2008 Season Preview: Pittsburgh Steelers
Jeff Risdon. 2nd September, 2008 - 8:24 pm
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Last Season: 10-6, 1st in AFC North, lost in Wild Card round, +3 turnover ratio, +124 point differential
Additions: C Justin Hartwig, RB/KR Mewelde Moore, LB Keyaron Fox, DE Orpheus Roye, QB Byron Leftwich
Subtractions: LB Clark Haggans, G Alan Faneca, FB Dan Kreider, KR Alan Rossum, WR Willie Reid, QB Charlie Batch (on IR)
Rookies of Note: RB Rashard Mendenhall, WR Limas Sweed
What I like
Offense: Ben Roethlisberger has matured into a truly elite-level QB, ranking 2nd in the league in QB rating and also rushing for over 200 yards (also 2nd amongst QBs) to go with his 32 TD passes. Big Ben is amazingly tough, having taken a real beating the past couple of seasons without it affecting his play. He throws on the run as well as anyone, and his deep ball while on the move is truly a rare gift. Thatís important, because Big Ben faces far more pressure than any other QB in the league (more on that later).
Roethlisberger has a great rapport with his wideouts, seemingly mind-melding on scramble plays and making the difficult look routine. Hines Ward is as much a Pittsburgh institution as Iron City Beer, the prototypical Steeler that fans adore. Still the best blocking WR in the league, Ward has lost some speed and agility but has modified his game to where that doesnít impact his receiving skills much. He willingly ceded the #1 role to gifted youngster Santonio Holmes, and the former Buckeye wore it well. Holmes plays much bigger than his size, and heís got deceptive speed that he gears up and down very effectively. He led the league in yards per catch and figures to see more throws as Ward wanes, and Holmes has also proven to be an excellent blocker in his own right. Adding big Limas Sweed in the 2nd round at Roethlisbergerís request (demand?) is a great move; Sweed was a surefire 1st rounder and top WR on the board until a wrist injury wiped out 6 months of games and training. Heís got Plaxico Burress potential, and adding height will no doubt come in handy in both the red zone and when Big Ben is running for his life and has to throw it up on 3rd down and long. TE Heath Miller has great hands and size, and he has a good feel for finding the hole between the LBs and safeties.
Another Steelers trademark is the ability to consistently run the ball, and this edition will certainly be no exception. Realizing that flashy Willie Parker needed someone to share the load and a more inside-oriented presence, the Steelers snapped up Rashard Mendenhall with their 1st round pick. Parker proved himself a big play weapon who is best used in smaller doses, and Mendenhall has the one-cut burst to bounce inside runs outside. Adding shifty Mewelde Moore brings more versatility and big-play potential; Coach Mike Tomlin lobbied hard to bring him in from Minnesota, where Tomlin worked before his Pittsburgh hiring.
Defense: If Hines Ward is Iron City Beer, then having an aggressive, hard-hitting, speedy defense is The Clarks and a Primanti Brothers sandwich (I like the genoa salami and provolone at the Strip District location) put together. Pittsburgh has churned out LBs and DEs that terrorize QBs since the days of LC Greenwood and Joe Greene, thru Kevin Greene, Greg Lloyd, Jason Gildon, and Joey Porter. Now James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley share that vaunted status with little to no dropoff from those that came before them. Harrison single-handedly forced Steve McNair into retirement, while he and his mates drove the Browns to exile shell shocked starter Charlie Frye to Seattle. The ability to attack from all over the formation with fast, football-smart defenders is Dick Lebeauís trademark, and he the players he needs to make it work. Woodley and Harrison on the outside, James Farrior and Larry Foote on the inside--thatís a great LB corps. 2nd year man Lawrence Timmons and rookie Bruce Davis fit the mold too, fast and hard-hitting, always playing at full speed.
The front 3 have to be quite good in order for those LBs to get playmaking opportunities, and the Steelers have themselves a very good trio. NT Casey Hampton is a perennial Pro Bowler who dominates the middle. He is the immovable object, but Hampton can also get into the backfield and make plays from time to time. Ends Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel are both athletic for their large sizes and get solid pressure up the field consistently. Orpheus Roye is a solid veteran presence who brings much-needed depth to the position.
