Steelers deja vu all over again
Same formula for Pittsburgh
John Crumpacker, San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writer
Thursday, September 20, 2007
Funny thing about the Pittsburgh Steelers: They change head coaches for only the second time in 38 years and they still look like the Pittsburgh Steelers.
They're 2-0, they run the ball well behind a stout offensive line and on defense, it's the Steel Curtain of the 21st century, having giving up 10 points in two games. It could be 1972 or 1992 as easily as it is 2007.
"You know you've got to come in there and hit and hit hard," 49ers defensive end Marques Douglas said. "I'm looking forward to it."
Willie Parker rushed for 235 yards as the Steelers easily beat Cleveland (34-7) and Buffalo (26-3). The equally 2-0 but far less impressive 49ers are next, Sunday at Heinz Field.
"We have a big challenge this week," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "Pittsburgh has been a very good team for a long time ... The coaching change, I don't know what to say other than they stayed on line."
Starting 2-0 has made it much easier for the players to believe in new head coach Mike Tomlin, a 35-year-old disciplinarian who took over a Pittsburgh team coming off an 8-8 season, one year removed from the Super Bowl championship.
"So far, guys are buying in," wide receiver Hines Ward said. "He's a great coach. A guy coming in his first year, expectations are going to be high. Coach Tomlin, he wants to do it his way. It's not coach (Bill) Cowher's team. It's not coach (Chuck) Noll's team. It's his team. The 53 guys he decided to keep are the 53 guys he liked. We like the makeup of our team."
There is much to like about the 53 players Tomlin decided to keep. Ben Roethlisberger is trying to be the Roethlisberger he was in 2005 and not the quarterback he was in 2006. Alan Faneca is one of the best left guards in the NFL on one of the league's top offensive lines. Heath Miller is a more than capable tight end.
Ward, undeniably the happiest player in the league, was the MVP of Super Bowl XL and is probably the best blocking wide receiver in the game. He plays the game with a smile on his face and has actually been seen laughing after getting belted on a reception.
"I don't know about happiest," Ward said, doubtlessly smiling through the conference call from Pittsburgh. "I really enjoy what I do. I enjoy getting hit. I enjoy catching the ball and scoring touchdowns. I can't imagine any place I'd rather be. I enjoy every Sunday getting a chance to go up against the best of the best. It's a blessing."
Watching cornerback Nate Clements oppose Ward on pass routes should be one of the game-within-the-game highlights Sunday. Clements is off to a great start with his new team after putting the clamps on Arizona's Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald and St. Louis' Torry Holt.
"He's a great corner," Ward said. "He's a great tackler. He's very physical. He's one of the best corners in the league. They're not paying him all that money for nothing."
As for the Steelers defensively, the 49ers will be quick to realize these are not the Arizona Cardinals or the St. Louis Rams.
Casey Hampton is a floor safe with legs at nose tackle. Three of the four linebackers are known quantities in Clark Haggans, James Farrior and Larry Foote. And Troy Polamalu is the best strong safety in the league.
Center Eric Heitmann will get to know Hampton well, banging heads with the squat 325-pounder over the course of four quarters.
"He can't be moved," Tomlin said. "Casey Hampton is a heck of a player. He's very stout. At the same time, he's very quick. His athleticism is probably underrated."
Put this team on its home field at still-new-ish Heinz in front of fans who know their football and love their Steelers and it adds up to the 49ers' most difficult road trip of the season.
"We hope it's an advantage for us and it usually is," Ward said.
The 49ers have not played Pittsburgh since 2003, when they defeated the Steelers 30-14 at Candlestick.
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E-mail John Crumpacker at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article appeared on page D - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle