Maybe coaching change isn't behind Steelers' 3-0 start
The Pittsburgh Steelers are 3-0 for the first time since 1992, the year Bill Cowher was hired. If they beat Arizona on Sunday, they'll be off to their first 4-0 start since their Super Bowl-winning season in 1979.
The Steelers have needed only three games to win as many times as they did in their first nine games last season. No team has come within three touchdowns of beating them, and the only two touchdowns permitted by their defense came in games already decided.
"We've really kind of had a history of starting out slow or not coming out of the gate like this, so it's definitely different," guard Alan Faneca said Wednesday.
Plenty of reasons for the Steelers' fast start are being tossed out. The players were growing weary of Bill Cowher. New coach Mike Tomlin's impressive debut. A relatively soft schedule that's thrown the Browns (1-2), Bills (0-3) and 49ers (2-1) their way.
Or how about this: None of the above.
Wide receiver Hines Ward believes too many around the NFL wrote off the Steelers after they went 8-8 a season ago, a disruption-filled year in which quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was never right and no one knew if Cowher was coming or going.
To Ward, the Steelers' main motivation for again being the team that went 15-1 in 2004 and won the Super Bowl a season later is coming from within, not from a new coach or coordinator or a different set of circumstances.
"We really haven't played our best ball yet," Ward said. "It's a great feeling to start off the season 3-0 instead of 0-3, especially after last year. A lot of guys are hungry, we go out there playing with something to prove. A lot of people counted us out. We were kind of under the radar."
Even Cowher, in his new role as a CBS studio analyst, picked them to finish only third in the AFC North - even though he probably made that prediction in part to motivate them.
Faneca said there's no reaso n to think the Steelers wouldn't have been 3-0 if Cowher had stayed on the job. Left tackle Marvel Smith also won't credit the coaching change for the turnaround, and won't speculate where the Steelers would be if someone else was their coach.
"Really, that's in the past," he said. "I could really care less about that whole situation. I ain't even going to go down that road. ... Coaches coach, players play. Coaches can only put you in positions and situations where you can be successful, but you've got to go out there and do it."
Tomlin got his players' attention early with his structured and demanding offseason workouts and training. Still, the perceived notion that camp was far tougher under Tomlin than it was in Cowher's last few seasons is incorrect, Faneca said.
"It was a little lighter than what we have done," he said. "It was just probably less hitting, at least up front."
The impact of Tomlin's arrival on the Steelers turnaround is being debat ed because former Steelers assistant head coach Russ Grimm, the other finalist for the job, is now with Arizona. Ken Whisenhunt, the perceived front-runner when Cowher resigned, is the Cardinals' head coach.
The Whisenhunt-Grimm-Tomlin story line has generated considerable talk in Pittsburgh, though not so much in the Steelers' locker room.
All players go through multiple coaching changes as their football lives progress from high school to college to pro ball. Except for the few players who have been with Pittsburgh a long time, this was merely another such change.
"We're 3-0 with coach Tomlin," Ward said. "There's no looking back (wondering) if Russ or Whis was here."
Defensive end Brett Keisel would be disappointed if the Steelers weren't 3-0, regardless of who is coaching them.
"I feel like if we were less than that right now, I don't think we'd be where we should be," Keisel said. "I think 3-0 means we still have a lot of room for improveme nt. I'd rather be 16-0."
Notes: Roethlisberger spoke as though Ward (sprained knee) won't play. Ward, listed as doubtful, hasn't ruled out playing. ... Arizona RB Edgerrin James was the last running back to get 100 yards against Pittsburgh, in a November 2005 game for Indianapolis. ... Faneca on how Roethlisberger has more responsibility in offensive coordinator Bruce Arians' system than he did in Whisenhunt's: "I can definitely see where he would like it because he has a little more control. His hands are a little bit more dirty, and it definitely shows that he likes it."