Despite finishing 0-4 in the preseason and often playing down to the level that record requires, Bill Cowher says he likes the 2006 edition of the Steelers and believes they are ready for the regular season.
As the only NFL coach of a sixth-seed to win a Super Bowl, should we doubt him?
Maybe, maybe not.
On the one hand, the Steelers have 19 of their 22 starters on offense and defense returning from the Super Bowl XL championship team.
Gone are wide receiver Antwaan Randle El, defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen and free safety Chris Hope. Most likely replacing them in Thursday's opener against the Miami Dolphins will be wide receiver Cedric Wilson (promoted), defensive end Brett Keisel (promoted) and either Ryan Clark (free agent) or Tyrone Carter (promoted) at free safety.
So what's the problem? In the preseason, the Steelers have been flat, as if the hangover from winning the Super Bowl hasn't evaporated, as if they can just flip a switch this week and get rolling.
Maybe they can. We'll soon find out.
No sense riskinginjury to key players
In Thursday's exhibition finale against the Carolina Panthers, 16 players, many of them key starters, did not set foot on the field. Cowher said it's because the regular season opener is seven days away.
He has a good point. If a key player suffers an injury in the final preseason game, the coach looks foolish. That's why Panthers coach John Fox took no chances by not playing two of his best players -- running back DeShaun Foster and wide receiver Steve Smith.
And quarterback Jake Delhomme was in and out of the game like greased lightning.
Among the Steelers not playing were quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Willie Parker, offensive tackle Max Starks, wide receiver Hines Ward, cornerbacks Ike Taylor and Deshea Townsend, safety Troy Polamalu and starting linebackers Joey Porter, Larry Foote, Clark Haggans and James Farrior.
"I don't think I really needed seeing them play a series or two to feel better," Cowher said after a 15-13 loss to a team consider by many analysts to be the best in the NFC. "These guys feel pretty good about themselves right now.
"When you go through the preseason you have to take all of those things into consideration," Cowher said. "It was an opportunity to look at some of these backups."
Heinz Field patrons were treated to the third-string quarterback showdown between rookies Omar Jacobs and Shane Boyd.
Jacobs won the latest round, passing for 179 yards by completing 13-of-19 in the second half. Boyd played most of the first half, completing 1-of-3 passes for 12 yards.
Duce Staley's daysmay be numbered
At running back, Duce Staley has 10 years of worn tread on his tires and has been injured much of his two seasons in Pittsburgh. He's an expensive insurance policy in case Parker or Verron Haynes suffers an injury, and Staley's status with the team was thrown in doubt Friday when the Steelers acquired Patrick Cobbs, an undrafted rookie free agent, from the New England Patriots.
Cowher said the nature of his team will reveal itself in September when the Steelers play the Dolphins, the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sept. 18 and the Cincinnati Bengals on Sept. 24.
"I don't think anybody can walk into a season and say we have this, we have that," Cowher said. "Those are things that expose themselves over the course of a season. I don't even know what the identity is. I won't know the identity will be until we play three or four games."
All-Pro left guard Alan Faneca said the Steelers believe they are on schedule.
"You always want to be further along than you are, but we're doing [well]," Faneca said. "We are sticking to the game plan and starting to get into the offensive groove like we used to."
Not against the Panthers. The Steelers rushed 32 times for 78 yards. Take away Jacobs' passing yards against the Panthers' substitutes and the Steelers were left with 27 yards of passing in the first half.
Faneca said the Steelers should benefit from Thursday's time off.
"We are looking at a shorter week, seven days instead of 10 days," Faneca said. "That's shorter days to get over the bumps and bruises."
Tom Williams is a sportswriter for The Vindicator. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.