Pittsburgh and New England will clash in a rematch of last year's AFC Championship contest.
By TOM WILLIAMS
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
PITTSBURGH -- Steelers coach Bill Cowher has no problem with the high expectations placed on his team for the 2002 season.
The longest-tenured coach in the NFL, Cowher, 45, says he doesn't mind having four prime-time national television appearances on the 16-game schedule.
But all things being equal, Cowher would prefer to not open the season on "ABC's Monday Night Football."
"Anxiety," Cowher said Tuesday at a press conference addressing the Steelers' opener next Monday against the New England Patriots.
"You can't wait for the regular season to get here and when it does, yours is the last game to be played," Cowher said. "You sit around all weekend and all day Monday. That first game feels like it's never going to get here."
The Steelers' final exhibition game was last Thursday, a 17-14 win over the Minnesota Vikings.
"Once you get into the season, you get into a routine of playing, but we're not into that yet," Cowher said of the 11-day break.
It's no surprise that ABC has such a marquee matchup for Week One -- the Steelers-Patriots game is a rematch of the AFC Championship Game played Jan. 27 at Heinz Field.
Gillette Field debut
The game also marks the debut of Gillette Field, the Patriots' new stadium.
"This will be a big challenge for our football team," Cowher said. "They are the defending world champions and until someone beats them, to me they are the best."
Cowher is hoping for a better outcome after the underdog Patriots defeated the Steelers, 24-17, then won Super Bowl XXXVI a week later over the heavily-favored St. Louis Rams.
"They just played better than we did," Cowher said of the AFC title game loss. "They won the offensive line battle."
While Cowher had no interest in analyzing the team's frustrating loss, he agreed that Monday's game will have many similarities and spark comparisons.
Both teams return 20 starters from the offensive and defensive units.
"I'm sure [cornerback] Ty [Law] will be on [slot receiver] Hines [Ward] and [cornerback] Otis Smith will have Plex [wide receiver Plaxico Burress]," Cowher said.
One difference will be the Steelers' new receivers in three- and four-receiver formations: rookie Antwaan Randle El and free agent and former Falcon Terance Mathis. Gone is Bobby Shaw.
Cowher hopes for another change -- punt returner Troy Brown won't receive a kick in the middle of the field. Brown's 55-yard punt return gave the Patriots a 7-0 lead last January. He also picked up a blocked field goal and lateraled to Antwan Harris, who ran for another special teams touchdown.
Cowher said that while all his players are listed as probable, two starting positions won't be decided until later in the week.
If second-year linebacker Kendrell Bell has fully recovered from a high ankle sprain suffered two weeks ago, he will fill one inside position and free agent James Farrior will take the other.
If Bell isn't ready, John Fiala will start in his place.
On offense, veteran Oliver Ross and first-round draft pick Kendall Simmons will share time.
Maddox in backup role
Cowher confirmed that Tommy Maddox, last year's backup quarterback, still has that role while free agent Charlie Batch will be third string.
Four players the Steelers cut were among the five named to the practice squad: OL Josh Burr, RB Antwon McCray, safety Erik Totten and LB James Harrison. WR Khori Ivy, who was released by the Bengals, also was named.
After three years of missing the playoffs, the Steelers (13-3) rebounded last year to post the AFC's best record. Many, including Sports Illustrated, are picking them to win the conference.
That's fine with Cowher.
"When you can't get excited about challenges, when you start to look at them as hurdles, maybe you need to reassess what you're doing," Cowher said.