named to his second Pro Bowl, as the Steelers advanced to Super Bowl XLIII against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday. He shared his thoughts leading up to the game with the Tribune-Review. This is his final entry.

Revved up

"We had a good practice (Friday). The tempo was good. Everybody's starting to get into it and get excited. It's really starting to get down to it. Guys are getting wired up."

Keeping it light

"Coach (Mike) Tomlin doesn't get too emotional when he gives his pregame speech. He usually keeps it real lighthearted. He usually just tells us something funny that you can relate to football, usually about his two sons. He talks about them a lot and how he tries to develop them into being great young men and the things they go through and the things they think about when they're little kids. You just look back on it, how we were all at this point at one time. Stories like that. Then he'll get down to football and tell us what we need to do to win. Sometimes he talks (long). It depends. I don't know if I should tell you this, but me and Casey (Hampton) have bets on how long he's going to go. We've done it a few times and Hamp beat me every time. I thought it was going to be longer than what it was and Hamp was pretty much on point.

Game-day routine

"The day of the game, I wake up, go eat breakfast, go back to the room, take a shower, get dressed, and watch a little TV, usually the news. Sometimes I watch the pregame shows to see what the commentators are saying."

Differing opinions

"I really don't pay too much attention when I'm on there because I have a good idea what I was talking about. I've seen myself plenty of times on TV. I just like to see what the commentators say before the game and then what they turn around and say when the game is over. It's just funny sometimes how the tables turn and they go the opposite way. One week this guy's the best, the next week it's another guy."

Music selection

"I usually catch the last bus to the stadium, because I don't really need a lot of time to get ready. I don't need a lot of tape and all the extra stuff. I get my iPod ready with my pregame music, from the time I get into the locker room until I warm up. Probably at least 30-40 minutes. I listen to old-school, hardcore hip-hop, like Public Enemy. It's like the heavy metal of rap. That gets me fired up. That gets me started."

Making an impression

"The funniest thing to happen this week was the guy at media day on Wednesday with the raccoon hat. That dude was funny. He was sitting right beside me. He was close enough to kiss me, if he wanted to. He was asking me stuff about Steeler Nation and the fans. Then he had some words of wisdom, some type of poem that he wrote down for me, to inspire me for the game. He was a character. No, he didn't ask for my autograph."

In these times, Tomlin’s age is more of a factor than his race

By JASON WHITLOCK
The Kansas City Star
http://www.kansascity.com
January 30, 2009


TAMPA, Fla.: In the days leading up to Super Bowl XLIII, Mike Tomlin’s age is a far bigger story than his race.

In coaching years, Pittsburgh’s boss is a baby, just 36, the youngest man to lead a team to America’s most prestigious sporting event.

In the year of Obama, we’re constantly taking stock of how far we’ve come in this resilient, evolving country of ours. No one really cares that Mike Tomlin is black. It’s a small sidebar. He could become the second black coach in four years to win the Super Bowl, joining Tony Dungy. So what?

That’s how far we have come in my lifetime, in my career as a sports journalist.

It doesn’t get any bigger than the Super Bowl. And there are few leadership positions more influential than directing an NFL franchise. Just five years ago, Mike Tomlin would be the top story on Headline News, the lead to “60 Minutes” and on the front page of most magazines.

Youthful, charismatic, black and potentially leading the Pittsburgh Steelers to their sixth Super Bowl title, Tomlin would’ve been a movie script in 2004. Now, he’s just an outstanding young coach.

We all have reason to be proud. America created opportunity for all of its citizens, and Tomlin was wise enough to go pursue it. He ditched the idea of going to law school, chased his dream of being a football coach and rose to the top of his profession the same way Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher did before him. Noll and Cowher were in their mid 30s when they were tabbed to pilot the Steelers. It took them more than two years to qualify for the NFL’s showcase.

Doogie Tomlin is a coaching wunderkind.

“I feel extremely blessed,” Tomlin said Friday when questioned about his age. “I haven’t spent a bunch of time dwelling on that, truth be known. Those things are nice things to talk about, but I imagine that won’t be a topic of discussion for long. Maybe next year at this time, there will be guys like Josh McDaniels or Raheem Morris standing up here, and you won’t be talking about me. That’s football.”

That’s America. We’re always evolving and moving on. McDaniels and Morris are the 30-something coaches of the Broncos and the Buccaneers, respectively. Morris is just 32, three years removed from Ron Prince’s initial coaching staff, four years removed from being a coaching intern with the Bucs. Like Tomlin, Morris is black. Like Tomlin, Morris’ race is trumped by his youth.

This makes me incredibly happy. But I also don’t want to pass up the chance to remind young people of how much opportunity this country affords people willing to ignore the naysayers.

Tomlin and Morris made it because they believed they could. Obama is president because he believed he could.

Some of our peers missed on their chance to get their piece of the American Dream because they failed to recognize or accept that gaping holes had been blown through many of America’s walls of racial oppression.

What should they do now that the openings are obvious?

Well, it’s important for all young (and old) people to avoid getting trapped in a negative-defeatist attitude. Our economy is in bad shape, people are losing jobs and houses and being forced to start over. Just as we can see the inclusiveness of America’s opportunities, the opportunities appear to be shrinking.

You have to believe in America’s ability to heal itself and prepare yourself for the next round of amazing opportunities.

That’s what I think about when I see Mike Tomlin. He was ready when opportunity knocked. The Rooneys, the owners of the Steelers, initiated the “Rooney Rule” that required NFL teams to interview minority coaching candidates. When Cowher retired, it made perfect sense for the Rooneys to back up their beliefs with action.

Tomlin rewarded the Rooneys with consistent effort and maturity.

Nowhere else in the world do these stories happen as frequently as they do here. In America, we make history rapidly. Sometimes things change so fast here that we don’t even get a chance to admire our progress. The controversy about black coaches in the NFL is over.

The Mike Tomlin story is defined by age, not race.

To reach Jason Whitlock, call 816-234-4869 or send e-mail to jwhitlock@kcstar.com. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

Picking The Super Bowl? Remember The Obvious

By Jeff Neuman
http://www.realclearsports.com/
January 31, 2009


Defense wins championships.

It’s a truism that’s as old as the oblate spheroid itself. (Or is it prolate? I forget.) John Heisman probably preached it to his Georgia Techies, and took more pride in Cumberland’s zero than in his side’s 222 in their 1916 matchup.

Super Bowl XLIII presents a classic offense-defense matchup. When the Arizona Cardinals’ offense lines up against the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense, more than a quarter of the players on the field will be Pro Bowl selections for this season (Kurt Warner, Anquan Boldin, and Larry Fitzgerald; James Harrison, James Farrior, and Troy Polamalu). When the Pittsburgh offense takes on the Arizona defense… well, there’s Arizona safety Adrian Wilson. Moveable object, meet resistible force.

The Cardinals are a great story. Dismissed as one of the worst teams ever to make the playoffs, they’ve jelled at the perfect moment, and offer a multitude of attractive narratives: Warner’s comeback from oblivion. Fitzgerald’s emergence as the most exciting player in the game. Coaches Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm facing their former team. The second-longest championship drought in pro sports.

This Steelers team feels familiar, and thus unexciting. It won the Super Bowl three years ago, defeating the Seattle Seahawks in a game remembered more for officiating controversies than its plays or players. That was also a defense-oriented team, a bottom-seed that won three straight AFC playoff games on the road, holding the high-scoring Bengals to 17 points, the higher-scoring Colts to 18, the potent Broncos to 17, and the league’s top offense, Seattle, to 10.

Because of that familiarity, most watchers might not realize just how good this year’s Pittsburgh defense is. The Steelers allowed the fewest points in the league. They had the NFL’s best defense against both the rush and the pass, as measured in yards and net yards per attempt. The last team to achieve that trifecta was the pre-merger Minnesota Vikings in 1969.

