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Eyes on an encore

If stability does not morph into stagnancy, Mike Tomlin has a puncher's chance of joining Vince Lombardi, Don Shula and Bill Belichick as coaches to win consecutive Super Bowls.

Seven-plus months ago, Tomlin's Pittsburgh Steelers were on the brink of becoming the first team in Super Bowl history to botch a double-digit lead. But Ben Roethlisberger's last-minute touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes gave them a pulsating 27-23 victory over the Arizona Cardinals.

Tonight, with virtually the identical lineup, Pittsburgh opens the 2009 NFL season against the visiting Tennessee Titans.

Oh, those wily schedule-makers. The Titans are not only defending AFC South champions but also the last team to beat the Steelers.

Tennessee didn't just beat Pittsburgh. Coach Jeff Fisher's bunch punished the Steelers 31-14 in the regular season's penultimate game.

Pittsburgh rebounded with four straight wins, three in the playoffs, to secure the franchise's record sixth Super Bowl title and make Tomlin, then 36, the youngest coach to win the sport's showcase event.

Adding to tonight's intrigue: During the waning moments of last season's rout, Titans running back LenDale White stomped on a Steelers Terrible Towel, much to the amusement of the Tennessee home crowd.

Of such slights, real or imagined, locker-room stemwinders are made.

"They disrespected you! They disrespected this organization! And those chumps have never won a Super Bowl! Now go tear their spleens out and spoon-feed them to our fans!"

Tomlin, a graduate of Denbigh High and William and Mary, insists he won't go there.

"Our players won't be worked up over that," he said during a news conference this week. "We've spent a great deal of time talking about (how) the '08 season is in our past. It's no different than the '74-'75 Steelers (champions), for that matter. We mean that. We take that approach to where we are.

"Although some of the guys are the same, last year's history. Some of the things that maybe happened with opponents fall into the same category. I told some guys the other day that maybe Billy 'White Shoes' Johnson did something when he played for the Oilers back in the day that could (anger) some people. But that's irrelevant."

More than "some of the guys" are the same for Pittsburgh. Eighteen of the 22 Super Bowl starters return, remarkable in this era of revolving-door free agency.

Three of the Steelers' four new projected starters — right guard Trai Essex, inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons and cornerback William Gay — were reserves last season. Only fullback Frank Summers, a fifth-round draft choice in April out of Nevada-Las Vegas, is a newcomer.

(Timmons might miss tonight's game with an ankle injury and would be replaced by Keyaron Fox, another '08 backup.)

Moreover, each of Tomlin's 15 assistants is back, from coordinators Dick LeBeau (defense) and Bruce Arians (offense) to strength-and-conditioning coach Garrett Giemont.

"That's the Pittsburgh way," Fisher said. "You keep things intact and you quietly go about your business. You stay competitive. Every year you do the right things, and (if they) stay healthy, the Steelers have a chance to win a championship.

"I think it is certainly a compliment to the superstars at the top. The Rooney family has done a terrific job over the years."

The Rooney ownership group has employed only three head coaches in the last 40 years, nine fewer than the Washington Redskins for the sake of comparison. Chuck Noll choreographed four Super Bowl victories, Bill Cowher one and Tomlin one — and counting.

Tomlin inherited stars (future Hall of Famers?) such as Roethlisberger, receiver Hines Ward and safety Troy Polamalu. He retained a coordinator (LeBeau) who should be in the hall.

Still, Tomlin has continued to push. His Steelers have won two AFC North titles in as many years while compiling a 22-10 regular-season record.

Now Tomlin attempts to become the seventh coach — the others are Lombardi, Shula, Noll, Jimmy Johnson, Mike Shanahan and Belichick — to author a Super Bowl repeat.

This season's first four weeks should reveal whether the Steelers have become complacent. Following tonight's opener, Pittsburgh plays at Chicago, a trendy choice to win the NFC, at division rival Cincinnati and home against AFC West favorite San Diego.

That's a pretty fair quarterback quartet — Kerry Collins, Jay Cutler, Carson Palmer and Philip Rivers — to challenge the NFL's most imposing defense.

"We're just trying to build our football team for '09," Tomlin said. "We hope that it's championship-caliber. We respect the journey. We kind of know what the destination is about because we've got a lot of people that have been there. But we're going to remain focused on the journey."

Tonight's game WHO: Tennessee at Pittsburgh.WHEN: 8:30 p.m.TV: NBC 10 12.On PAGE 5: Complete NFL schedule.
David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at dteel@dailypress.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime.

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