Pittsburgh Steelers 2008 Season Preview

By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
http://www.sportsnetwork.com/merge/tsnf ... id=4175348

(Sports Network) - The honeymoon period for Mike Tomlin lasted nine games.

The first-year Pittsburgh Steelers head coach and his team found themselves at 7-2 soon after passing the halfway pole of the 2007 NFL season, and suggestions that they belonged in a discussion of the AFC elite along with the Patriots and Colts were rampant.

Tomlin, a curious head coaching choice to many due to his age (34 when hired) and relative inexperience (just one year spent as defensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings), had immediately impressed the Black and Gold faithful by winning the respect of the players and seemingly pushing many of the right buttons.

Then, a 19-16 overtime loss to the New York Jets on Nov. 18th signaled the first rough patch of Tomlin's young career.

The Steelers would hang on to win the AFC North, but the Jets loss would also begin a season-ending stretch that saw the team go 3-5 in its final eight games, including a 31-29 loss to the Jaguars at Heinz Field in the opening playoff round.

Injuries on the offensive and defensive lines, as well as a broken leg that knocked Willie Parker out on the next-to-last week of the regular season, were definite conspirators in the Steelers' fade.

But there was also an inevitable sense that the league had figured Tomlin out after those nine games, and the Steelers' inability to re-invent themselves following those injuries led to their demise.

Unfair? Perhaps, but if the Steelers, who didn't upgrade the roster in a major way in the offseason, fail to start quickly in 2008, the formerly rosy relationship between Pittsburgh fans and their youthful head coach might require just a little marriage counseling.

Below we take a capsule look at the 2008 edition of the Pittsburgh Steelers, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:

2007 RECORD: 10-6 (t1st, AFC North)

LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2007, lost to Jacksonville, 31-29, in AFC First-Round

COACH (RECORD): Mike Tomlin (10-6 in one ear with Steelers, 10-6 overall)

OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Bruce Arians

DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Dick LeBeau

OFFENSIVE STAR: Ben Roethlisberger, QB (3154 passing yards, 32 TD, 11 INT)

DEFENSIVE STAR: Troy Polamalu, SS (58 tackles)

OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 3rd rushing, 22nd passing, t9th scoring

DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 3rd rushing, 3rd passing, 2nd scoring

KEY ADDITIONS: QB Dennis Dixon (5th Round, Oregon), QB Byron Leftwich (from Falcons), RB Rashard Mendenhall (1st Round, Illinois), RB Mewelde Moore (from Vikings), WR Limas Sweed (2nd Round, Texas), C Justin Hartwig (from Panthers), DE Orpheus Roye (from Browns), OLB Bruce Davis (3rd Round, UCLA), RS Eddie Drummond (from Chiefs), P Mitch Berger (from Cardinals), P Paul Ernster (from Lions)

KEY DEPARTURES: QB Brian St. Pierre (to Cardinals), RB Najeh Davenport (released), FB Dan Kreider (to Rams), TE Jerame Tuman (to Cardinals), WR Cedrick Wilson (released), G Alan Faneca (to Jets), LB Clark Haggans (to Cardinals), LB Clint Kriewaldt (released), RS/CB Allen Rossum (to 49ers), P Daniel Sepulveda (out for season/injured)

QB: Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger comes off the finest statistical season of his four-year career, a season in which he was named to his first career Pro Bowl despite taking a beating behind an oft-shaky offensive line. Roethlisberger's 32 touchdown passes and 104.1 passer rating established new Steelers single-season records, and allowed the former first-round Draft pick to sign a rich new contract following the season. The depth chart behind "Big Ben" figures to change, as a broken collarbone suffered by Charlie Batch (232 passing yards, 2 TD, 3 INT) in preseason led to the signing of ex-Jaguar Byron Leftwich (279 passing yards, 1 TD, 2 INT with Atlanta) to take his place. The Steelers also took a fifth-round flier on Oregon star Dennis Dixon in the April Draft, and will more than likely carry three QBs throughout the season.

RB: Fantasy enthusiasts aren't wild about him because he rarely scores touchdowns, but Willie Parker (1316 rushing yards, 2 TD, 23 receptions) remains one of the game's most talented and underrated backs. Parker was leading the NFL in rushing when he broke his leg in Week 16 of last season, and after rehabbing the injury, the Steelers expect him to be a 1,000-yard back once again. That said, Parker's numbers figure to take a hit following the selection of Rashard Mendenhall (Illinois) in the first round of the April Draft. Mendenhall is seen as the one-cut, between-the-tackles type of rusher that the team has lacked since Jerome Bettis' retirement. Mewelde Moore (113 rushing yards, 6 receptions with Minnesota) was brought in to help out on special teams, but must prove that he can stay healthy in order to make the team. Carey Davis (68 rushing yards, 12 receptions) figures to stick around as the fullback, but Gary Russell (21 rushing yards) might fall victim to a numbers crunch.

