The first three months of his time on the sidelines as Pittsburgh Steelers coach couldn't have gone much better for Mike Tomlin, who looked to have his team back among the NFL's elite.
Month four left plenty of room for improvement.
After closing last season with four losses in five games, the Steelers will open their 2008 slate at home against the Houston Texans on Sunday, looking to get off to another hot start - one that leads to a much better finish.
Oddsmakers from Sportsbook.com have made Steelers -6 point spread favorites (View NFL Football odds) for Sunday’s game (Game Matchup). Current public betting information shows that 68% of bets for this game have been placed on Steelers -6 (View NFL Football bet percentages).
Pittsburgh (10-6) averaged 10 wins during the 15 seasons Bill Cowher was coach, and the team's 62.3 winning percentage under Cowher from 1992-2006 was the highest in the NFL over that span.
But the NFL's longest-tenured coach decided to retire after missing the playoffs in 2006, just a season removed from guiding the Steelers to their fifth Super Bowl title. One of the league's most storied franchises was left in the hands of Tomlin, who at the time was a 35-year-old assistant with no head coaching experience.
Tomlin's honeymoon with Pittsburgh went superbly - the Steelers won nine of their first 12 games, putting them in position to earn home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. But a blowout loss at New England on Dec. 9 was the beginning of Pittsburgh's late-season fade.
The Steelers lost three of their final four regular-season games, barely hanging on to win the AFC North, then made a swift exit from the playoffs. They fell behind 28-10 to Jacksonville in a home wild-card game, ultimately losing 31-29 despite a furious rally in the fourth quarter.
"One of the things that has bugged me ... (is) people with great intentions saying, 'Great start' and 'great year,'" Tomlin said after Pittsburgh's second home loss to the Jaguars in less than a month. "We fell short of our ultimate goal."
The Steelers should be well-positioned to make another playoff run in 2008, and much of any potential success will ride on the right arm of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Previously seen as more of a caretaker under center than someone who would throw 30 passes a game, Roethlisberger turned into a major threat through the air last season.
He completed more than 65 percent of his passes for 3,154 yards and 32 touchdowns, the fourth-most in the NFL. Roethlisberger threw only 11 interceptions after having 23 the previous year, and had a 104.1 quarterback rating that was only surpassed by Tom Brady.
Roethlisberger signed an eight-year, $102 million contract extension in the offseason.
"I believe that the guys we have on this team right now are exceptional players," Roethlisberger said. "I believe we have all the pieces of the puzzle, that we could be a championship football team."
The Steelers gave Roethlisberger a few more weapons in the draft, taking running back Rashard Mendenhall to help spell Willie Parker, and adding Limas Sweed to a receiving corps that includes Super Bowl XL MVP Hines Ward and emerging star Santonio Holmes.
Pittsburgh had the NFL's top-ranked defense last season, allowing 266.4 yards per game. But while the Steelers yielded just 12.9 points per game in their first 12 games, that average increased to 29.0 during their final five contests.
Second-year linebackers LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons, both of whom saw limited time as rookies, will both get more chances to wreak havoc in 2008. Pittsburgh recorded only 36 sacks last season, its second-lowest total since 1990.
The major question mark with the Steelers lies with the offensive line. Five-time All-Pro guard Alan Faneca left via free agency, and little was added to a unit that allowed Roethlisberger to be sacked an AFC-high 47 times.
"I've been pleased with the (protection) in the preseason and in training camp, particularly in the area of play-action passing," Tomlin told the Steelers' official Web site. "But we'll have a better idea of how it is on Sunday."
Houston (8-8) has the defensive front to provide a stern test. The unit is led by end Mario Williams, the Texans' No. 1 overall draft pick in 2006. Williams' first NFL season was seen as a disappointment, as he only had 4 1/2 sacks, but he recorded 14 in his second season, even earning a vote for the league's defensive player of the year award.
He and rookie defensive tackle Amobi Okoye combined for 19 1/2 sacks, the highest total in the league for a defensive tackle/defensive end combination.
"I'm not going into this game thinking I'm scared of this defensive end (Williams) because that would be me saying I don't have confidence in my offensive line," Roethlisberger said. "I do. I think they're going to do a great job of keeping all those guys away."
The Texans didn't make the playoffs in 2007, but finished with the first non-losing record in the franchise's six-year history. They won three of their final four games - two against playoff teams - and with an offense that averaged 29.0 points in that stretch, expectations are high.
"Last year, we made a big step," said quarterback Matt Schaub. "This year, it's time for us to make that giant leap and become a playoff contender."
Schaub, however, was hurt during the team's offensive explosion at season's end. He's looked good in the preseason after recovering from a shoulder injury, and he still has one of the NFL's best receivers. Andre Johnson led the league with 103 receptions in 2006 and had 60 in nine games last season, missing the other seven with a sprained knee.
The Texans' running back situation is a bit dicier. Veteran Chris Brown will miss the season with a sore back, and Ahman Green has a nagging groin injury. That means more carries for little-used Chris Taylor and rookie Steve Slaton.
"They've had good camps," coach Gary Kubiak said of Taylor and Slaton. "So, we're going to see how they do, but I have a lot of confidence in them."
The Steelers and Texans have split two meetings, with each winning on the road.
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