PITTSBURGH (AP) -Ben Roethlisberger can't hide his excitement when talking about the San Francisco 49ers, the team he rooted for while growing up.
Neither can Steelers teammate Hines Ward, who has been in the NFL since 1998 yet will play San Francisco - like Big Ben, his favorite team as a kid - for the first time on Sunday.
Steelers liking the 49ers? That's a switch.
``Pittsburgh and San Francisco were the teams that I grew up watching all the time,'' said Ward, who was raised in suburban Atlanta. ``Joe Montana, Jerry Rice. Getting the opportunity to play San Francisco is definitely one of my craziest dreams because never in my wildest imagination would I think I would be playing against the San Francisco 49ers.''
Roethlisberger is a little different. He is from Findlay, Ohio, an area better known for its Browns and Bengals fans, yet he very much wanted to play for the 49ers. He wears No. 7 in honor of John Elway, but the 49ers were his team.
He doesn't hide that fact, either, even if the 49ers are looked upon jealously by some in Pittsburgh for winning five Super Bowls before the Steelers did. The Steelers won four during the 1974-79 seasons, but didn't win their fifth until two seasons ago. The Cowboys are the only other team to win five Super Bowls.
``The 49ers were my favorite team growing up, I was a Joe Montana and Jerry Rice guy,'' Roethlisberger said. ``This is my first time getting to play them, so I'm kind of excited about that. Everyone knows the rich tradition of both teams, but the two teams are different from they were back in the day.''
No kidding.
Back in the '80s and '90s, the 49ers were a stretch-the-field team that didn't have a single 100-yard rusher in their five Super Bowl victories. Now, much of the offense comes from last year's No. 3 NFL rusher, Frank Gore, who had 81 yards against the Rams last weekend and is coming off a 1,695-yard season.
However, 49ers quarterback Alex Smith hasn't resembled Montana or Steve Young yet during a brief career that's decidedly a work in progress for the No. 1 pick in the 2005 draft. Coach Mike Nolan is already being asked if Smith has regressed, not progressed, despite the 49ers' 2-0 start.
This might not be the easiest way for Smith to find his way, going against a Pittsburgh defense that has allowed a league-low 10 points in two games. The Steelers also have 10 sacks.
``He's watching film right now saying, `What the heck are they doing?' `` linebacker Larry Foote said. ``Hopefully he'll be thinking about us all week and coach (Dick) LeBeau will show him something a little different.''
New Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, according to the players, is giving defensive coordinator LeBeau more freedom than former coach Bill Cowher did to tinker with the numerous blitzes and alignments he throws at offenses.
Smith's 252 yards passing in two games are the fewest in the league for a QB who has started two games, except for Buffalo's J.P. Losman (251 yards). Losman couldn't generate anything while throwing for only 154 yards in a 26-3 loss in Pittsburgh last weekend.
And Cleveland quarterback Charlie Frye was so bad during the Steelers' 34-7 victory on opening day, he was traded a couple of days later.
Despite San Francisco's tight victories over Arizona (20-17) and St. Louis (17-16), there are visible worries in the 49ers' camp about the lack of productivity. Wide receiver Vernon Davis, who has only four catches for 27 yards, went to Nolan and asked why he wasn't getting the ball.
Nolan didn't exactly give Smith an overwhelming vote of confidence in replying to a question about whether Smith is taking a step back.
``It's too early to tell,'' Nolan said of Smith, who has yet to throw a TD pass.
The coach gave a similar answer when asked if Smith was showing improvement, saying, ``In two games, he hasn't shown much.''
No doubt offensive coordinator Jim Hostler would prefer the emphasis to be placed on the 49ers' record, not the way they got there.
``This year, we've got higher expectations and that's why we have the feeling that we have inside right now,'' he said. ``We're not happy with what's going on. The inconsistency we have in the offense has to be corrected for us to go forward.''
By contrast, the Steelers were balanced in their first two games, with Willie Parker going over 100 yards both times and Roethlisberger throwing a career-high four TD passes against the Browns. It won't help the 49ers' defense that linebacker Manny Lawson injured a knee in practice Wednesday and will miss the rest of the season.
Pretty smooth transition for the Tomlin era so far, correct? By winning, the Steelers can start 3-0 for the first time since Cowher's first season in 1992.
``It's not coach Cowher's team any more,'' Ward said. ``It's not coach (Chuck) Noll's team. It's coach Tomlin's team and he's going to do it the way he wants to, and that's what he established early on. So far, guys are buying into it.''

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