Starkey: Steelers will win without Ben
By Joe Starkey, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Thursday, September 9, 2010
I'm out of my mind.
Or so I've been told, repeatedly, over the past 48 hours, ever since I predicted the Steelers would go 3-1 without suspended quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Three reasons why it'll happen:
• The schedule.
• A potentially dominant defense.
• Improved special teams.
First the schedule. The Steelers open Sunday at Heinz Field as a 2 1/2-point underdog against the Atlanta Falcons — who made that line? — and continue with road games at Tennessee and Tampa Bay before a visit from the Baltimore Ravens.
That's not cake, but it's manageable because the first three teams don't appear to have the defensive chops to take advantage of a vulnerable Steelers offense.
I'd feel differently about the chances for a fast start if the Steelers opened with road games against the Jets and Bengals, as the Ravens do, or with three road games among their first four, as the Cincinnati Bengals do, including visits to New England and Carolina.
The Falcons have a revamped defense that is faster and possibly improved from last year's 21st-ranked unit but will be without its best interior lineman, Jonathan Babineaux (suspension). Plus, high-priced new cornerback Dunta Robinson did not play a snap in the preseason because of a hamstring injury, though he apparently is ready to go.
You could say the Falcons get a break facing the Steelers without Roethlisberger. I'm thinking the Steelers get one by facing a unit that might need some time to grow and gel.
The Titans' defense is nothing like the wrecking crew that paved the way to a 13-3 season two years ago. Gone are destructive linemen Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch, plus linebacker Keith Bulluck. Tennessee finished 28th overall last season and beat mostly middling offenses (Buffalo, San Francisco, Arizona without Kurt Warner, Seattle, etc.) during its season-ending 8-2 run.
Tampa Bay might be the worst team in the NFL.
The Ravens, obviously, will be a major challenge, although I believe they just signed Aki Iwamura (and his knee brace) to play cornerback. They're also without Ed Reed, a loss akin to the Steelers being without Troy Polamalu.
I'm not saying the Steelers are primed to light up any of these teams. But if they merely borrow the Ravens' offensive mantra from 2000 — DON'T SCREW IT UP — and make a few plays, they should be able to survive the early portion of the schedule.
The defense should see to that. Would you trade it for any other unit in the league? Not me. Not now, when it's healthy and fresh.
I see the best outside-linebacker tandem in the league, a killer safety combo, an emerging star in Lawrence Timmons and a talented, experienced line that will sprinkle in second-year man Ziggy Hood as needed.
I asked cornerback Bryant McFadden, who has returned after a year in Arizona, if this defense has the goods to be as dominant as the one he left after Super Bowl XLIII.
"I don't see any reason why we can't," McFadden said.
How about age?
"Most guys play better when they get older," he said. "That's just people looking for something to talk about."
Actually, it's a legitimate issue, but one that likely won't manifest itself until the season wears on.
Finally, the special teams, which can't be any worse after allowing a league-record four kickoff returns for touchdowns. The Steelers emphatically addressed the issue, bringing in a new special teams coach in Al Everest and several new players, including special teams aces Will Allen and Arnaz Battle.
This offense won't remind anyone of the 1981 Chargers or even the 2009 Raiders at times, but it can be functional. Dennis Dixon can play as well as he played during regulation at Baltimore last season. That was a tough environment, against a tough team, on short notice.
The circumstances are different now. Most people believe the Steelers will suffer in Big Ben's absence, that 2-2 would be a triumph of monstrous proportions.
I'm thinking 3-1 is perfectly reasonable.
But I'm out of my mind.
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