The reigning Super Bowl champions return 20 of 22 starters, and it’s hard to argue that the changes aren’t upgrades ... or that the Steelers won’t be right back in the middle of the playoff hunt at the end of the season.
OFFENSE (#22 total yardage, #23 rushing, #17 passing, #20 scoring):
Just once, the Steelers would like to make it through an offseason following a Super Bowl with Ben Roethlisberger intact. So far, they’re 0-for-2 in that statistic: On the final day of training camp in Latrobe, James Harrison backed left tackle Max Starks into Big Ben, and the quarterback stayed on the turf after Starks’ 345 pounds landed on the back of his right foot. Despite early fears of an Achilles injury, though, it appears that the ankle was merely bruised, and he plans to play against Buffalo. (All the better for Bills fans to dream of what might have been if Phillip Rivers had been allowed to slide to Pittsburgh’s slot in the draft, leaving Roethlisberger on the board for Buffalo.) Charlie Batch, who missed the entire 2008 season with a broken collarbone, returns as the backup.
The ground game – normally the foundation of the Steelers offense – struggled last year, dropping 20 places in the league rankings from 2007. Starter Willie Parker missed five games, and first-round pick Rashard Mendenhall’s season ended before October, when the highly-touted rookie fractured his shoulder in a Week 4 win over Baltimore. Both return along with third-down back Mewelde Moore (although Parker is nursing a tender hamstring), and the addition of rookies Frank “The Tank” Summers and Isaac Redman, along with return specialist Stefan Logan, should make for an interesting decision on cutdown day.
With the rushing attack not up to its usual standards, Roethlisberger and his receivers tried to pick up some of the slack. Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes may not remind anyone of Pittsburgh’s Hall of Fame tandem of John Stallworth and Lynn Swann ... but perhaps they should. In fact, with Holmes’ toe-tapping catch for the winning touchdown against the Cardinals last February, the Steelers became the first team in league history to claim two Super Bowl MVP wideouts on the roster at the same time. And while Holmes gets closer to taking over as Roethlisberger’s go-to guy, Ward merely owns every major career team receiving record. He also has a current 162-game catch streak, trailing only Terrell Owens (183) among active receivers.
Nate Washington headed for Tennessee as a free agent, leaving Shaun McDonald and 2008 second-round pick Limas Sweed to battle for the No. 3 job. Behind them, third-round pick Mike Wallace (Ole Miss) is a burner, clocking in at 4.28 at the combine. Tight end Heath Miller signed a six-year, $35.3 million contract to remain in Pittsburgh, with sturdy Matt Spaeth backing him up.
Four of five starters return on the line. Starks took over for an injured Marvel Smith early in the 2008 season, joining left guard Chris Kemoeatu, center Justin Hartwig, and right tackle Willie Colon, who each started all 16 games. The only change is at right guard, where Trai Essex is running ahead of Darnell Stapleton in the battle to replace Kendall Simmons, still unsigned as he tries to recover from an Achilles tendon injury.
DEFENSE (#1 total yardage, #2 rushing, #1 passing, #1 scoring):
Mike Tomlin, when asked recently if he worried about the defense being too aggressive during practice, replied, “I’d rather say ‘Whoa’ than ‘Sic ‘em.’” That philosophy has helped to keep the Steeler D at the top of the league; in 2008, they topped the AFC with 51 sacks, and fell just short of becoming the first team since the 1991 Eagles to lead the league in all three yardage-allowed categories. (Minnesota nudged them out of the top spot against the run.)
Nose tackle Casey Hampton is flanked by ends Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel. All three are over 30, as are backups Travis Kirscke and Chris Hoke, so the Steelers spent their No. 1 pick on Mizzou defensive end Evander Hood. “Ziggy” is already turning heads early in his rookie season, notching three sacks in the first two preseason games.
