The 2004Pittsburgh Steelers looked to rebound after a disappointing 6–10 season the year before, which saw the team go through the entire season without winning consecutive games.
The team would more than rebound, finishing with a 15–1 record, topping the team-record 14–2 record from 1978 and joined the 1984 San Francisco 49ers, the 1985 Chicago Bears, and the 1998 Minnesota Vikings as the only teams in NFL history since the league adopted a 16-game schedule in 1978 to finish with such a record.1 This also makes the Steelers the first AFC team to achieve a 15–1 record. Along the way, the Steelers ended the New England Patriots NFL-record 21-game winning streak in Week 8, then defeated the Philadelphia Eagles the following week to hand the NFL's last two undefeated teams their first losses in back-to-back weeks, both at home.
The season was highlighted by the surprising emergence of rookiequarterbackBen Roethlisberger, the team's top pick in that year's draft. Originally intended to sit behind veteran Tommy Maddox the entire season, plans abruptly changed when Maddox was hurt in the team's Week 2 loss to Baltimore. Surrounded by talent, "Big Ben" went an NFL-record 13–0 as a rookie starting quarterback, shattering the old NFL record (and coincidentally, also the team record) of 6–0 to start an NFL career set by Mike Kruczek filling in for an injured Terry Bradshaw in 1976.
The Steelers would host the AFC Championship for the fifth time in eleven years. However, for the fourth time in that same span, the Steelers would lose at home one game away from the Super Bowl, and as in 2001, lost to the Patriots in a rematch from Week 8.
The 2006 edition of Pro Football Prospectus,2 listed the 2004 Steelers as one of their "Heartbreak Seasons," in which teams "dominated the entire regular season only to falter in the playoffs, unable to close the deal." Said Pro Football Prospectus, "In the playoffs, Roethlisberger hit an inconvenient slump, just like the Pittsburgh quarterbacks who came before him.3 He threw two killer interceptions against the Jets, but the Steelers were bailed out when Jets kickerDoug Brien missed a game-winning field goal. The next week against New England, head coachBill Cowher was clearly worried about Roethlisberger, letting him throw only once on first or second down in the first quarter. By the time the offense opened up, the Patriots were beating the Steelers by two touchdowns. A Roethlisberger interception was returned 87 yards for a touchdown by Rodney Harrison, and the game was effectively over. For the second time in seven years,4 a 15–1 team had failed to make it to the Super Bowl."
Rookies in italics 56 Active, 5 Inactive, 6 Practice squad
The Steelers went into the NFL draft with the eleventh overall pick, their highest selection since selecting Plaxico Burress eighth overall in 2000. Although the team was ready to select Miami UniversityquarterbackBen Roethlisberger if he were to still be available, the team was ready to select other players at "need" positions. However, with Roethlisberger still available, the team snatched him up, making him the third quarterback selected. Alongside Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, and J. P. Losman, Roethlisberger was part of the "Class of 2004" quarterbacks. In addition, "Big Ben" became the first quarterback the Steelers selected with their first-round pick since they selected Mark Malone in 1980.
Free agent-wise, the Steelers would sign former Philadelphia Eaglesrunning backDuce Staley. Many thought this signing was the team preparing for a future without Jerome Bettis. However, Staley's injury-prone history from Philly would continue with the Steelers. On the undrafted front, the team signed North Carolinarunning backWillie Parker. Although Parker would play sparingly his rookie season, he would become a major component of the offense in the future. The team also signed veteran punterChris Gardocki (releasing longtime punter Josh Miller in the process), who up to that point was best remembered by Steelers fans for flipping head coach Bill Cowherthe finger twice on live TV after being leveled by Joey Porter while Gardocki was with the Cleveland Browns. (Porter would be penalized for roughing the punter.) Gardocki was fined $5,000 for the incident, and his signing by the team made him the only player to have played for Cowher and give him an expletive in public.
