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09-10-2009, 12:56 AM
Questions to ponder before Steelers' season starts

Thursday, September 10, 2009
http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsbu ... 42323.html (http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/sports/steelers/s_642323.html)

The Steelers' quest for a seventh Super Bowl title officially begins tonight in a nationally televised game against the Tennessee Titans that kicks off the NFL season.

The Titans were the last team that beat the Steelers in the 2008 season.

And after manhandling the Steelers in a 31-14 win Dec. 21 at LP Field, the Titans added insult to ignominy when a handful of their players stomped on the Terrible Towel.

While the Steelers' players downplayed those antics this week, the fans that pack Heinz Field tonight surely haven't forgotten about them.

That isn't the only reason why they will be waving their Terrible Towels en masse. With 19 of 22 starters returning, the Steelers appear poised to make another run at the Super Bowl.

Here are seven questions to ponder as the Steelers embark on the 2009 season.

Can quarterback Ben Roethlisberger get better?

In a word, yes.

Already one of only two active quarterbacks to win multiple Super Bowls, Roethlisberger, at age 27, is just entering his prime.

It would help the Steelers if he improves on his touchdown passes-to-interceptions ratio (17-15) from a year ago and if he can cut down on the 46 sacks he took last season.

Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said earlier this week that he has continued to expand how much responsibility he places on Roethlisberger. And, Arians added, he has been pleased with the role Roethlisberger has taken in bringing along some of the more inexperienced players on offense.

"Frustration from the spring had grown to patting them on the back and edging them along as a leader," Arians said of Roethlisberger. "He's lost a lot of good veteran players the last couple of years and replaced by young guys, and his leadership is showing in a great way."

Are the Steelers the team of the decade if they win a Super Bowl this season?

They would have a strong case.

Another title would give them three this decade, tying them with the New England Patriots. It would also give them three in the past five seasons.

The Patriots have the best winning percentage (.708) in the NFL from 2000-08, while the Steelers are third (.656), behind the Indianapolis Colts (.701).

Of course, don't try engaging the Steelers in any discussions that deal with looking ahead. Not after what happened in 2006, when they stumbled to 8-8 a season after winning the Super Bowl.

"It definitely gets you in trouble," running back Willie Parker said of not staying focused on the present. "We can't plan winning the Super Bowl this year. Just let it happen."

Why might the Steelers not get back to the Super Bowl?

Injuries are always an X-factor.

Ask defensive end Aaron Smith the difference between 2003, when the Steelers went 6-10, and 2004, when they were 15-1, and he will say that they simply stayed healthy in the latter season.

Another reason why the Steelers could fall short of a return to the Super Bowl: the road to Miami may be considerably more difficult than the one to Tampa Bay in 2008.

Everything broke right for the Steelers last year in the postseason. Both of their playoff games were at home, and they were against teams the Steelers had gone a combined 3-0 against during the regular season.

Among the teams the Steelers may have to go through this season are the Patriots, who are loaded with quarterback Tom Brady coming back from a knee injury. The San Diego Chargers also look formidable and don't forget about the Ravens, Titans and Colts.

Is Santonio Holmes ready to take the next step?

From the can-you-believe-this department, Holmes has never had a 1,000-yard receiving season dating back to high school.

"I think that one kind of still eats me up inside," Holmes said. "Whenever it happens, I'm definitely going to be excited and am going to push for more after the first time."

This should be the season that Holmes finally breaks through that barrier.

He's coming off a splendid postseason, capped by catching nine passes for 131 and the game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl XLIII.

If Holmes, the MVP of Super Bowl XLIII, can carry over what he did at the end of the 2008 season, he could approach 1,200 yards in receiving and establish himself as one of the top big-play wideouts in the NFL.

Will we see the Willie Parker of old or an old Willie Parker?

All indications point to the former.

The Steelers have anointed Parker as their main ball-carrier, even though it looked during the preseason as if he might share carries with second-year man Rashard Mendenhall.

Parker posted a career-low 3.8 yards per carry in 2008, but injuries contributed to a down season for the two-time Pro Bowler.

Parker, 28, should be fresh after playing in just one preseason game, and he has plenty of motivation to regain his form of 2006-07. He's one of the starters heading into the final year of his contract that didn't get a new deal.

One of the hardest workers on the Steelers, Parker all but laughed when asked if he's physically ready to handle a heavy workload.

"I'm ready, man," he said.

Where might the Steelers be most improved this season?

The Steelers made a quantum leap in their special teams play in 2008, and they could be even better this season.

Stefan Logan should provide a much-needed spark to the kickoff and punt return games that ranked near the bottom of the NFL last season. Just as significant is the return of punter Daniel Sepulveda from a knee injury that cost him the entire 2008 season.

Sepulveda said earlier this week that his goals are for the Steelers to finish in the top five in net punting average they were tied for 25th in the NFL in that category last season and for him to place at least 40 percent of his punts inside the opponents' 20-yard line.

Given the way that he boomed the ball during the preseason, both goals appear to be attainable.

"Found a rhythm in the preseason," Sepulveda said, "and looking forward to carrying that momentum into the season when we start keeping score."

Which rookie will have the biggest impact?

The two to watch are running back Frank Summers and wide receiver Mike Wallace.

Summers showed the Steelers enough during the preseason for them to part ways with Carey Davis, and he will serve as Parker's lead blocker.

Wallace, meanwhile, has made enough progress that he will share the No. 3 wide receiver duties with Limas Sweed. Perhaps the fastest player on the Steelers, Wallace will provide the team with another deep threat in the passing game.