The Cardinals’ performance in the playoffs has brushed aside the memory of how they played for sixteen games. Their nine wins – tied for fewest for a Super Bowl team – came against teams whose record in their other games was a combined 53-82. Their seven losses came against teams that were otherwise 62-41. Which record seems more like Pittsburgh’s? The Steelers’ defense held opposing quarterbacks to a 60.6 rating over sixteen games – worse than Dan Orlovsky or Derek Anderson or anyone who qualified for the year-end rankings. Arizona’s defense allowed a 95.4 quarterback rating –essentially, Peyton Manning. Arizona gave up more points than all but four teams: the Lions, Chiefs, Broncos, and Rams. The only team with anything close to as poor a defensive record among the last ten Super Bowl winners was the Indianapolis Colts, who defeated the Chicago Bears in SB XLI. Ben Roethlisberger isn’t Rex Grossman.

And what’s so impressive about Arizona’s run, anyway? They beat Atlanta when Matt Ryan played the way a rookie quarterback is supposed to play in a road playoff game. They won on the road in Carolina thanks to Jake Delhomme’s six-turnover implosion. They won at home against a Philadelphia team whose blitzing scheme played perfectly into Warner’s hands.

Pittsburgh meanwhile controlled San Diego, the only offense to outscore Arizona’s, holding them to ten points through three quarters and never letting them get within one score despite two fourth-quarter touchdowns. Then the Steelers won an epic physical battle with Baltimore, allowing the Ravens to get close before the defense delivered the clinching touchdown.

The Steelers’ season was more impressive; so was their playoff performance against better teams. The point spread opened at seven, a few points fewer than I’d have expected – and hasn’t moved in two weeks. Usually, when the spread surprises you, it’s wise to remember that the oddsmakers know more than you do.

This year, though, the world seems to be talking itself into picking the Cardinals. The Steelers are being relegated to the role of “the other guys.” This may be the first time in Super Bowl history that a clear favorite has the added motivation that they’re being overlooked.

Defense wins championships. Pittsburgh 29, Arizona 16.

Jeff Neuman is a sportswriter and editor, and co-author of A Disorderly Compendium of Golf.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Tomlin earns respect

Friday, January 30, 2009
By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/


Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, third from left, poses with his players for the team photo at the end of media day Tuesday at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla.


TAMPA, Fla. -- Nobody is really sure which player was the first to be "posted" by the new coach -- Larry Foote or Hines Ward. Not that it really mattered. What mattered was that one of the two veterans stepped afoul of the guidelines set forth by Mike Tomlin and found their names posted in the locker room on something called "The News."

In Foote's case, he had reported to minicamp a couple pounds heavier than the previous season. • "It could be good news or it could be bad news, but, normally, it's bad news," Foote said. "If you see 'The News' on that board the whole locker room goes, 'Oh-oh, someone's in trouble.' "

That's how it started with Mike Tomlin. That's how he began to change the climate with the Steelers, how he started to get the attention of his players, how he started to convince them there will be a standard to which they will be held.

"You do something outside the realm of his authority, he'd post it out there," Ward said. "He wouldn't do anything about it. But he was putting you out there. He would let your teammates judge you."

Little by little, Tomlin held them accountable. Foote. Ward. All of them. Didn't matter if they were a Pro Bowl veteran or a rookie free agent. He treated them all the same, demanded the same.

And, little by little, he broke them down, too. Changed the way they practiced. Changed what they could wear to practice. Took what they had done under Bill Cowher -- a way that was immensely successful -- and changed that, too, never mind that the Steelers were just two years removed from a Super Bowl championship when Tomlin arrived.

"Coming in behind a legendary coach in Bill Cowher, how he handled himself, has been tremendous," said defensive end Nick Eason. "It wasn't an easy task."

But Tomlin did it. He didn't change the defense, even though the concepts under which he learned -- a 4-3 alignment, Cover 2 in the secondary, little blitzing -- were philosophically different from the scheme and style employed by defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. He didn't try to change the offense that was being implemented by Bruce Arians, who spent the previous three seasons as wide receivers coach in an offense run by Ken Whisenhunt, Tomlin's coaching counterpart on the field Sunday in Super Bowl XLIII.

Rather, he was more interested in changing the way the players believe. And what they believe.

More specifically, he wanted to get them to believe in him. Get them to believe in what he does.

"There really wasn't resentment, but it was a little uncertainty," said Ward, an 11-year veteran with the most continuous years of service on the roster. "We just came off two years since we won a Super Bowl and he came down on us -- you had to wear long shells to practice, you had to wear full gear, guys couldn't go out there with Georgia shirts or their alumni schools underneath their uniforms. He wanted it to be team-issued stuff.

"It could have been like, 'Man, why is this guy doing all this stuff? We just won a Super Bowl. Who's to say you can come in and change it?' But there was none of that. It was like, 'OK, this is what you want? Whatever. We'll test it and see how far we can go.' "

Two years later, they have discovered how far they can go.

All the way to a Super Bowl matchup with the Arizona Cardinals, a chance to become the first franchise to win six Super Bowl titles, an opportunity to become the only franchise other than the Dallas Cowboys to have three different coaches win a Super Bowl trophy.

Impressive?

That's the word Art Rooney II, the Steelers president, used to describe Tomlin the first time he met him. It was the defining word then.

And it's the applicable word now.

Sharp mind

There is little about Tomlin that is not impressive. That was apparent immediately to Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin the first time he met Tomlin in 2001. Tomlin, an assistant at the University of Cincinnati, was interviewing to become the Buccaneers' secondary coach.

"You could feel the room come alive," Kiffin said.

Indeed, Tomlin is no ordinary NFL coach. He reads and quotes Robert Frost, uses expressions such as "thoughtfully non-rhythmic," "standard of expectation" and "iron sharpens iron" and is never unprepared for any question. His weekly Tuesday news conference, a feeder system for YouTube, could become a training film for orators and debaters, right down to the expressionless faces he often uses to accompany his delivery.

"The sharpness, his quickness on his feet, there is no panic in him," said former Detroit Lions coach Rod Marinelli, an assistant coach with Tomlin at Tampa Bay. "When you're confident in yourself and your abilities, you can go a long way."

Not a surprise for a person who attended college at William & Mary, a school that produces presidents and, as Tomlin once noted, "No dummies."

"You never can stump the guy," said inside linebacker James Farrior, who is just three years younger than Tomlin and even played against him in college when Farrior was at the University of Virginia. "He's got an answer for everything, no matter what it is."

"It's hard to question him because he is so intelligent," said defensive end Aaron Smith. "He doesn't do anything just to do it. He always has a reason or a thought process. I think sometimes you'll get intimidated because he's not going to be a politician. He's not going to be rude or abrasive, but he's not going to be a guy who will do what everyone else thinks we should do."

That was apparent this season.

In control

Nose tackle Casey Hampton and running back Willie Parker share more than just a couple Pro Bowl appearances between them. They each incurred Tomlin's wrath this season, each for what their coach perceived to be selfish reasons.

Hampton, a four-time Pro Bowl selection, received the harshest penalty: Banishment to the physically unable to perform list for reporting 40 pounds overweight to training camp. Parker's crime -- saying the offense had drifted away from "Steelers football" because they weren't running enough -- did not incur the same type of punishment as Hampton, although the public rebuke he received from his coach was as biting as it was memorable.

"Every morning I come to work, I walk past five Lombardis, not five rushing titles," Tomlin said in response to Parker's gripe.

Three days after the public flogging, Tomlin appointed Parker a game captain against the Baltimore Ravens -- the psychological equivalent of a father rubbing his son's hair after a lecture.

"He never sugarcoats it," Parker said. "What you see is what you get. He pretty much tells you what you're doing right and what you're doing wrong. "

Such was the case with Hampton, who, despite his stature as one of the most likable players on the team, spent nearly a month on the PUP list because Tomlin thought he was guilty of insubordination. Tomlin had warned Hampton several months earlier to report to training camp in shape. When he didn't, the second-year coach acted swiftly and harshly, never once worrying about what kind of divisive impact it could have.

