- Michael Smith, NFL Senior Writer
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LATROBE, Pa. -- Here at the summer home of the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers, the team with a 31-7 record the past two seasons, a second veteran NFL head coach named Bill is, yes, talkin' 'bout practice. Only unlike Cowboys coach Bill Parcells, who cautioned reporters not to make a big deal about Terrell Owens' finally practicing, Steelers coach Bill Cowher had a very different message for his team.
Pittsburgh's Sept. 7 season opener against Miami "is getting close, and our players have to understand the sense of urgency that's needed, start approaching these practices with the focus that's needed," Cowher told reporters after Monday's practice, which was a full-contact affair -- unusual for two days after a game. Saturday's loss to Minnesota dropped the Steelers' preseason record to 0-2.
"We're not where we need to be," Cowher said. "We've set too high a standard around here, and we're much better than we performed the other night. As I've always said, you can't turn this thing on and off, and we've got to take it up a notch."
Back in February, at Ford Field in Detroit, the Steelers capped an unprecedented playoff run (three road victories as the sixth and lowest seed) with the franchise's first championship in more than a quarter century. But Cowher doesn't necessarily want his players to hearken back to that Super Bowl high. Instead, he wants them to remember a December '05 team meeting.
Pittsburgh had lost three games in a row to drop to 7-5. Rather than have his team focus on the big picture -- as in, the fact that it was in jeopardy of missing the playoffs -- Cowher stressed what the Steelers were doing differently when they were 7-2, especially related to penalties, turnovers and special-teams play. He then showed the players the moving pictures and had each guy focus in and grade himself. See what the coaches were seeing.
"I knew they weren't looking at anybody else," Cowher recalled last week. "I think making them be very introspective about it, worry about themselves, try to pinpoint what the real problems were, that was just the very simple approach we took."
There has been nothing simple about the Steelers' offseason. Jerome Bettis retired immediately after the Super Bowl and Antwaan Randle El signed with Washington. There has been the Joey Porter contract mini-controversy. Hines Ward said some not-so-nice things about Cowher to Sports Illustrated. First-round pick Santonio Holmes and guard Barrett Brooks have been in trouble with the law. Biggest of all, Ben Roethlisberger nearly checked out in a motorcycle accident.
And with his contract set to expire after next season, Cowher's uncertain future in coaching has been a hot topic this summer.
It is all overshadowed the fact that the Steelers may once again have the best team in football. Pittsburgh returns every starter except for receiver Randle El, safety Chris Hope and defense end Kimo von Oelhoffen. They're young; only five starters have eight or more seasons experience. The Steelers' entire coaching staff returns intact for a third straight season, practically unheard-of stability for such a successful franchise. And they've got confidence, having finally shed the "chokers" label.
On paper, everything is there for the Steelers to become the ninth repeat champion in league history (and third in team history) -- and not as a wild-card playoff entry this time. The wild card for the Steelers? That would be themselves, of course.
Last year they were hungry for that elusive title (two prior conference championship-game appearances this decade, two losses). As with all champions the following season, now that the Steelers have tasted victory, are they satisfied? Last year they wanted to win one for The Bus, for Coach Cowher, for their beloved owner Dan Rooney (aka Mr. Rooney), for the city, for the thumb what's left?
The Steelers have enough holdovers from the best team last year (or the best team at the right time, however you choose to look at the champs). It's just a question of whether those holdovers can avoid the Super Bowl hangover.
That's where Cowher comes in. He delivered "one for the thumb," and now he's keeping that thumb on his team.
Clearly, he wants the Steelers to stay in the mind-set they were in the last four games of the regular season and through the playoffs, when every game was win or go home. He wants the Steelers practicing and playing like their backs are against the wall, forgetting all the pats on the back.
"The biggest thing is focusing on the process, that we've got to get a little bit better," Cowher said last week. "Not talking about a championship or talking about playoffs.
"We're going to have people shooting at us and we understand that, and we've got to win our division. It starts with that first and foremost. I think that it'll be a very short-term focus that we're looking at, focusing really on the process more than worrying about the results."
Though Porter, for one, believes the Steelers easily could have gone into last year's playoffs with only one or two losses (four of their five losses were by seven points or fewer), the bottom line is that Pittsburgh lost three in a row from Nov. 20 to Dec. 4. Cowher is using the fact that the Steelers were on the edge of missing the tournament to help maintain their edge.
"I mean, you don't lose three games in a row in the months of October and November and usually make the playoffs," Cowher said. "We were fortunate to do it; we backed ourselves into a corner. So you refresh their memories about how our mind-set was, the approach we took, the simplicity of one game at a time and worrying about every practice to get a little better and then to go out and play with a focus and play with a confidence and a swagger.
"We've got to come out of the gates doing that because we've got a tough schedule."
Porter still sees the hunger. "Because we're still out here working hard," he said. "Guys are doing the little things like running to the ball. When we see guys aren't doing things like we normally do, flying around on every play, then we know they're slacking. Guys are still hungry. That's what made me come back to practice earlier than I was supposed to.
"We did it a way we didn't want to do it. We went to everybody's backyard. We would love to have home-field [advantage] throughout. At the same time, we take it how we get it. But guys are still hungry."
"Why not do it again, man?" guard Alan Faneca said. "That feeling after the Super Bowl, man, I can only imagine it to be like a drug addiction. You know, once you taste it you want it again."
Few believed the Steelers could rebound from a three-game losing streak and make the playoffs, let alone survive the ensuing three-week road trip. Well, it seems they've bought into the underdog role once again. Notice how the Steelers aren't the most popular choice to win Super Bowl XLI. Teams such as Carolina, Dallas, Indianapolis, Miami and New England are getting more love nationally. The Steelers notice.
Roethlisberger hears the doubts. "People [are] saying you can't do it again. We lost Antwaan, we lost Jerome, we lost that fire, we have a bull's-eye on our chest, there was a motorcycle accident in the offseason," he said. "All kinds of things that people say why you can't do it."
After his first year Roethlisberger talked to Dan Marino about how to avoid a sophomore slump. This time around he picked the brains of Steve Young and Troy Aikman about leading a defending champion.
"All of them say the same thing -- it's easier to get back than to win the first one," Roethlisberger said.
Only this time, the Steelers would rather take an easier, more direct route. Regardless of what Cowher does after this season, he has that well-known glare of his focused on each step along the road to Miami and Super Bowl XLI.
"We've got to sustain it," Cowher said. "We've got to sustain a level of play that doesn't put us in that situation."
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Contact him here.
Bill Cowher isn't satisfied with one title and doesn't want his players to be, either, writes Michael Smith.