In the personnel department, the Steelers went back to the future with the return of "Mean Joe" Greene and Dick LeBeau to the organization. Greene, who along with the entire Arizona Cardinals coaching staff was fired after the dismissal of head coach Dave McGinnis, retired from coaching and returned to the Black & Gold as the "special assistant of player personnel" for the team. Meanwhile, LeBeau, who popularized the zone blitz defensive schemes as the team's defensive coordinator in the mid-1990s (referred to as "Blitzburgh" by fans), returned to the team in that same capacity after a brief stint with the Buffalo Bills, replacing the fired Tim Lewis.
2004 would also be the final season for longtime Steelers radio color-commentatorMyron Cope, who missed several games that year due to poor health. It was one of only two times in 35 years that Cope would miss time broadcasting for the Steelers, the other being the 1994 season after the death of his wife. Though Cope would later recover, he felt that it was best to retire, and did so at the end of the season.
With the win, the Steelers started their season 1–0 for the 2nd straight year. Jerome Bettis scored 18 points (3 Touchdowns) on 5 carries, yet gained only 1 yard total for an average of 0.2 yards per carry.
The game was originally to be played at 1:00 pm, but was delayed until evening due to Hurricane Jeanne. The game was not broadcast nationally, it was only shown on local stations in the primary and secondary markets of the two teams. With the win, the Steelers improved to 2–1. The contest marked Ben Roethlisberger's first NFL start and victory.
This was the game that ended New England's NFL-record 21-game winning streak. Following an Adam Vinatieri field goal in the first quarter, the Steelers erupted, as Ben Roethlisberger twice hit Plaxico Burress for touchdowns and a Tom Brady interception was run back by Deshea Townsend for a touchdown and a 21–3 Steelers lead after one quarter. Brady was picked off twice and Roethlisberger made no mistakes in throwing for 196 yards and amassing a quarterback rating of 126.4. The Steelers routed the Patriots 34–20 and wound up winning the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs as a result. With the win, the Steelers improved to 6–1.
For the first time Jerome Bettis was not the all-time active rushing leader in the NFL upon kickoff, as he and Curtis Martin dueled throughout the season for the title, Bettis would retake the title by games end.
In an NFL first, both running backs came into the game ready to break the 13,000 career yards mark, Jerome Bettis having a 6 yard lead over native Curtis Martin. After the game Martin would lead Bettis by 9 yards.
After a brilliant 15–1 regular season the Steelers pulled one out of the fire in the divisional playoffs against the Jets. Ben Roethlisberger was intercepted at the Jets 14-yard line and Reggie Tongue ran back an 86-yard touchdown in the third quarter. After tying the game at 17 in the fourth the Steelers had to sweat out a Jets drive in the final minutes of regulation; they set up for a Doug Brien 37-yard field goal but the kick missed. In overtime Roethlisberger was intercepted again and another Brien field goal was set up, this one 35 yards out – but it again missed. The Steelers drove down field and Jeff Reed's 33-yard field goal ended a 20–17 Pittsburgh win.
AFC Championship: vs. New England Patriots
AFC Championship Game
New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers
Revenge for their Halloween loss drove the 15–2 Patriots back to Heinz Field and the conference championship. The shaky play of the Steelers against the Jets the week before was exploited by New England as Ben Roethlisberger was intercepted almost right away, then on their next possession the Steelers were stopped on downs. The Patriots raced to a 17–3 lead in the second quarter before Roethlisberger drove them down field and threw a back-breaking interception to Rodney Harrison at the Patriots 13-yard line; Harrison ran back the 87-yard touchdown and fans at Heinz began chanting for Tommy Maddox to come in to replace Roethlisberger. The Steelers managed a pair of third-quarter touchdowns (a 5-yard Jerome Bettis run and 30-yard Roethlisberger pass to Hines Ward) but these only sandwiched another Patriots score (a 25-yard run by ex-Bengal Corey Dillon) and the Steelers simply could not overcome New England's offense as the Patriots finished off Pittsburgh 41–27, the third playoff win in four career tries by the Patriots over the Steelers.
The game is also significant as the final game by the team's radio broadcaster, Myron Cope. Cope had served as the color commentator on the team's radio broadcast for 35 years. He would publicly announce his retirement five months later.9