"At the end of the day, he's the coach," Hampton said. "What he says is gonna go. I have no problem with it. I told him my piece and he told me his piece, and it was what it was."

What it was, though, was just another reminder of who is the boss, just in case anyone was wondering.

"Last year it was just his way," Hampton said. "He was trying to put his stamp on this team, let them know this is his team. Being a younger coach, being close to the same age [as some of the players], he had to do that, and he did it. But this year he's done a better job of listening to guys and leaning on the veterans little more."

Defensive-minded

Mewelde Moore had seen this before. He is the only member of the Steelers who has been on another team where Tomlin was a coach. Moore, a backup running back, was with the Minnesota Vikings when Tomlin was their defensive coordinator in 2006.

"He's definitely a trail-blazer," Moore said. "And he makes an impact."

Before Tomlin arrived, the Vikings ranked No. 21 in the league in total defense, No. 19 against the run. In his first season, they jumped to No. 8 in total defense, No. 1 against the run. They were the only team to not allow a 100-yard rusher that season -- sound familiar? -- and held the Detroit Lions to minus-3 yards rushing, the lowest total by an NFL team in 45 years.

Even when he departed after one season to join the Steelers, Tomlin's blueprint remains intact. The Vikings were the only team to rank ahead of the Steelers in rush defense this season and finished No. 8 in total defense.

"At that point, when he arrived, it was broken," Moore said of the Vikings' defense. "We had very little defense then and he pretty much fixed that. The guys knew that he knew what he was talking about and they bought into it."

It took a little while, though. Veteran players such as Kevin Williams, Pat Williams and Darren Sharper balked at Tomlin's strict manner and insistent demeanor. But, by the end of the season, they were the same players who were sorry to see him go to the Steelers.

"The day he stepped in, he took control," Moore said. "Guys respect that and guys respond to that."

Big accomplishments

It has not been as easy task.

A shoulder separation sustained by his $100 million quarterback in the season opener. A knee injury to his Pro Bowl running back in Week 4. Four new starters on an offensive line that has been adequate at best, disorganized and ineffective at worst. Three different punters. A secondary in which one cornerback had a broken forearm and a safety had two dislocated shoulders. And the league's toughest schedule.

And look what happened: The second-best record in the NFL. One of only two teams -- Arizona is the other -- to finish undefeated in the division. An AFC championship game victory at Heinz Field ... finally. A seventh Super Bowl appearance, second most among NFL franchises.

"I am always going to be open to change, if it produces better results," Tomlin said the other day. "Like every year I have been in this profession, I analyze the things I have done and how I potentially could have done something better to produce a better outcome.

"Thankfully, we are where we sit here today. I don't know if it is any way directly related to some of the decisions that I made, but I will always be searching for the ceiling in terms of putting our team in the best position to perform."

He might have to search higher. In two years, the ceiling has already been raised to impressive heights.

Coming in behind a legendary coach in Bill Cowher, how he handled himself has been tremendous. It wasn't an easy task."

-- Nick Eason, defensive end


Quick starts

Here's a quick look at five young upstart coaches that reached the championship level before the age of 40:

Bob Knight

Age: 24

Upon graduating from Ohio State in 1962, Bob Knight coached high school basketball for a year before taking the head coaching job at West Point Military Academy in 1963. At the age of 24, he became the youngest head coach in major-college history. Thirteen years later, Knight would lead Indiana to college basketball's only undefeated season (32-0) and his first of three NCAA championships.

Don Shula

Age: 33

At the age of 33, Don Shula became the youngest coach in the NFL when he took the reigns of the Baltimore Colts in 1963. It wasn't long before he reached the Super Bowl, taking the Colts to the title game five years later when Joe Namath and the Jets upset Baltimore in Super Bowl III. Four years later, Shula would lead the 1972 Dolphins to the NFL's only undefeated season and a Super Bowl title.

Bill Russell

Age: 32

When Bill Russell retired in 1969, he had the unparalleled achievement of two NCAA titles, Olympic gold and 11 NBA championship rings, including the final two titles as player/coach. At the age of 32, Russell took over for Red Auerbach in 1966 and led the Celtics to championships in '68 and '69. More important, Russell became the first black coach in NBA history.

Danny Ford

Age: 33

At 30, Clemson's Danny Ford started his head coaching career in the 1978 Gator Bowl with a 17-15 win against coaching legend Woody Hayes in his last game at Ohio State. Three years later, Ford became the youngest coach in NCAA history to win a national championship at age 33 when he led the Tigers to the 1981 title -- Clemson's first and only championship.

Jon Gruden

Age: 39

After spending four successful years with the Raiders, Jon Gruden took over the Buccaneers' head coaching job in 2002 and was 39 when he led Tampa Bay to a 12-4 record -- the best in franchise history -- en route to its only Super Bowl title. He is the youngest coach in NFL history to claim the Lombardi Trophy. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, 36, could break that record Sunday.

First published on January 30, 2009 at 12:00 am

Ward will play the ultimate chip Sunday

Knee injury gives Steelers wide receiver the edge he needs to be super

Friday, January 30, 2009
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/


Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Receiver Hines Ward has fielded many questions about his knee that he injured in the AFC championship against the Ravens.


TAMPA, Fla. --It's not exactly a breaking story that Hines Ward's troubled right knee will have a big impact on Super Bowl XLIII Sunday night. It has been talked about all week, hasn't it? It has been talked about almost nonstop since he sprained the thing in the first half of the AFC championship game. "So much that I think my knee deserves an Oscar award or something," Ward said yesterday.

But the impact won't be what you think. It's not going to be the bum knee limiting Ward's effectiveness or failing to hold up for four long hours, which would sabotage the Steelers' chances of beating the Arizona Cardinals. It's going to be the knee inspiring Ward to play one of his greatest games.

Read this next sentence twice because it's so important:

Ward's knee injury is the best thing that could have happened to the Steelers.

Again:

Ward's knee injury is the best thing that could have happened to the Steelers.

"The ultimate chip," he called it yesterday.

"It definitely adds a little fuel to my fire. I want to prove to the naysayers that I can play in this game. I know they're saying I can't do this and I can't do that. I know they're saying I can only run this route or that route because my knee is hurt. No. I want to run all my routes. I want to show the world I can play and help my team win."

That's good enough for me.

I'm not going to predict another Super Bowl MVP award for Ward, but I am convinced he's going to have a big night.

Clearly, Ward is thinking the same way.

"I'm not going to make any bold guarantees," he said. "But what if we win and I have a big game? A 150-yard game? What if I go out there and really rip it up? On one leg?

"That would be a great story, wouldn't it?"

Don't tell me you will be surprised if it happens. C'mon, you know Ward, too. You know how he thinks. You know what drives him. You know he has built a Hall of Fame career, one chip -- real or imagined -- on his shoulder at a time.

Being drafted in the third round in 1998. "Nobody thought I was going to make it," he has said dozens of times since.

Watching the Steelers take not just wide receiver Troy Edwards with their No. 1 draft pick in '99, but Plaxico Burress at No. 1 in 2000. Where are those guys now? Who's still producing big time for the Steelers?

Being told that he couldn't make a Pro Bowl. He has been to four and, on top of that, owns just about every Steelers receiving record.

Having people question if he was worth a huge contract. I plead guilty; I remember calling him "a singles hitter," much to my regret.

Being told that he wouldn't earn that huge money. He won the Super Bowl MVP award the same season he signed his megadeal.

Hearing whispers that he couldn't bounce back this season, at 32, after some tough injuries in '07. He had his fifth 1,000-yard receiving season.

And now the ultimate chip?

"People ask me [if Ward will play Sunday], and I want to smack them," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "First of all, it's the Super Bowl. Second of all, it's Hines Ward. He's going to be out there and he's going to be just fine."