WR/TE: Perhaps the most intriguing storyline of the offseason in Pittsburgh was the mini-war-of-words between Roethlisberger and top receiver Hines Ward (71 receptions, 7 TD), after the quarterback expressed a public desire to add taller wideouts to the roster. Roethlisberger later backed off from the remarks, but given that the team fulfilled his wish and drafted 6-4 Limas Sweed (Texas) in the second round, it will be interesting to watch the interplay between the QB and his No. 1 wideout this year. Ward led the team in catches again last year, though his 10.3 yards per reception was the lowest such total of his career. Deep threat Santonio Holmes (52 receptions, 8 TD) actually led the club in both receiving yards (942) and touchdowns. Holdovers Nate Washington (29 receptions, 5 TD) and Willie Reid (4 receptions) will make the roster as the fourth and fifth receivers unless free agent Dallas Baker or return specialist competitors Eddie Drummond and/or Jeremy Bloom do enough to take their jobs. Heath Miller (47 receptions, 7 TD) and Matt Spaeth (5 receptions, 3 TD) return to the tight end position, and 6-8 ex-Redskin Cody Boyd has a chance to stick as the third player at the position.

OL: An offensive line that was an Achilles' heel at times in 2007 only got weaker in the offseason, when longtime guard staple and Pro Bowler Alan Faneca defected to the Jets in free agency. Contrary to the prevailing belief beforehand, a Steelers team that surrendered 47 sacks last year did not select an offensive lineman early in the 2008 Draft, waiting until the fourth round to take undersized tackle Tony Hills (Texas). The only free agent pickup for the club in the trenches was center Justin Hartwig (ex-Titans), who will battle incumbent Sean Mahan. Otherwise, it's the same as it ever was on the Pittsburgh o-line. Left tackle Marvel Smith, left guard Chris Kemoeatu, and right guard Kendall Simmons all look to be assured of starting jobs. Max Starks and Willie Colon are in a competition for right tackle duties.

DL: What was once one of the most stable areas of the Pittsburgh defense, the front line of the 3-4, is beginning to show some cracks in the foundation. The Steelers were not the same team after left end Aaron Smith (30 tackles, 2.5 sacks) was lost to a torn biceps for the final month of last season. Nose tackle Casey Hampton (33 tackles) showed up overweight to training camp and may have fallen out of favor with Tomlin. Right end Brett Keisel (39 tackles, 2 sacks) might be the most reliable member of the group at this stage, but he's not seen as a star-quality talent. The depth behind those three players has experience but is average overall, with nose tackle Chris Hoke (6 tackles) and ends Travis Kirschke (26 tackles, 2 sacks) and Orpheus Roye not viewed as guys you'd want to use for an extended period.

LB: In light of the d-line situation, a potentially strong group of linebackers must be as good as advertised in order for the team to succeed. Outside linebacker James Harrison (98 tackles, 8.5 sacks, 1 INT) and inside man James Farrior (94 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 1 INT) are the linch pins of the group. Harrison had a terrific season last year, when he had a breakout campaign (at age 29) to make the Pro Bowl. Farrior again ranked among team leaders in tackles and sacks. The hope is that the first two Draft picks of the Tomlin era - inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons (13 tackles) and outside backer LaMarr Woodley (14 tackles, 4 sacks) - can eventually round out this group. Timmons will have to beat out Larry Foote (81 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 INT) in order to get on the field, while Woodley's greatest competition comes from third-round rookie Bruce Davis (UCLA). Ex-Chief Keyaron Fox (21 tackles with Kansas City) should stick due to his special teams skills.

DB: The success or failure of the Steelers secondary will have much to do with the health of safeties Troy Polamalu (58 tackles) and Ryan Clark (22 tackles, 1 sack). Polamalu, who missed five games a year ago, had yet to be activated from the physically-unable-to-perform (PUP) list as of mid-August due to a hamstring problem. Clark is expected to be back from a ruptured spleen that cost him the season's final 11 games last year, though it is uncertain whether he'll be the same player given the nature of that injury. The much-lamented Anthony Smith (69 tackles, 2 sacks) and rookie Ryan Mundy (6th Round, West Virginia) figure to serve as the primary backups at safety. Deshea Townsend (52 tackles, 2 INT) and Ike Taylor (80 tackles, 3 INT, 1 sack) are back at the corner slots, though they were part of a group that intercepted a league-low- tying 11 passes a year ago. Bryant McFadden (22 tackles, 1 INT) and William Gay (19 tackles) are experienced enough to fill in if needed.

SPECIAL TEAMS: The Steelers were dealt a major blow when punter Daniel Sepulveda, who kicked well as a rookie, was lost for the season with a torn ACL suffered early in training camp. Ex-Bronco Paul Ernster (36.2 avg. with Denver) and journeyman Mitch Berger (40.7 avg. with Arizona) will compete to take his place. Reliable Jeff Reed (23-25 FG) will remain as the kicker, and Greg Warren is back at long-snapper. The team parted ways with Allen Rossum after one year of returning kicks, and Mewelde Moore (10.0 punt return avg. with Minnesota), Eddie Drummond (6.9 punt return avg., 21.2 kickoff return avg.) and Jeremy Bloom are in the mix to take his place.

PROGNOSIS: The Steelers will be picked by many to win the AFC North for several reasons. They're the Steelers, first of all, but they're also the defending division champs, remain very talented, and have the benefit of playing in the juggernaut-free AFC North. But there are also major indications that this team's stock is on the decline. Even if there were injuries aplenty, you have to be concerned about the way Pittsburgh faded down the stretch last year, and very little was done to upgrade potential problem areas along the offensive and defensive lines, and in the secondary. It's hard to imagine the Steelers winning fewer than eight games, but can they win 10 and make the playoffs? There is evidence to suggest that they'll have trouble getting that done.

08/25 15:40:05 ET