Ex-coach Cowher says Steelers 'are very close' to being a team to beat

| Monday, Feb. 1, 2016, 9:54 p.m.

SAN FRANCISCO — Bill Cowher has been down this path before — actually, a couple of times — so he probably knows what he's talking about.

The former Steelers coach knows a thing or two about leading “one of the teams to beat” heading into the offseason and how to deal with that label.

On Monday, the coach-turned-CBS studio analyst for Sunday's Super Bowl 50 between the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers offered some advice.

“You have to be careful not to tinker too much some times,” Cowher said. “Sometimes it is a play here and a play there that doesn't allow you to move forward. You sit there and go back and overanalyze and make changes that they don't necessarily need to make. The biggest thing sometimes is to recognize where you are.”

Experts believe the Steelers will head into 2016 as one of the favorites to reach Super Bowl LI in Houston, and with good reason.

The Steelers went 10-6, won a playoff game and came up three minutes short of advancing to the AFC championship game — all without All-Pros Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell and Maurkice Pouncey, as well as a banged-up Ben Roethlisberger.

Also, backup running back DeAngelo Williams was out with a foot injury, leading to the narrative that a healthy Steelers team might have been in Northern California for this week's Super Bowl 50 if it wasn't for bad luck.

“I think they are very close,” Cowher said. “Easily, you can sit there and say if their young running back doesn't fumble in that game that they could've beaten the Denver Broncos. They were a team that nobody really wanted to play. They have a great window of time with a young nucleus. Their quarterback still has many good years ahead of them.”

But, as Cowher said, the Steelers have to guard against change.

Cowher went down that path a number of times during his 15 years as Steelers coach. Some adjustments worked. Some didn't.

None was more infamous that getting caught up in the “Tommy Gun” era, during which quarterback Tommy Maddox brought a once-plodding offense into the 21st century.

Cowher opted for a pass-offense, and started the 2003 season with Amos Zereoue at running back instead of future Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis.

It failed miserably. Cowher went back to Bettis, and the Steelers stumbled to a 6-10 record.

After losing to the Broncos in the 1997 AFC championship game, it essentially was status quo the following season.

Kordell Stewart and Bettis were the top offensive threats.

The only significant change was bringing in Ray Sherman as offensive coordinator when Chan Gailey was hired as Dallas Cowboys coach.

The Steelers, who went 11-5 and won a division title, slipped to 7-9 and missed the playoffs.

It went the other way, too.

After going 15-1 in 2004, the Steelers kept most of the team intact and went on to win Super Bowl XL.

“If you have a good nucleus, which I believe they have, you kind of go back and re-establish yourself and start the journey all over again,” Cowher said. “You just can't pick up where you left off. You have to start back over again.”

It would be difficult for this version of the Steelers to do much tinkering.

Coordinators Todd Haley and Keith Butler will be back, as well as Roethlisberger and a solid running game with Bell and Williams. Their entire receiving corps is under contract.

Other than a secondary that Cowher admitted needs help, the defense is stable. The only players likely to be back from the NFL's 27th-ranked secondary are Ross Cockrell and Mike Mitchell. William Gay, Antwon Blake and Brandon Boykin are free agents.

“They have some free agents coming up, and there are a lot of decisions that have to be made,” Cowher said of the Steelers secondary. “If you look at their team, that's the biggest area of question going into next year.”

Mark Kaboly is a Tribune-Review staff writer. He can be reached at mkaboly@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MarkKaboly_Trib.

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