Hines Ward stretches during practice at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Florida January 28, 2009 in preparation for the NFL's Super Bowl XLIII football game to be played February 1.(Reuters)

Ward tested his knee in practice for the first time here yesterday. That he did so in a steady rain should tell you that coach Mike Tomlin and the team's medical staff think he's OK -- or at least will be by Sunday night. "Awesome," Tomlin called his work.

Still, Ward said he wasn't going anywhere near all out in practice. "Why should I? There's no rush. I want to save all I can until I get into the game. You don't win the Super Bowl on Thursday or Friday."

No, you win it Sunday.

"Oh, yeah, he'll be there on Sunday," Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said. "He's a money player. In money games, he's going to show up big."

It should be pointed out here that this isn't just hopeful talk by teammates and coaches who realize they need Ward to beat the Cardinals. Roethlisberger, Tomlin and Arians know Ward better than any of us. They're convinced he'll play and play well because, as Roethlisberger noted yet one more time, "It's Hines Ward."

There's actually a feeling around the team that Ward is better prepared to play Sunday than he was in Super Bowl XL, when he won the MVP award. He popped his shoulder in the Friday practice before that game and -- his words now -- "couldn't reach my arm over my shoulder the morning of the game ...

"But I took a shot and played. Once the adrenaline got going and the shot kicked in, I didn't even know I had an injury. I felt it the next day, but it was all worth it.

"I expect it to be the same way Sunday. I don't think I'll even know I have a knee injury or that I'm wearing a knee brace."

Ward isn't likely to win another MVP award, but it won't be because of his knee. If he has a big game, they'll probably give it to Roethlisberger. When Ward won in Super Bowl XL in Detroit, it was because Roethlisberger had a rotten 9-for-21, 123-yard, two-interception night. Ward scored the clinching touchdown in the Steelers' 21-10 victory against Seattle on a gimmick play, a pass from wide receiver Antwaan Randle El.

"I'd love to see Ben win it," Ward said. "I'd love to see any of my teammates win it because that means we probably won the game."

How Roethlisberger will play Sunday after his rocky Detroit experience has been discussed nearly as much as Ward's knee. Ward offered his two cents' worth.

A dollar's worth, really.

"Whatever stats Ben had in that first Super Bowl, I don't see that same guy anymore. It's his team now. He doesn't have to look over Jerome Bettis' shoulder to be a leader. He doesn't have to look over Alan Faneca's shoulder. Now, guys are looking over his shoulder as the leader and saying, 'Lead us. Take us to the Promised Land.'

"I look for Ben to go out and have a great day. He's on a mission. He really wants to go out there and redeem himself."

The Steelers need that, for sure. But they're also going to need plenty from Ward. They were fortunate to beat the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC title game without him in the second half. They won't beat the Cardinals without him.

Good thing Ward will be there.

Ultimate chip on his shoulder and all.


Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com.
First published on January 30, 2009 at 12:00 am

Woodson, Dawson, Grimm could get Hall call

By Bill Beckner Jr., VALLEY NEWS DISPATCH
Friday, January 30, 2009

TAMPA, Fla. — His legacy already cemented among the all-time greats, Rod Woodson will find out this weekend if it will be bronzed, too.


Rod Woodson

The former Steelers great is one of 15 finalists for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The 44-member selection committee will meet Saturday morning in Tampa to decide who gets in. Likely, four to seven men will be selected.

Other finalists include former Steelers center Dermontti Dawson and former Redskins offensive lineman and current Arizona Cardinals assistant coach Russ Grimm.

Woodson said he would be honored, but he isn't overly concerned with getting a bust in Canton, Ohio.

"I never started playing football to be in the Hall of Fame," said Woodson, who spent 10 years knocking down passes and returning kicks and punts for the Steelers. "I started playing Little League football because my brothers played. I just got a little bit better every year. When I got to the NFL, I played alright."

Alright?

Talk in Tampa this week is that the former defensive back is a lock to be a first-ballot pick. After all, he was named to the NFL's 1990s All-Decade and 75th Anniversary teams.

Many say he redefined his position.

"I am done competing," said Woodson, who played 17 seasons. "If the writers want to put me in the Hall of Fame (that's okay); if they don't, I have a beautiful wife, five beautiful kids and ,God willing, I will wake up the next day."

Woodson, who won a Super Bowl in 2000 with the Baltimore Ravens and appeared in another with the Oakland Raiders in '02, is here this week working for the NFL Network.

There are 19 defensive backs in the Hall. Woodson can match stats with any of them. He returned 12 interceptions for touchdowns — an NFL record — and also found the end zone via fumble return, punt return and kick return.

"Rod was a great player," Steelers cornerback Deshea Townsend said. "When you say cornerback in our era, you say Deion Sanders and Rod Woodson. Those are the first two that come to mind."

Ike Taylor added, "He was the total package. I know I'd vote for him."

Former Rams star running back Marshall Faulk, who also works for the NFL Network, thinks it would be a mockery if Woodson doesn't make it.

"Are you kidding me? The guy has been elected to the Pro Bowl at two positions," Faulk said. "If Rod is not (a first-ballot Hall of Famer), we really have to examine this thing."


Dermontti Dawson

Woodson and Dawson served as honorary captains before the Steelers played the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game. They would like nothing more than to join each other in the class of 2009.

"He's the first center I've ever seen snap the ball and lead for a sweep," Woodson said of Dawson. "He was a tremendous athlete. He could slam a basketball. He was a pretty good golfer, too. He was probably the strongest guy on the team. Talk to all the linebackers; they'll tell you how good he was.

"Mike Webster was there for so long. Dermontti came in and still played at such a high level."

The current Steelers also are pulling for Dawson, who retired in 2000. The offensive linemen wore No. 63 Dawson jerseys for a team photo during Tuesday's media day.

Dawson, who's a real estate developer in Lexington, Ky., was a Hall finalist in 2005, '06, '07 and '08.

Grimm, who played with the Redskins' vaunted "Hogs" offensive line of the 1980s, is more focused on Sunday's game than Saturday's Hall announcement.

"It would be great if it comes along, but it's not in my hands," Grimm said. "The guys will vote Saturday. I will sit and watch. Hopefully, I'll make it. If not, hopefully there are bigger things on Sunday."

Grimm, a Southmoreland and Pitt product, would like to follow two former Redskins into the Hall. Last year, Darrell Green and Art Monk — finally — got the call.

"It's hard to compare," Grimm said. "Offensive linemen don't really have any stats — so many of this, so many of that. We'll see what happens."

Grimm won three Super Bowls as a player and one as an assistant coach with the Steelers in 2006 (XL).

Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, Grimm's teammate as a tight end with the Redskins, also served on Bill Cowher's staff that season.

"He's one of the best players ever at his position to play in this league," Whisenhunt said of Grimm. "I'm very hopeful he'll get in."

Even though it's the Super Bowl, and whether he admits, Grimm isn't one to forget his roots.

"I imagine if (the Cardinals) weren't here, I'd probably be rooting for Pittsburgh," he said.

Woodson also is rooting for former Broncos and Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe to get inducted.

Woodson, Sharpe, Bruce Smith and John Randle are the only first-year eligible players to make the final cut.

Players become eligible for enshrinement five years after they retire.

"To me, you look at what Shannon did to that position," Woodson said. "He was one of the trendsetters, very similar to (Kellen) Winslow. And he was strong enough to block or get open and catch a pass and take it the distance. He was the ultimate tight end.

Although, Woodson added, "If he gets in, we probably wouldn't get a word in. He'll probably talk for about an hour and a half."

There are only seven tight ends in the Hall, including Winslow and Mike Ditka.

Big Ben, Whisenhunt make amends

By Scott Brown, TRIBUNE-REVIEW
http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/sports/
Friday, January 30, 2009

TAMPA, Fla. — Away from the spectacle of Super Bowl media day earlier this week, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger talked face-to-face with Arizona Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt.