Dick LeBeau’s beloved 3-4 demands a good set of linebackers, and Pittsburgh may have the best in the league, with 2008 Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison leading the pack. The Steelers decided Lawrence Timmons was ready to join fellow 2007 pick LaMarr Woodley in the starting lineup, so they released Larry Foote shortly after the draft. Timmons will line up inside, next to veteran James Farrior. And while Harrison demands most of the attention on the outside, racking up a team-record 16 sacks and forcing seven fumbles last season, Woodley is also capable of doing some damage, finishing with 11.5 takedowns of his own and adding six more in the team’s three playoff games.
Bryant McFadden left for Arizona, but the other three top corners return. William Gay steps into the starting lineup opposite Ike Taylor, with veteran Deshea Townsend in reserve and journeyman Keiwan Ratliff joining the mix. Behind them, Troy Polamalu rebounded from an injury-curtailed 2007 season to lead the team with a career-high seven interceptions last year. “I think Troy probably has as much innate football feel as anybody. That’s probably where Troy’s a little different than most people I’ve coached,” LeBeau said of his All-Pro strong safety. Running mate Ryan Clark also returned to form, after missing most of the previous season when a previously undiagnosed case of sickle-cell trait flared up during a road game in Denver.
For the first couple of seasons after Heinz Field opened, multiple stories were written about how impossible it was to kick field goals there. Then, the Steelers signed Jeff Reed. He had a shaky year in 2006, but has rebounded since then to make 50 of his last 56 attempts, including 27-for-30 on his home turf in the last two seasons.
After Daniel Sepulveda shredded a knee last July, the Steelers turned to journeymen Paul Ernster and Mitch Berger to handle punting duties, with unimpressive results. Both are long gone. And judging by his performance so far in the preseason, “Robo-Punter” is back with a vengeance, crushing the ball to the tune of 48.7 gross yards per punt.
It doesn’t hurt to have some of the best coverage teams in the league running underneath those kicks, either. The Steelers led the NFL in kickoff coverage last season, allowing just 19.1 yards per return, and their 6.2-yard average on punts ranked fourth. The return game needs help, though, finishing near the bottom in both categories in 2008. Stefan Logan has looked good so far; expect him to be the first option on both punts and kickoffs against the Bills, with Wallace and Moore also scheduled to field a couple of kicks.
QB Trent Edwards had a nice completion percentage against Green Bay’s 3-4 set, but not much else to brag about. And if he thought they had a tough defense ...
TE: With Derek Fine ruled out for this game, Shawn Nelson and Jonathan Stupar should get a few more opportunities with the first string. Both have made some eye-opening plays in the first three-games, a trend I’d like to see continue.
OL: Is this Langston Walker’s last stand at left tackle? If they’re going to start playing musical chairs on the line, they’d be well advised to make their moves now, and give their top five a chance to start working together in advance of their trip to New England. Bad time for Demetrius Bell’s back to start bothering him. The Steelers defense should provide a fine welcome-to-the-NFL moment for the rookie guards; we’ll see how they hold up.
DL: Finally, a chance to watch Buffalo’s top draft pick, Aaron Maybin, on the field. It should be interesting to see who the Bills decide to start in Aaron Schobel’s spot: Ryan Denney, or one of the youngsters, Chris Ellis or Copeland Bryan? The answer could give us a hint of which way the team might lean on cutdown day.
LB: Pat Thomas and Ashlee Palmer returned to the practice field this week, adding to an already-crowded group of linebackers. I remain convinced that they’ll keep one of the youngsters ahead of Thomas, who didn’t show much before his injury. We’ll see how the rotation stacks up ... and whether Nic Harris might see some time with the starters. (Wishful thinking? Probably.)
DB: Including Jairus Byrd (who’s listed as a DB), there are six safeties on the roster, which is probably two more than they want to keep. At this point, unless he starts making some big plays, I just can’t see Ko Simpson sticking around past Labor Day weekend. I’d say the same for John Wendling, but we’ll see what Bobby April has to say about that. At corner, with Drayton Florence still sidelined, Reggie Corner will get another opportunity to strengthen his grip on the nickel job.
Lori Chase, a staff columnist for Two Bills Drive, can be contacted at lchase (at) twobillsdrive (dot)com.
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