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08-29-2008, 12:12 AM
Grading the Steelers by position
By Scott Brown
Friday, August 29, 2008

Position grades

QB: Ben Roethlisberger set a Steelers single-season record with 32 touchdown passes last season, and at 26, he is still getting better. Grade: A

RB: Pro Bowler Willie Parker doesn't look like he'll have any lingering effects from the broken leg that ended his season last December. First-round pick Rashard Mendenhall should lighten Parker's load. Grade: B

WR/TE: Santonio Holmes (18.1 yards per catch last season) is on the cusp of stardom. Hines Ward is still considered the heart of the offense. The underrated Heath Miller is one of the best all-around tight ends in the NFL. Look for backup TE Matt Spaeth, an attractive target at 6-7, to figure more prominently. Grade: B+

OL: The Steelers tied for third in the NFL in rushing last season, but Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 53 times, including the playoffs. Then, Alan Faneca left via free agency. Grade: C-

DL: His battle with the bulge notwithstanding, Casey Hampton is a premier nose tackle. Aaron Smith is as good a 3-4 end as any in the NFL, and Brett Keisel is solid opposite him. Grade: B

LB: James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley are strong pass-rushers on the edge. James Farrior, 33, is still a force, and Lawrence Timmons is pushing Larry Foote at the other starting spot. Grade: B+

DB: The cornerbacks are decent, and Ryan Clark's return at free safety is a big lift. The question is whether strong safety Troy Polamalu can stay on the field. Grade: B-

Special teams: Kicker Jeff Reed had a Pro Bowl-caliber season in 2007, but he was one of the few bright spots on special teams. Grade: C-

5 Things to watch in 2008

1. Big Ben's ascension: Ben Roethlisberger erased any doubts with his play in 2007 as to whether he is a franchise quarterback. He could be even better this season.

2. Toeing the line(s): The offensive line has to be more physical this season. What happens on the defensive line if one of the starters is lost to an injury as Aaron Smith was last season?

3. Tough road ahead: The schedule is brutal and, on paper, the toughest one in the NFL. The Steelers better own their AFC North foes.

4. Man of Troy: The defense isn't nearly the same when strong safety Troy Polamalu is not on the field. Polamalu staying healthy while not compromising his kamikaze style of play is paramount.

5. Many (un)happy returns?: With the number of close games the Steelers figure to play this season, they have to shore up their kickoff and punt coverage units. They also could use a few more big returns of their own. Santonio Holmes, anybody?

Scott Brown can be reached at sbrown@tribweb.com or 412-481-5432