And he apologized to the former Steelers offensive coordinator.

Roethlisberger lashed out after comments Whisenhunt made two years ago, shortly after the latter had taken the head coaching job in Arizona. Whisenhunt said he thought the trauma Roethlisberger had experienced before the 2006 season affected his play.

"At the time, I was hurt by it and was just immature about the whole situation," Roethlisberger said Thursday. "I know that he wasn't trying to say anything negative about me. He was just trying to make a statement. I know that now."

Roethlisberger was in a serious motorcycle accident in June 2006. He underwent an emergency appendectomy before the start of the 2006 season and was knocked out of a game in October with a concussion.

Whisenhunt had said Roethlisberger never looked comfortable in the pocket that season.

Roethlisberger said he reacted to seemingly innocuous comments the way he did because he still was dealing with Whisenhunt leaving the Steelers.

Whisenhunt had been the Steelers' offensive coordinator in Roethlisberger's first three NFL seasons.

"I told him 'You know what? I almost felt abandoned,' " Roethlisberger said. "After you're in the league a couple of years and you know it's a business and you know coaches leave and they do what's best for themselves and their family. When you come from high school and college, you don't really experience that."

Roethlisberger and Whisenhunt said at the beginning of the week that no rift existed between them.

Of Tuesday's chat at Raymond James Stadium, Roethlisberger said, "I was just glad I got a chance to talk to him in person."

It's curtains for Kurt Warner

Steelers' defense won't let the Arizona quarterback enjoy a fairy-tale ending

By Bill Plaschke
Los Angeles Times
http://www.latimes.com
January 30, 2009

Chris Morrison / US Presswire

The Minnesota Vikings and Jared Allen defeated the Arizona Cardinals and Kurt Warner, 35-14, by constantly pressuring the quarterback on Dec. 14.



TAMPA, Fla. -- The fairy tale is that, if he wins Sunday, the Arizona Cardinals quarterback has promised to buy his family a puppy.

The reality show is that the Pittsburgh Steelers are going to whip the dog out of him.

The fairy tale is that, while dining with his family every Friday night before home games, the Arizona Cardinals quarterback picks up a stranger's bill.

The reality show is that the Pittsburgh Steelers are going to cash him out.

The fairy tale is that, for the second time in a bungee-jump of a career, Kurt Warner will finish work Sunday as the sweetest of Super Bowl heroes.

The reality show is that the Pittsburgh Steelers will make him melt in their mouthpieces.

Amid the grandeur of Big Ben, the edge of Edge and the brass of The Boss, this is a Super Bowl of two inexorably connected stories.

One is Warner, a deeply religious and righteous man who is trying to complete a career comeback out of a Kevin Costner movie.

The other is the Steelers' defense, a deeply nasty and noxious group that wants to hit him with a load of Eastwood.

Two stories, one ending, and, take it from me, it's not going to be pretty.

Last year, before the game, in this space, I gave you the New York Giants as your Cinderella Super Bowl champs.

This year, the win goes to the wicked.

The Steelers not only win, they win big, fracturing the fairy tale with countless forearms, knocking destiny on its duff.

Leading the conference in passer rating and leading the league in praise quotes, Warner is the Super Bowl's annual heartwarming star.

Leading the league in defense, the Steelers are the Super Bowl's annual unruly mob.

Once the game begins, feel-good won't have a chance against hit-hard.

It hasn't for, oh, XLII years.

"You know," Steelers safety Ryan Clark said with an odd grin. "we've been kind of thinking that ourselves."

::

Kurt Warner is Oprah.

He stepped off the plane from Arizona here wearing a perfectly pressed suit. He will step to the postgame interview podium carrying a well-worn Bible.

"It's fun, it's gratifying," he said.

The Steelers are Jerry Springer.

They stepped off the plane in baggy sweats. They have conducted interviews with wrinkled shirts and visors on backward.

"It's not about fun, it's about winning," barked running back Willie Parker.

From the moment he became one of the few 37-year-olds to steal a job from a former first-round draft pick -- Matt Leinart -- Warner has a been a blast.

Nearly a decade after winning a Super Bowl with the St. Louis Rams - and after being benched four times for three teams in the interim -- the openly devout old guy has become, well, reborn.

He was given two of the league's best receivers in Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. He was given former Steelers offensive guru Ken Whisenhunt.

Then, at the start of the playoffs, he was given rested standout running Edgerrin James.

And, oh yeah, through it all, Kurt Warner was also given this huge chip.

"I think the perception around the league about me was that I couldn't play anymore," he said this week.

The nicest of guys couldn't help but mimic his critics: " 'There was no more football left in him, and he's basically just trying to survive' ."

He said the league thought he was another Emmitt Smith, going to Arizona to quietly end his career: " 'The Cardinals won't win, Kurt Warner can't really play, so I guess it's a fine mix.' "

Then the playoffs began, and three upsets later, the story just got better.

"I think they knew something that a lot of people didn't, or took a chance on something that a lot of people wouldn't," Warner said of the Cardinals. "So that's been one of the neat parts of the story; they took a chance, I took a chance, and together, we've made something special happen."

Until now.

With the Steelers bearing down, Warner's story Sunday will be special only in a red-light sort of way, his value lessening with each hit.

"And when you hit people in a timing offense like Arizona's, it can throw everything off," Clark said.

The Steelers will hit them, first, with numbers.

Warner lead the NFC with a 96.9 passer rating? The Steelers ranked second in the league by giving up only a 63.4 passer rating.

Warner had seven games of at least 300 yards passing? The Steelers gave up zero 300-yard passing games.

Warner always seemed to slip out of trouble, avoiding both sacks and interceptions? The Steelers led the league in combined sacks and picks.

"We think they're going to try to spread it out on us, but that's fine," Clark said. "That means that we'll have our pass rushers going one-on-one against some of their offensive lineman. We like that matchup."

Led by defensive player of the year linebacker James Harrison, the Steelers' defense ranked second in the league with 51 sacks. The Cardinals' offensive line hasn't seen this big, this quick, this many.

If Warner avoids the pain, his receivers won't, the Steelers giving up a league-best five yards per passing attempt, and only four 100-yard receivers all season.

"Playing tough is what we do, it's who we are," Steelers linebacker James Farrior said. "When you hit people like we hit people, everything changes."

Comebacks change. Fables change. Destiny changes.

To Warner's happy promise that he would buy his family a puppy if he wins this Super Bowl, the hardened Steelers will have but one loud, long, answer.

Dog gone.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com.

Steel Curtain Lives On

By ANWAR S. RICHARDSON
Tampa Tribune
http://www2.tbo.com/sports/
Published: January 30, 2009

In this Sept. 14, 2008, file photo, Cleveland Browns running back Jamal Lewis (31) is stopped by Pittsburgh Steelers linebackers James Farrior (51) and Larry Foote (50) during the first quarter of an NFL football game in Cleveland. The Pittsburgh Steelers' defense is one of the best in the NFL history. But as linebacker Larry Foote said, who remembers great defenses from team that don't win championships?(AP)


TAMPA - There is not a steel curtain big enough for this year's Pittsburgh defense to hide behind.

Pittsburgh finished with the NFL's top-ranked defense this season. Many are impressed by the dynamic play of linebacker James Harrison and safety Troy Polamalu. Nobody can knock the unit for leading the Steelers to Sunday's Super Bowl against Arizona.

As a result, an annual Pittsburgh tradition is under way - comparing a current defense to the famed "Steel Curtain."

"You're always going to be reminded about that until you do something about it," Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley said. "When you go out and play good defense, a lot of people from around the city start saying, 'You kind of remind me of that team from the '70s and '80s.'"

Nevertheless, reminding people about Pittsburgh's previous glory and repeating those achievements are totally different.

