Bill Cowher relied on a dominant defense after the Steelers were forced to play then rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger three weeks into the 2004 season. With Joey Porter, Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, James Farrior, and Troy Polamalu leading the NFL's top-ranked defense, the Steelers went 15-1 during Big Ben's rookie campaign. The Steelers rode the same formula to a Super Bowl title the following season.
Cowher, currently an NFL analyst for CBS Sports and Pittsburgh's head coach from 1992-05, said that, by acquiring Minkah Fitzpatrick via a trade with the Miami Dolphins, the Steelers, winless after two games, have begun the process of building their new identity with new starting quarterback Mason Rudolph under center. Rudolph, a second year quarterback, will start the remainder of Pittsburgh's final 14 regular season games after Roethlisberger sustained an elbow injury that will require season-ending surgery.
"Football is the total team game," Cowher said during an appearance on CBS Sports HQ on Tuesday. "When you look at it from that standpoint, I actually do like what they did in going out and getting Minkah Fitzpatrick, because what they've done now is they've kind of shored up their defense and filled a little bit of the void they had at safety.
"Sean Davis hasn't been able to stay healthy there, and Minkah Fitzpatrick is a very good football player, a proven player who has been in this league for a year now," Cowher continued. "He's young, he has multiple years on his contract. He gives you a lot of versatility from the standout of that he can play a lot of different positions and lot of different roles.
"So, I think at this point, you kinda go back to a little bit of the onus that when Ben goes down, everyone talks about the offensive side. Now, the onus goes back on the defense and shoring that up and taking the responsibility of keeping the games close, creating opportunities for their offense. Kind of like last week. They gave up some big plays, but they also created some big plays in terms of getting two fumbles that led to scores for their offense."
"I think this is the way they're going to have to go as they find their identity. But it's going to be tough. They're going to go up [against] a pretty good football team in San Francisco who is playing with a lot of confidence -- two road wins to start the season. It will be a big challenge."
While he believes that Pittsburgh's defense will have to pick up more of the slack, Cowher also believes that the Steelers' offense will rally around Rudolph, who went 12 of 19 for 112 yards with two touchdowns and an interception after coming in for Big Ben in last Sunday's two-point loss to Seattle. Rudolph will make his first career start this Sunday in San Francisco against the 2-0 49ers.
"I think you use that as fuel," Cowher said with regard to many in the media counting Pittsburgh out after two games. "An opportunity with Mason Rudolph coming in there. He knows the system, he's been in it for over a year now. He's got to just be able to operate [the offense] and I think that he'll be able to do a little bit more as he becomes more comfortable with the players around him."
Cowher also believes that Pittsburgh's leadership will play a factor in how well the Steelers respond from their early-season adversity.
"I think the Pittsburgh Steelers have a lot of good leadership still on that football team," Cowher said. "Ben is a leader, no question, but that offensive line, and [Maurkice] Pouncey and Cam Heyward and the defensive front, T.J. [Watt] playing the way he is, Devin Bush is going to get better as the season goes along, he's a young player.
"I think it's a team that should get a little bit better as the season goes along as they get more comfortable with each other."