By Alan Robinson (CP) – 14 hours ago
PITTSBURGH, Pa. — Their US$102 million quarterback isn't around now, and he won't play at least until October. The Pittsburgh Steelers find themselves in an unprecedented situation, preparing for a season that will open without their suspended star.
If that was their only problem, perhaps the Steelers' off-season wouldn't seem so hectic, unsettled or disrupted, but it's not. Not even close.
There are numerous unsettled issues on both sides of the ball as the Steelers go through a month's worth of spring practices, and not all of them are likely to be resolved by the time training camp arrives. Or the season, either. Or by the return of Roethlisberger from a six-game suspension that has disturbed nearly every aspect of the Steelers' springtime preparation.
It's not just that they're auditioning three quarterbacks for a starting job at a time when nearly every NFL team has that issue settled. Or that the receivers aren't working with the man who will primarily throw them the ball. It's a lot more than that.
Santonio Holmes didn't help, either.
Holmes and all the assorted problems he brought may be gone, and the Steelers don't have to deal with the former Super Bowl MVP's off-field issues. The downside to his departure is that it's thinned the Steelers' depth at wide receiver and eliminated their most productive downfield threat.
Mike Wallace was an effective No. 3 receiver as a rookie and significantly upgraded the Steelers' speed. But, as Hines Ward said, there's a big difference trying to get open on every down — as Wallace now must do — as opposed to doing so once or twice a series.
"We've got plenty of time for that to sort itself out," coach Mike Tomlin said.
Willie Parker is gone, too, and while injuries helped cost the three-time 1,000-yard running back his starting job last season, his absence leaves the Steelers without a proven backup to Rashard Mendenhall. Mendenhall has not gone a whole season from start to finish as the No. 1 back.
"I think he (Mendenhall) is capable of a lot more, to be quite honest," Tomlin said.
While Mewelde Moore has been a capable fill-in runner at times, Jonathan Dwyer might be one of the NFL's most valuable sixth-round draft picks if he can make an immediate contribution.
And their six losses in which they failed to hold leads last season, mostly because their secondary repeatedly failed to slow opposing passing games in the fourth quarter? To address that, the Steelers brought back former starting cornerback Bryant McFadden, but he was traded by Arizona because he caused a near-identical problem there.
There's also the issue of protecting Roethlisberger — or, for at least the first month of the season, protecting Byron Leftwich or Dennis Dixon or Charlie Batch.
The Steelers' pass protection issues aren't likely to go away when Roethlisberger returns, or because they drafted lineman Maurkice Pouncey in the first round. Their 50 sacks allowed last season were second in the NFL to Green Bay's 51.
The offence is looking much different this spring, and not only because Roethlisberger is barred from taking part in their workouts.
Offensive co-ordinator Bruce Arians is showing off more two-back looks than usual, an apparent response to team president Art Rooney II's proclamation that the running game — especially near the goal line — must be better. Last season, the fullback role was effectively filled by tight ends.
The Steelers might not have had so many blown leads, especially during their season-altering five-game losing streak late last season, if they had run the ball better near the goal line during their 9-7 season. Their only reliable goal-line runner was Gary Russell, and they let him go without explanation.
There's the age factor, too, another worry as the Steelers prepare for a season in which nearly all of their key defensive starters will be 30 or older. They weren't the same defensively last season after safety Troy Polamalu and defensive end Aaron Smith were hurt, and no off-season preparation can prevent disruptive injuries, especially to the oldest and most-experienced players on a team.
"I'm not a fortune teller. I don't know how the season's going to go," Ward said. "That's what is uneasy, the uncertainty."
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