"There is always somebody that set the bar. They Steel Curtain set the bar," former Dallas Cowboys running back Tony Dorsett said. "They were the best. That's it. You're trying to compare how good this defense is. They had the No. 1-rated defense in the league, but I just don't see how you can compare them.

"They have guys who obviously played well, but the Steel Curtain was just magical."

The magic began in the 1970s when "Mean" Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Ernie Holmes and Dwight White formed one of the best defensive lines in NFL history. Linebackers Jack Lambert and Jack Ham were regarded as extraordinary hitters, and cornerback Mel Blount added to the Steelers' intimidating defense.

Pittsburgh won seven AFC Central division titles (six consecutive), made eight straight playoff appearances and won four Super Bowls.

Dorsett faced Pittsburgh's defense in Super Bowl XIII and rushed 16 times for 96 yards, but the Cowboys lost 35-31. Pittsburgh not only won the game but gained Dorsett's respect.

"When we played those guys, I'll never forget when we were in the Super Bowl, I'd seen them beat up some of my wide receivers," Dorsett said. "I used to tease my wide receivers about getting hurt.

"I would say, 'Are you going to see the wizard,' and they would ask, 'Why?' I would say, 'You're going to need some courage to play the Pittsburgh Steelers.'"

Since Pittsburgh's defensive success of the 1970s, which led to Hall of Fame inductions for Lambert, Blount, Ham and Greene, every time Pittsburgh's defense plays well, the comparisons begin.

Even though no Steelers team has equaled their predecessors' dominant streak, former players understand the historical link.

"If you look at Pittsburgh, and you think about the black and gold, you think about the blue-collar workers. You think about tough, hard-nosed football," former Pittsburgh running back Rocky Bleier said. "I think that has continued through the years. At the time when we played, that was established. Mean Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Donnie Shell, Mel Blount - all of those great, solid, Hall of Fame players that established that aura of what Steelers football is all about.

"It continued with great players in the '80s and '90s and obviously now in the 2000s. It's a tradition that has been built. From the media and fan perspective, when you think about the Steelers, you think it's just a tough, hard-nosed ballgame, the way it should be played. Buckle up, because we're coming."

Although teams have been unable to duplicate the Steel Curtain's collective success, Pittsburgh's staple continues to be its linebackers.

Pittsburgh has sent at least one linebacker to the Pro Bowl in 33 of the past 39 seasons. The torch once held by Ham, Lambert and Andy Russell has been passed to Mike Merriweather, Greg Lloyd, Levon Kirkland, Kevin Greene and Joey Porter, and now to Harrison and Woodley.

"Everybody wants to be included in a group of elite people, whether it's linemen, linebackers or whatever it may be," Harrison said. "You just want to come in and try to hold up the tradition. You don't want to be the guy who comes in and slacks down.

"When they say that 'Pittsburgh comes in with a great set of linebackers except for so-and-so,' you don't want to be that guy."

This year's defense understands all the history, but the unit is not trying to hide behind the Steel Curtain.

Pittsburgh's defense just wants its own label.

Super Bowl XLIII champions.

"There is a legacy that is passed down," Polamalu said. "There is a mentality that is passed down from year to year that is always here for the Steelers. However, each year there is a different identity for a team.

"From last year to this year, it's two completely different teams. It's the adversity, the circumstances you face each year are different. I would say our identity has changed, but the mentality hasn't changed."

Anwar S. Richardson can be reached at (813) 259-8425.

Hines Ward & Ben Roethlisberger at heart of Steelers' Super mettle

BY HANK GOLA
DAILY NEWS SPORTS WRITER
http://www.nydailynews.com/
Friday, January 30th 2009, 2:24 AM

Ben Roethlisberger and Hines Ward celebrate their 23-14 win against the Baltimore Ravens during the AFC Championship game on January 18, 2009 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.(Getty Images)


TAMPA - Toughness is so inbred in the Steelers that when the Cardinals organization wanted to break its culture of losing, it tried to tap into Pittsburgh's success by hiring Ken Whisenhunt.

The Cardinals feel they finally turned that corner this year, but the Steelers won't let you into their locker room if you even blink. If Super Bowl XLIII is going to separate the men from the boys, the Steelers feel they patented the mold decades ago.

"You don't last if you're not tough here," running back Willie Parker said. "It's a blue-collar city and the whole culture is being tough. When a rookie or somebody new comes in, you can tell if somebody fits right away, especially once we start hitting."

"Everybody on our team has a physical nature. There's nobody on this team who will back down from a fight," said big-hitting safety Ryan Clark. "Whether it's taking on blocks, making tackles, nobody shies away. We have a receiver who will break your jaw, we have a quarterback who for the sake of making a play will try to break four or five tackles. We've got a middle linebacker who needs to wear a neck brace from hitting so much. It just resonates throughout our building that we are a physically and mentally tough group. That's what set us apart this year."

That is why Ben Roethlisberger played through a shoulder injury for the first part of the year and why Hines Ward will suit up after injuring his knee in the AFC Championship Game.

"We're sacrificing," said receiver Santonio Holmes. "We're a group of guys that's willing to put everything on the line for each other. You probably don't get too many teams that want to do that. Myself, I've been hurt all season. I've had nicks and bruises, I've had shoulder and ankle injuries and I still wanted to play. I've seen Hines bandaged up for four weeks straight with a pulled quad muscle still going out there and trying to make as many plays as possible. That just shows the dedication and the heart and the soul we have for this team."

Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, for instance, says he has a Plan B in place for Ward but thinks Plan A will be just fine.

"I look to last year when we had Jacksonville in the playoff and his knee was a lot worse," he explained. "He only caught 11 balls for about 150 yards. Hines is a money player. He doesn't miss the money games."

Actually, as Parker said, it's "weird" that Ward is the only real injury concern. At one point, the Steelers seemed to be losing a running back a week (Parker missed five games with a knee injury) while Roethlisberger was just trying to get by.

"It's amazing, what they've been through all season and now all of a sudden you see Ben throwing 60 yards in practice where he couldn't throw 40 for six to eight weeks and Willie flying around looking like Willie in training camp," Arians said.

He also said you "can't measure" Roethlisberger's toughness.

"Twice this year we lined up in the hotel on Sunday and he was trying to throw a football to see if he could play," Arians revealed. "And he threw for 300 yards. He took us from behind and won a game when four hours before the game he could barely get his shoulder back.

"That's the thing people don't know about him. I get upset with the national media when they use the word drama. This guy is a warrior. To play that position and to take the hits he takes, you're going to get beat up. The shot he took in the back against Baltimore didn't look like much but it stunned him pretty good. He was in the tunnel and he thought he'd broken a rib."

"That toughness is just within us," Parker said. "We thrive off it."

Thursday, January 29, 2009

A coverage matchup that could be Taylor-made for stardom

Thursday, January 29, 2009
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/

TAMPA, Fla. -- What a fabulous moment in time: the best cover cornerback in NFL history setting up to interview the young corner who has to be the best cover guy on the field Sunday if the Steelers are going to win Super Bowl XLIII. Ike Taylor doesn't appear to be the least bit intimidated by the idea of trying to stop Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. But Taylor clearly was in awe when Deion Sanders stopped by to chat.

" 'Prime Time,' " Taylor said, quietly. "That's who I've always wanted to be like."


Deenisha Johnson of Tampa, Fla., interviews Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor during the team's media day for Super Bowl XLIII Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2009, in Tampa, Fla.(AP)

His answers to Sanders' questions for the NFL Network weren't nearly as interesting as their conversation afterward. Taylor asked if he could ship Sanders his game tapes to be critiqued. Sanders agreed, saying something about his people calling Taylor's people to make the arrangements.

"I feel like my game isn't where I'd like it to be yet," Taylor said. "I'm always asking my coaches for advice on what I can do better. I ask our receivers. I go to our offensive coordinator [Bruce Arians] and say, 'Tell me, how would you attack me?' I want to know what people think my weaknesses are so I can work on them. I want to keep getting better.