I like what Coach Tomlin has done with his CB situation. By flopping Ike Taylor to the right side and Deshea Townsend to the left, he plays to the strengths of both. Townsend has been on the whipping end of Terrible Towels for years, but heís actually a pretty decent overall player--just donít ask him to cover deeper than about 20 yards downfield. Bryant McFadden is a quality 3rd CB, and the trio has great communication and picks one another up well. They frequently get left on islands to make tackles on wide runs and against screens, and the run stats donít lie, they get the job done. I find safety Troy Polamalu among the most overrated players in the game, but there is no doubt he is a big-time hitter with outstanding closing speed. He frequently takes risks and gets rewarded with big plays, but he takes himself out of far too many plays as a safety for my liking. He did show better discipline and footwork when he chose to cover last season.
What I dislike
Offense: The offensive line is a huge question mark, particularly in pass protection. Losing Pro Bowl stalwart LG Alan Faneca is a major blow, regardless of how much the Jets paid for him or that he was advancing beyond his prime. Chris Kemoeatu gets the honor of replacing Faneca, and he impressed over the summer, but how well he handles 16 games of full-speed starters in games that count remains to be seen. His plodding gait kept him off the field in the past, and that certainly wonít help Big Ben feel any more secure in the pocket. New C Justin Hartwig will help stabilize the middle, though heís not the run blocker that the deposed Sean Mahan was last season. The Steelers made one of the stranger roster decisions this offseason, using the transition tag on T Max Starks, who probably wouldnít make the final roster otherwise. The tackles are a study in one-dimensionality. Both Marvel Smith and Willie Colon are very good at sealing the edge on the run and getting into the second level, but both are in the lower tier of starting tackles in terms of pass protection. Colon especially struggles against smaller, quicker pass rushers. The skill positions are in good hands, but if the line canít hold their own it will all be for naught.
Defense: Other than the safety spot opposite Troy Polamalu, the starters are quite good. And that spot isnít so much a weakness as it is a question about Ryan Clarkís health and Anthony Smithís limited range. But the depth on the unit is iffy, and this is one of the older starting units in the league. The front three is the most pressing problem; when Aaron Smith went down last year the defense really suffered. The awful finish to their season came as a direct result of their lack of depth, and they did little to infuse any youthful talent this offseason. Orpheus Roye helps, but heís older than the starters. Casey Hampton showed up to camp looking 8 months pregnant and there is only so much wear and tear 31-year old knees can take. Backup Chris Hoke isnít anywhere close to filling Hamptonís shoes. The Steelers are only 3-deep at CB, not a good situation with pass-happy Cleveland and Cincinnati in their division. If Polamalu has trouble staying healthy once again, the defense loses its wild card and top playmaker, something they just cannot afford.
Daniel Sepulveda turned in a nice rookie season at punter, but heís already lost for the year. The Steelers have a couple of veteran legs in camp and the falloff shouldnít be too great, but his leg strength and zeal for contact will be missed.
Best Case: The OL can protect Roethlisberger enough to keep him healthy and effective for 16 games; the Parker-Mendenhall RB combo can churn out first downs and break some long runs; the talented but aging and thin defense holds up and keeps terrorizing the QB, getting off the field quickly; they find a capable PR/KR and the punting game finds an adequate replacement for Sepulveda (Mitch Berger gets the first crack). Taking care of business in the AFC North, going 5-1 or 6-0, would ensure a playoff spot, and if the team is healthy they could win a playoff game.
Worst Case: The porous pass protection renders the offense one dimensional and gets Big Ben hurt; the veterans on the DL show their age; the end-of-2007 bender is a sign of things to come and not simply an example of a good team getting worn out.
Bellwether Games: The Week 2 trip to Cleveland is huge. The Browns all have that game circled on the calendar as payback for the humiliation in the 2007 opener, and the winner likely gets an early leg up on winning the AFC North. After that, they travel across the Keystone state to play the Eagles in what figures to be a physical contest, followed by a visit from Baltimore and their stout defense. If the Steelers can come out of that stretch with a winning record and an OL that isnít awful, theyíre very well positioned to make the playoffs.
Prediction: This is a precariously good team. The starters are good enough to carry them to the playoffs. But between the lousy pass protection and the paper-thin defense chock full of older players, that is asking a lot. A look at the schedule breeds pessimism, as Pittsburgh plays all of their non-divisional games against teams that finished with winning records in 2007. The Steelers finish a disappointing 8-8, though I wouldnít rule out the potential for the Week 17 contest against the Browns to be for the AFC North title and a playoff berth.