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fordfixer
07-11-2009, 12:17 AM
June 29, 2009, 7:16 am

The 2009 Steelers: Strangely Underrated Champions

By KC Joyner

http://fifthdown.blogs.nytimes.com/2009 ... champions/ (http://fifthdown.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/06/29/the-2009-steelers-strangely-underrated-champions/)

I did a radio interview last week with Greg DePalma of Pro Football Central, and one of the topics was which team should be considered the favorite to win the Super Bowl. It didnít surprise me that the Patriots were on top of the Las Vegas odds to be crowned Super Bowl XLIV champions, but a recent study I did on the defending champion Steelers has me wondering why they arenít being thought of as having the inside track to repeat.

Let me enumerate the reasons:

Big Ben should have a much better season. Roethlisberger always has some kind of injury woes (as he frequently reminds us with his repetitive wincing, grimacing and other exaggerated motions he uses to showcase his pains), but the shoulder he separated in Week 1 against Houston last year limited his performance all year long. A healthy Roethlisberger should mean a return to his 2007 form, which was the best of his career and included a passer rating that was over 20 points better than his 2008 total (104.1 versus 80.1).

The Steeler defense. Everyone knows how good this unit is, but hereís a point I want to make: As it stands now, who do you think would win between a Tom Brady-led Patriots offense and the Pittsburgh defense? I know it is entirely possible (and maybe even likely) that Brady will be back to his old self by seasonís end, but many recent top-line QBs coming off serious injuries havenít made it back to their previous performance levels until a couple of seasons later. As it stands today, Iíd take this D in that battle hands down, and until I see Brady back at full strength, I see this a significant edge for the Steelers.

Improved running game. Pittsburghís running game was affected last year by injuries to starting running back Willie Parker (out for five games), starting left tackle Marvel Smith (played in only five games) and starting right guard Kendall Simmons (played in only four games). A healthy Parker combined with a healthy O-line that gets a better chance to jell than last yearís group should yield a much higher rush yards per game than the 105.6 this team put up last year (a total that ranked 23rd in the league).

The secondary. Pittsburgh did lose Bryant McFadden in free agency, but his replacement, William Gay, more than held his own last year with a superb 3.4 YPA (lowest in the league). The Steelers also had to juggle their CBs for most of 2008 and, as is the case with the O-line, if this unit stays healthy, it could play even better than it did last year.

Schedule. Pittsburgh has a first-place schedule that includes such opponents as Tennessee, San Diego and Miami, to go along with two tough divisional games against Baltimore. But check out their potentially easy games Ė Cincinnati (twice), Detroit, Denver, Kansas City and Oakland. I know this is the NFL and no game is a gimme, but it would be a complete shock if Pittsburgh didnít go at least 5-1 against that caliber of competition.

Now contrast that schedule with those of the two other AFC conference favorites:
New England Ė hard games: Atlanta, Baltimore, Tennessee, Miami (twice), Indianapolis, New Orleans and Carolina. Easy games: Denver, Tampa Bay, Jacksonville.
Tennessee Ė hard games: Pittsburgh, Indianapolis (twice), New England, Arizona, Miami and San Diego. Easy games: Jacksonville (twice), St. Louis, Seattle.

I know a lot of this schedule analysis is subjective (is Jacksonville really an easy opponent?), but now matter how I slice it, Pittsburgh comes out with more easy opponents and fewer hard opponents than either of the other two AFC powerhouses.

I have to admit that before I did the Steelers tape breakdown, I was of the mind-set that San Diego was the conference favorite and New England was a close second. líll be fair and say that I reserve the right to change my mind after doing the Chargers breakdown (which should come in the next couple of weeks), but as it stands right now, these five factors have me saying that Pittsburgh is the odds-on favorite to win the AFC.

(You can follow KC Joyner on Facebook at http://tinyurl.com/ckavry or on Twitter at http://twitter.com/kcjoynertfs).