"I truly believe I haven't played my best game yet."

It would be wonderful if it happens Sunday, but that seems like a lot to ask. The great Fitzgerald, who has been as close to unstoppable in this postseason as a player can be, is only one reason. A bigger factor is Taylor still is a baby in the NFL game and as a cornerback. This is just his fourth season as a Steelers starter. He didn't start playing corner until he was a senior in college at Louisiana-Lafayette.

"I've had to learn on the go," Taylor said.

The progress has been remarkable. "If he ever learns how to catch the ball, he'll be in the Pro Bowl every year. He's that good," teammate Larry Foote said. Taylor's stone hands notwithstanding, Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has so much faith in the man that he has assigned him to follow Fitzgerald all over the Super Bowl field.

Sure, the Steelers don't have much choice. Cornerback Bryant McFadden can't run with Fitzgerald, and Deshea Townsend and William Gay are too short to jump with him. But they also have plenty of faith in Taylor. "He's 6 feet 2 and runs a 4.2. He'll definitely be right there with Fitzgerald," Townsend said yesterday.

It will be the most telling matchup of the game.

At least that seemed to be the opinion of Warren Sapp, another NFL Network talking head, a legend as a defensive lineman during his day and a legend now as a "Dancing With The Stars" stud.

"The way you make a name for yourself is by finding a target," Sapp boomed in Taylor's ear. "Well, I don't think there's a bigger target on the face of the Earth than No. 11."

Fitzgerald.

"I'm always up for a challenge," Taylor told Sapp in a much lower voice. Later, he elaborated: "It's just something that's in me. I think it has to do with the city I come from. New Orleans. I had a tough, tough road growing up. I've had to hold my own for as long as I can remember. You couldn't be soft in my city. If you were, you got run over."

It's a good thing Taylor isn't afraid of a tough fight. Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner and Fitzgerald certainly will provide one.

"You're looking at Joe Montana and Jerry Rice right there," Taylor said.

Think about that.

Wow.

"Fitzgerald is a beast," Taylor said. "What he's done in this postseason is unbelievable. He's breaking records. Not just records, but Jerry Rice records. Ain't no one else doing that.

"But ... "

Drum roll ...

"I like myself, too."

That's comforting, if you ask me.

Still, Taylor figures to get safety help with Fitzgerald, although LeBeau will have to pick his spots because the Cardinals' other two 1,000-yard receivers -- Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston -- also are dangerous. Maybe the best way to stop all three is to turn loose linebackers James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons and sic 'em on Warner. Fitzgerald can't make the terrific catches to beat the Steelers the way he beat Philadelphia, Carolina and Atlanta on his extraordinary postseason odyssey if Warner doesn't have time to get him the ball.

"It's still going to come down to the secondary," Taylor predicted.

To him, actually.

"I feel like I have 10 other guys depending on me," he said. "I sure don't want to let them down."

Unless Sanders comes out of retirement and lines up opposite him, Taylor doesn't figure to wilt under the brightest lights in sports. This is not Taylor's first Super Bowl. So many of us remember Super Bowl XL and the Steelers' 21-10 win against Seattle for Jerome Bettis' marvelous homecoming and retirement in Detroit, Willie Parker's record 75-yard touchdown run and Hines Ward's 43-yard clinching catch of an Antwaan Randle El pass. Too few realize Taylor played a huge part in the drama. With the Steelers leading, 14-10, in the fourth quarter, he intercepted a Matt Hasselbeck pass at the Steelers' 5.

"I remember that pick," Taylor said, smiling. He also had an interception two weeks earlier against Denver in the AFC championship game. He might drop a bunch, but he seems to hold on to the pig when it counts.

"I really remember Hasselbeck tackling me [after a 24-yard return]," Taylor said. "That ticked me off."

The feeling passed. Three plays after the interception, Ward pulled in Randle El's pass and the Super Bowl MVP award. Soon after that, the confetti dropped from the heavens -- OK, the Ford Field rafters -- and NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue handed Steelers owner Dan Rooney the franchise's fifth Lombardi Trophy.

"I was so exhausted after that game," Taylor said. "You talk about leaving 110 percent on the field. That's what I did that night. I didn't go out after the game. I just slept."

What a peaceful sleep it must have been.

Taylor needs another restful slumber Sunday night, one uninterrupted by nightmares and horrible visions of a No. 11 in a red-and-white uniform.

That's the Steelers' best chance of getting a record sixth Lombardi.

It's Taylor's best chance of getting something very important to him.

A little Prime Time respect.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com. More articles by this author
First published on January 29, 2009 at 12:00 am

Tomlin reaches 'comfort zone' at right time

By Scott Brown, TRIBUNE-REVIEW
http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/sports/
Thursday, January 29, 2009

TAMPA, Fla. — Mike Tomlin told his players to embrace every experience leading up to the Super Bowl, including the three one-hour media sessions each team has to take part in prior to Sunday's game.

It looks like he is following his own advice.

Tomlin has talked openly about the uneasy transition that took place after he assumed the Steelers' coaching reins in January of 2007 as well as how he is different with the players.

Such introspection represents a break from what Tomlin adhered to last month and even just weeks ago when he had been reluctant to reflect on how he had changed or grown as a coach.

"I'm probably more in my comfort zone here with the football team than I was a year ago," Tomlin said. "Not that I wasn't comfortable but this is more of who I am.

"I think (the players) have an understanding of that. I think that all relationships are built on sheer experiences. We didn't have any experiences to call on, so our relationship was edgy, if you will."

The profiles of Tomlin and the Steelers could not have been more opposite when he arrived in Pittsburgh.

Tomlin was still two months away from celebrating his 35th birthday, and he had limited NFL coaching experience — he had served as a defensive coordinator for only one season — before succeeding Bill Cowher.

The Steelers, meanwhile, were a veteran team and the players were just two years removed from winning the Super Bowl. If they were skeptical of change that is because what they had done while Tomlin was rising through the NFL coaching ranks had worked.

Such different perspectives as well as unfamiliarity with one another provided the backdrop for Tomlin's first meeting with his players, one of whom (inside linebacker James Farrior) he had actually played against in college.

"You could tell right away that he tried to take over the room, tried to make his presence felt but you could see a few nerves because he was a young guy," defensive end Brett Keisel said. "But the second he spoke you could see why the Rooneys hired him just because of the way he carries himself and addresses situations."

It wasn't until training camp that Tomlin significantly distanced himself from Cowher as he put the players through an exhausting pace at St. Vincent College. And he did not let up on them even after the Steelers broke camp.

"We're thinking we're getting a guy who is coming in and is going to be somewhat like coach Cowher," outside linebacker James Harrison said. "He came in and we had nothing that was like we thought it was. We had full pads almost twice a day in training camp. Full pads up to week 15 and 16. That was his way of saying, 'This is my team. This is how I'm going to run the team.' "

The bill for Tomlin establishing his authority came due near the end of the season.

The Steelers lost four of their final five games and tired legs may have been a culprit in the team's disappointing finish. What they had gained, even if it was hard to see at the time, was a foundation from which Tomlin would build.

"It was my intent to come in here in 2007 and draw some hard lines in the dirt as a basis of forming a relationship with our football team," Tomlin said. "It's a heck of a lot easier to pull back than it is to put down."

He pulled back this season, going easier on the players in large part because he knew them better and wasn't in constant evaluation mode.

Tomlin also established more of a personal relationship with the players, using his relative youth as an asset while not blurring the line he had drawn with a permanent marker in his first season as the Steelers' coach.

"He just has an energy that guys feed off of," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said, "and I think they really appreciate that, want to play for him and want to win."

One more win would make Tomlin the youngest head coach ever to win a Super Bowl. It would also make only the third head-coaching transition the Steelers have endured since 1969 a model for other teams who have to go through the same thing.

