Pre-Season Or Irrelevant Season? - By Jason Seidling

Steelers Fever Exclusive Editorial

The city of Pittsburgh was in an uproar for much of the pre-season. Their beloved football team, the one that won fifteen straight games before succumbing to the eventual champion New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game seemed to be in disarray as the 2005 season loomed just around the corner.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was relatively ineffective. Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley, the team's top two running backs from a year ago were both out with injuries, keeping 2004's second best rushing attack grounded. And, as if that wasn't enough bad news, the usually stout defense allowed over 100 yards on the ground to Clinton Portis and the Redskins, and then watched as Carolina drove the length of the field with ease during the opening drive of the final exhibition game.

But that is why they call it the PRE-SEASON! It is just what the name suggests, the season before the season, or the Irrelevant Season.

None of the concerns that arose during the four week exhibition season were in anybodies' minds yesterday, as the Pittsburgh Steelers came out for their regular season opener against the Tennessee Titans and demolished the salary cap depleted squad 34-7 at Heinz Field.

Roethlisberger, who enjoyed a fairy-tale debut in 2004, winning all fourteen of his regular season starts in capturing Rookie-of-the-Year honors, was the target of much criticism throughout camp, as he struggled to make plays and hit open receivers, with the most notable example being an overthrown ball to Cedrick Wilson in the end zone during the exhibition opener against the Philadelphia Eagles.

It got so bad that during the final ten days leading up until yesterday's opener, there was much debate among many talk show callers about at which point the Steelers would need to make a change and go with veteran backup Tommy Maddox.

Luckily, for Roethlisberger's sake, he was able to come out and play with a vengeance yesterday, completing nine of his eleven passes for 218 yards and two touchdowns. Those numbers were good enough to give Roethlisberger the first perfect passer rating (158.3) since Trent Green in 2003. I don't recall hearing any callers calling for Ben after yesterday's performance.

Another area of concern during the pre-season was the state of the Steelers' ground game, especially with Duce Staley undergoing knee surgery less than one week into camp, and Bettis suffering a strained calf while not even being touched against Washington. That left Willie Parker, an undrafted second-year man who couldn't even crack the starting lineup in college as the Steelers' number one back.

It is no secret that the running game is the bread and butter of the Steelers' offense, so missing the top two performers from a year ago was seen as a major blow.

Many observers were under the assumption that because he lacked the pedigree of both Bettis and Staley, and because of his diminutive stature, Parker would fail with an increased role.

Wrong again!

Willie Parker was probably the biggest surprise of Week One, as he wakes up this morning with his name atop the NFL's rushing list after his 161 yard and one touchdown performance against Tennessee. Throw in his 48 yard reception on a screen pass that set up the Steelers first touchdown, and you have a player who has quickly become the talk of the NFL. Expect Parker to continue to shine as the starter, even when a healthy Bettis and Staley return in the coming weeks.

The Steelers' defense ranked first at the end of '04 in total defense and in rush defense. Defensive touchdowns by Willie Williams, James Harrison, and Troy Polamalu had fans proclaiming this years' defense to be even better than last seasons.

Then Portis and Ladell Betts sliced through the defense like Swiss cheese late in the second half of the Washington game, and Carolina's Stephen Davis had his way during the finale, and again the city was abuzz with fear over the units' demise.

Steve McNair and his Titan teammates did nothing to calm those fears on the opening drive yesterday, as they marched down the field in easy fashion, for an early 7-0 lead. That would be all that Tennessee would get, as they were held scoreless for the next 51-plus minutes.

Finally, after a pre-season that saw him catch only four passes for 29 yards, there was talk that the Steelers had wasted their first round pick by using it on big-bodied tight end Heath Miller. This was considered a team close to gaining that elusive fifth Lombardi Trophy, yet there were many other pressing needs such as wide receiver, linebacker, and cornerback, that needed to be addressed.

Don't fear, Steelers' fans. Head Coach Bill Cowher and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt simply did not want to show their hand before the river. They knew all along that without the deep threat that was Plaxico Burress, and no big-time replacement sought, someone needed to step up and stretch the field for the offense.

That's where Miller and veteran Jerame Tuman fit in. Miller had only one catch in his pro debut, but it was a huge one. He hauled in a three-yard touchdown reception from Roethlisberger on the Steelers' first drive, changing the momentum that to that point clearly favored Tennessee. Tuman came up big later in the game when he caught a 27-yard pass from Roethlisberger after a play action fake, setting up a Parker touchdown.