OFFENSE (#17 total yardage, #3 rushing, #22 passing, #9t scoring):
Hampered by the lack of a running game, Ben Roethlisberger’s year ended with an uneven performance in the wild-card loss to Jacksonville: three interceptions and four sacks in the first half, followed by three fourth-quarter touchdowns in a stirring comeback attempt negated by Josh Scobee’s last-minute field goal. Overall, though, it was still a marked improvement over his lost 2006 season. He adapted quickly to new coordinator Bruce Arians’ offense, throwing for 3,154 yards and setting a franchise record with 32 touchdown passes. During the 2004 draft, rumors had Tom Donahoe trying everything he could to trade up to select Roethlisberger; as “Big Ben” continues to establish himself as one of the elite quarterbacks in the league, Bills fans have more than enough justification to regret that the since-departed general manager didn’t succeed.
Backup quarterback Charlie Batch’s broken collarbone, suffered against the Eagles last Friday night, left director of football operations Kevin Colbert scrambling to find a replacement. He settled on another former Mid-American Conference star, Byron Leftwich, who should be able to fill in adequately on a short-term basis. Fifth-round pick Dennis Dixon (Oregon) hasn’t had a great camp, but performed reasonably well against Philadelphia.
The Steelers definitely could have used Willie Parker against Jacksonville, but his season ended with a broken fibula two games shy of the playoffs. With Najeh Davenport taking over as the lead back for the wild-card game, the Jaguars held the NFL’s third-ranked rushing offense to just 43 yards on 26 carries. Exit Davenport, enter first-round draft choice Rashard Mendenhall (Illinois), marking the first time the team has used a No. 1 pick at the position since 1989. He’ll provide a solid alternative (and eventual successor) to Parker, who was leading the league with 1,316 yards – and on pace to become the first Steelers back to win the rushing title since “Bullet” Bill Dudley did it in 1946 – before his injury. Gary Russell and free agent pickup Mewelde Moore are behind them on the depth chart. Carey Davis is the stereotypical Steelers fullback: touch the ball once or twice per game, block the rest of the time.
Hines Ward, Pittsburgh’s all-time leader in receiving yards (8,737), receptions (719) and receiving touchdowns (65), may not be the fastest wideout on the team, but he still knows how to get open. The three-time All-Pro is also a devastating run blocker, as many unsuspecting defensive backs can confirm. Running mate Santonio Holmes is a rising star who led the league with an 18.2 yards-per-catch average last season. Once 6-4 second-round pick Limas Sweed (Texas) learns the offense, he’ll provide the tall target requested by Roethlisberger. For now, though, Nate Washington is still the third receiver. Recent draft picks Willie Reid and Dallas Baker are the top contenders for the fifth slot, with special-teamers Eddie Drummond and Jeremy Bloom also fighting to make the roster. Tight end Heath Miller, a former first-round pick, is a solid blocker as well as a downfield threat. Matt Spaeth is the second TE; he and Miller accounted for 10 of the team’s 34 touchdown catches last year.
After the 2006 season, the Steelers gave perennial Pro Bowl left guard Alan Faneca a contract offer he didn’t like, so he decided to play out the last year of his deal and move on. That’s bad news for Roethlisberger, who has absorbed 93 sacks and countless other hits in the last two seasons, because Faneca was unquestionably the team’s best lineman. Chris Kemoeatu inherits that spot, with Marvel Smith – now in his contract year – next to him at tackle. There’s an open competition at center; former Panther Justin Hartwig should start against Buffalo, and the Steelers have to hope he’s better than last year’s free-agent addition, Sean Mahan. Guard Kendall Simmons and tackle Willie Colon make up the right side of the line, with former starter Max Starks pushing Colon for the job. Hard to imagine an offensive line could be so good at run blocking and so rotten at pass protection at the same time, but Roethlisberger shares some of the blame for holding on to the ball.
DEFENSE (#1 total yardage, #3 rushing, #3 passing, #2 scoring):
Some of the faces may change from year to year, but as long as Dick LeBeau is in charge, the Steelers will have one of the nastiest defenses in the league. When new head coach Mike Tomlin joined the team last season, there was some thought that he might make the switch to a 4-3, but he sensibly decided against blowing up LeBeau’s system and starting over.
The line is anchored by Pro Bowl nosetackle Casey Hampton. After a stint on the physically-unable-to-perform list because he showed up at camp overweight, Hampton was recently activated and expects to play this week. He’s still not in game shape, though, so expect to see plenty of backup Chris Hoke and practice-squadder Scott Paxson. Underrated defensive end Aaron Smith lines up on the left side, with Brett Keisel on the right.