"I knew that just over time, that we would get to know one another and have a level of comfort," Tomlin said of the players, "and that I wasn't going to do that on day one, day two, day three or day 10 on the job — it was something that was going to occur over time. So that was down on my 'to-do' list, if you will."

Consider it done.

Snap Judgments: Steelers focused on Sunday; legacy will come later

By Don Banks
Inside the NFL
http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/football/nfl/super-bowl/
January 28, 2009

TAMPA -- By Wednesday of Super Bowl week, once all the talk and the storylines start to drown out everything else, that's when it becomes really easy to lose track of what this whole week is about. It's about finishing. Closing the deal. Making your case for history.


LaMarr Woodley (56), Larry Foote and the Steelers defense can cement their legacy with a win Sunday against the Cardinals.
John Biever/SI


Nothing else really matters. Win the game and you're golden forever. Lose it and, to a degree, it has all been wasted effort. The whole season-long magic carpet ride. The Patriots couldn't finish last season, and now 18-1 just rings hollow. Same with those 2001 Rams, who could have made their mark with two titles in a three-year span. But they couldn't finish the job, and as Kurt Warner admitted this week, that loss still stings seven years later. Further back in NFL history, you can add to that list other teams that let a rare opportunity slip away from them -- the 1997 Packers, the 1983 Redskins, the 1978 Cowboys.

That's one reason why I loved what second-year Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley had to say during Pittsburgh's media session Wednesday. Woodley might be playing in his first Super Bowl, but he gets it. He knows what matters this week, and it isn't anything that happens on the periphery of this yearly extravaganza. Sunday night will decide everything. The rest is all drivel.

"That's the thing about the Steelers of the '70s and '80s, they went out and finished games,'' Woodley said amid the din of the Steelers mid-week gab-fest at the University of South Florida's Sun Dome. "They went out and won the Super Bowl. So we're going to be measured on how we finish this game. That's what puts you down in the history books, how you finish.

"If we can go out there and get that No. 6, and we're the first team to reach that sixth Super Bowl trophy, that's a team that's always going to be remembered. Not just within our franchise, but in NFL history. That's how it works.''

The Steelers are going for their second Super Bowl win in a four-season span, and that's right on the cusp of being a team that gets remembered for having been a dominant club. But that record sixth Super Bowl win in Pittsburgh would also at least put this particular Steelers defense into the discussion when it comes to comparisons with some of the great Steelers D's of old.

I'm never all that eager to play the comparison game between eras so far apart, but when I look at this group of Steelers linebackers -- Woodley and James Harrison on the outside, James Farrior and Larry Foote inside -- I can at least buy the idea that another Super Bowl win would make them worthy of being in a conversation about where they stack up against the likes of Steelers linebacking greats Jack Lambert, Jack Ham and Andy Russell.

And from the sounds of it, today's Steelers linebackers are willing to at least consider their legacy -- providing Pittsburgh beats Arizona on Sunday in Super Bowl XLIII.

"Yeah, I think we can get in the discussion with a second ring,'' said Farrior, the 12th-year veteran and the acknowledged leader of the NFL's best linebacking unit. "We all know the great tradition the linebackers have had here through the years, so we just want to hold up our end of the bargain and be accountable to the tradition. I hope we make those guys proud, because we look up to all those former Steelers linebackers. We want to be considered one of the best groups to ever play the game.''

That's a mouthful, I know. But the Steelers defense this year is special, and its linebackers are the backbone of a unit that finished ranked first in the NFL in points allowed (13.9 per game), first in yards allowed (237.2), first against the pass (156.9) and second against the run (80.2).

"I'll take just being mentioned in a sentence with those old Steelers linebackers,'' Harrison said. "That's an elite group of guys. We're not a legendary defense yet. The team that wins the Super Bowl will be the team that's legendary.''

That's exactly the right order of things during Super Bowl week. Win and then you can talk history and where you think you belong. But if you don't finish the job, you wind up just looking and sounding foolish for even entertaining the legacy question. As Troy Polamalu reminded us today, "How you're thought of depends on how many rings you win. Great defenses aren't remembered for losing.''

It's all about the rings for the Steelers this week, and that's the approach that will win one. "Them rings, they hold a lot of weight,'' Foote said. "If we want to be talked about, and remembered, we've got to get another ring.''

• Off the field, Polamalu will never be described as animated. But I did see just a touch of fire from the long-haired Steelers safety Wednesday when he was asked how he felt last year when the NFL was considering a rule that would disallow players to wear their hair long enough to obscure their name on the back of their jersey.

"I thought it was unfair, quite honestly,'' Polamalu said. "What was the motivation behind it, I forget?''

Reminded what it was, he said: "That was it? You serious? Oh, boy. At USC, we didn't have any name plate. It's the same at Notre Dame. The tradition of that is there's no individual. I don't care if they see my name. Maybe they should put a tiny "Troy'' on one side [of my hair] and a "Polamalu'' on the other.''

• I made sure I made a little time Wednesday to drop by the table of Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and ask him what he makes of becoming something of the sentimental figure of this year's Super Bowl? LeBeau is the Dick Clark of the NFL. He's 71, looks 51, and is still going strong. And as I wrote earlier this week in our Super Bowl Blog, his candidacy for a long overdue Hall of Fame induction would really pick up some steam with a Steelers win on Sunday.

"I'm blessed to have a long career,'' said LeBeau, now in his 50th NFL season as a player or coach. "I think it's a good message. I get pieces of mail from people 70 years old, saying, 'Coach, you're a great example. I thought I was done doing this or done doing that, and tomorrow I'm going out and starting to do this or that again.' And that's very heartwarming and fulfilling for me.

"I'm not trying to do that. I'm just trying to coach football. I can't run as fast as I used to, but I can still run, and we can still do some things. All of us only have as many minutes as we have and we might as well live life to the fullest.''

LeBeau said he owes some of his longevity to his youthful appearance, which allows him to still hold the attention of his players. "I thank my Mom and Dad for that because they passed on some good genes. But there's no question it has helped me. I'm talking to 21-year-old guys and it helps to only look 90, not 110.''

• Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is sure trying hard to convey the impression that he's relaxed and having fun this week, as opposed to his first Super Bowl experience three years ago in Detroit.

He showed up at James Harrison's platform with a hand-held video camera Wednesday, and then aimed it at his teammate and asked: "You ever think about beating up a camera person?''

Harrison didn't miss a beat: "Yeah. Ben Roethlisberger.''

• I'm pretty sure he was speaking of any generic quarterback, but Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley was probably at least thinking of Cardinals passer Warner when he was asked how you can tell an opposing quarterback is getting rattled?

"You can definitely read it,'' Woodley said. "He's trying to get out of there. He doesn't want to hold the ball that long. He sees you coming and he's not following through on his throws. Once you see that, you know you've got to him a little bit. Now you just have to go through and put some hits on him.''

Of course, that's been easier said than done with Warner this postseason.

• Got to love the Super Bowl week echo chamber. The story about Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald being willing to restructure his contract in order to help Arizona keep Anquan Boldin happy isn't really a story. Fitzgerald was asked Tuesday if he would be willing to do something to help the team and he answered "No problem.''

But Arizona has the cap room to get Boldin done without Fitzgerald's help. Boldin doesn't want to be a Cardinal any more, and Fitzgerald can't really help with that.

• Matt Leinart and Carson Palmer barely saw the field in 2008, while Matt Cassel hung up eye-popping numbers in helping the Patriots win 11 games without Tom Brady around. Raise your hand if you had that particular trifecta playing out this season for the three former Southern Cal quarterbacks.

"Everyone's road is different, and everyone's situation is different,'' said Leinart, asked about the unexpected success of Cassel, his former USC backup, this season. "If there's anything I could learn from Matt, it's to make the most of the opportunity when it's granted you. That's something he did this season when Tom went down. He took full advantage of that and became a great quarterback. He was ready when his number was called and that's obviously something I'm saying I feel I can do. He did a great job, and he's going to play now. He's going to play somewhere next season