No big changes were required for the Pittsburgh Steelers after they won 15 straight games last season and reached the AFC title game, and no big changes have been made this offseason. They've lost a few contributing players but they've kept the core of their team intact. Now their Super Bowl hopes rest on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, a year older and they hope a year wiser.
The Steelers didn't have the look of a special team at this time last year. Coach Bill Cowher was under intense scrutiny after missing the playoffs four times in the previous six seasons -- after making the postseason in each of his first six seasons. Roethlisberger was feeling the sting of plummeting to the 11th overall choice in last year's draft -- after being hopeful a few days before the draft of being the top pick.
When veteran quarterback Tommy Maddox got hurt in a Week 2 loss at Baltimore, the season appeared to be a learning year for Roethlisberger and the beginning of a rebuilding project.
But then a wondrous thing happened, as Roethlisberger became the winningest rookie quarterback in NFL history and the Steelers meshed into the league's best team during the regular season. They had the league's top-ranked defense and a versatile offense that punished opponents with Jerome Bettis or Duce Staley running the ball behind a bullish offensive line, and Roethlisberger added enough plays in the passing game to make it all click. The Steelers didn't win only because of Roethlisberger. But they didn't win despite him, either. He did his part. So did everyone else, and whenever a key player got hurt, a backup stepped in and got the job done.
It all came crashing down during the playoffs, though. The Steelers deserved to lose at home to the New York Jets in an AFC semifinal, but were spared by the two missed field goals in the final two minutes of regulation by Jets kicker Doug Brien and won in overtime. No matter. It was only a one-week reprieve, as the Steelers were outclassed in the AFC championship game by the New England Patriots. Cowher's record in AFC title games dropped to 1-4, with all of the contests being played on the Steelers' home field.
The Steelers have lost some notable players this offseason. They released cornerback Chad Scott and tight end Jay Riemersma, and they lost offensive tackle Oliver Ross, guard Keydrick Vincent, defensive tackle Kendrick Clancy, linebacker Kendrell Bell and wide receiver Plaxico Burress in free agency.
The departures have hurt the depth that was the Steelers' hallmark last season. Larry Foote did a more-than-capable job filling in at linebacker last season, when Bell missed all but three games because of a groin injury. But Bell is a former Pro Bowl player, and now the Steelers can't turn to him if someone else gets hurt or falters. Scott's departure puts the pressure on veteran cornerback Willie Williams, who was re-signed as a free agent, to maintain last season's level of play.
Burress is a former first-round draft choice and a two-time 1,000-yard receiver. But he has gone two straight seasons without reaching 1,000 receiving yards, and the Steelers opted against using their franchise-player tag to keep him off the unrestricted free agent market. He ended up signing with the New York Giants. Antwaan Randle El moves into the starting lineup at the wideout spot opposite Hines Ward, and Lee Mays or free-agent addition Cedrick Wilson will take over for Randle El as the third receiver.
Bettis toyed with the notion of retirement but decided to return for another season, and he and Staley probably will split the playing time and carries once more. If either running back loses a step, the Steelers will have to rely more heavily on Roethlisberger to carry them in the passing game, and he should be ready. His magical rookie season ended with a shaky postseason showing, so complacency shouldn't be an issue.
The Steelers got a perfect player for them on draft day when University of Virginia tight end Heath Miller remained available on the 30th overall pick. He'll give Roethlisberger the sort of pass receiver at the position that the Steelers didn't have last year, and that should more than offset the loss of Burress. Miller's addition alone means that the Steelers have had a positive offseason.
They'll have a smaller margin for error next season than they did last year, for they won't have as many solid, experienced players in backup roles. But if Roethlisberger continues to progress, there's no reason to doubt that Cowher's club will be in the running to get him back to another conference title game, and perhaps a step beyond that this time.
Around the League
The Patriots waived quarterback Chris Redman. The former part-time Ravens starter had signed with New England in January and is attempting to revive his NFL career after sitting out last season following shoulder surgery. . . .
The Cleveland Browns likely will make a push to sign free-agent linebacker Peter Boulware today as he completes a two-day visit. If Boulware doesn't sign with the Browns, he's scheduled to proceed to Seattle for a visit with the Seahawks. . . .
NFL career receiving leader Jerry Rice is wearing jersey No. 19 in practices with his new team, the Denver Broncos. Rice's usual number, 80, is worn by Broncos veteran wideout Rod Smith. . . .
Denver waived guard P.J. Alexander, who had his 2005 season ended before it started when he suffered a knee injury two weeks ago. Alexander suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, reportedly while riding an all-terrain vehicle. . . .
Green Bay Packers officials were upset that defensive tackle Cletidus Hunt failed to show up Wednesday for the start of the club's voluntary minicamp. Hunt also missed the first few days of the team's June camp last year. Club officials didn't know why Hunt failed to show up this time. . . .
The Giants revealed that co-owner Wellington Mara underwent surgery last month to have cancerous lymph nodes removed from his neck and under his arm. Mara, who has received treatment for skin cancer for more than two decades, likely will undergo radiation treatments but his prognosis is said to be good.
The Giants' other owner, Bob Tisch, was diagnosed last summer as having an inoperable brain tumor.
Chiefs Release Johnnie Morton
Kansas City today released wide receiver Johnnie Morton, who had 55 catches for the Chiefs last season but was unwilling to accept the sort of pay cut the club wanted him to take to remain with the team. The moves clears about $2.4 million in salary-cap space for the Chiefs. Morton, 33, has 603 receptions in 11 NFL seasons with Detroit and Kansas City.
Seahawks Cut Robinson, Taylor
Seattle released wide receiver Koren Robinson and cornerback Bobby Taylor.
Robinson is a former first-round draft choice who had a series of off-the-field troubles. Last season, he served a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy and was benched for two games by Coach Mike Holmgren for violating team rules in separate incidents. Holmgren gave Robinson another chance, but he was arrested last month and charged with reckless driving and driving under the influence of alcohol.
Taylor spent one season in Seattle after being signed as a free agent following a highly successful tenure in Philadelphia.