Many Bills fans might remember linebacker James Harrison from the 2004 season finale, when he snatched a Drew Bledsoe fumble out of midair and returned it 18 yards for his first NFL touchdown. It took two more seasons of spot starts (and the departure of Joey Porter) for Harrison to win a full-time job; “Silverback” responded by leading the team with 8.5 sacks and making it to the Pro Bowl. On the left side, the team didn’t try to keep free agent Clark Haggans because 2007 second-round pick LaMarr Woodley is ready to take his place. Inside ‘backers James Farrior and Larry Foote hold down the middle, leaving Harrison and Woodley free to create havoc. Last year’s No. 1 pick, Lawrence Timmons, was supposed to push one of them out of the lineup before now, but the steady veterans aren’t making the coaches’ decision easy.
Ike Taylor and Deshea Townsend will never be shutdown corners, but since the Steelers play so much of LeBeau’s beloved zone-blitz scheme, they don’t have to be. Townsend is out for this game; Bryant McFadden, the incumbent nickel back, will take his place. There are questions at safety, where Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu each missed significant time last season. Polamalu, who made his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl in 2007 despite playing in just 11 games, remains on the physically-unable-to-perform list with a nagging hamstring injury. While Clark was out dealing with a serious illness, his backup, Anthony Smith, proved more adept at making guarantees than at covering Randy Moss. Smith’s a big hitter – ask Hines Ward about that – but is vulnerable to the deep ball. Clark and Smith should start against the Bills, with Tyrone Carter also in the rotation.
So much for the difficulty of kicking at Heinz Field: Jeff Reed led the NFL in field goal percentage last season, connecting on 23-of-25 attempts. (One of the misses was a 65-yard attempt at the end of the first half in Denver. The other was during the Miami game – the one played on five inches of mud masquerading as a football field.)
“Robo-punter” Dan Sepulveda is done for the year with an ACL tear, so Paul Ernster and Mitch Berger are competing for the position. Berger used to be one of the best in the league and will probably win the job, but at this point in his career, he’s not an upgrade.
After watching Willie Reid struggle during the 2007 preseason games, Pittsburgh sent the Falcons a late-round pick for cornerback/return specialist Allen Rossum. He did take one kickoff back for a touchdown, but the overall results were mediocre, and Rossum moved on. The Steelers are trying out a number of players to replace him, but so far, no one has stood out. Reid, Moore, Mendenhall, Jeremy Bloom, and recent pickup Eddie Drummond are all in the mix.
QB: From the Dept. of the Obvious – going 1-for-5 in his first game wasn’t a good way for Trent Edwards to begin the preseason. Even in a meaningless exhibition game, Bills fans, a nervous bunch in the best of times, would like to see a better performance from the man the front office has pegged as its quarterback of the future.
RB: We know Lynch and Jackson are the top two. Who’s No. 3? Wright? Omon? Neither?
WR: Last week, James Hardy looked like a rookie ... but one with loads of potential. Like to see him keep the great touchdown catch, while cutting down on the mental errors. He’s getting there.
With both Josh Reed and Roscoe Parrish limited in practice and their availability for the game uncertain, the wideouts competing for the last couple of roster spots should have plenty of chances to be seen. Felton Huggins may have added his name into the discussion on Monday night, when he came down with long passes from J.P. Losman and Gibran Hamdan.
TE: Looks like Robert Royal has accepted Derek Schouman’s challenge for the starting job. Some – any – production from this position would be nice.
OL: Still no Peters. And now, not much in the way of backup tackles. Yeah, this should be fun. Moving Butler outside may not be the worst idea, since Whittle and Preston are somewhat capable at guard.
DL: Not a good performance against Washington, and every single starter on Pittsburgh’s offensive line weighs in at over 310 pounds. Stroud’s presence for more than one series would help, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Unlike some of you, I’m still holding out hope for McCargo. That may not last much longer, though.
LB: Here’s hoping Paul Posluszny shook off the rust last weekend. If not, I’m sure those Steelers linemen would be happy to help. Kawika Mitchell is already looking like the solid addition I expected, and I’m anxiously waiting to see the two of them team up with a healthy Angelo Crowell in the base defense.
DB: Ashton Youboty may have kept himself on the roster a while longer with last week’s performance, or at least bumped up his trade value. Good to see the kid make some plays. But with 11 potential “keepers” in the defensive backfield and perhaps only nine or 10 available spots, who gets left out? This position looks like the coaching staff’s toughest decision come cutdown day, which means every play for the next three weeks counts.
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