Return to Glory?: Steelers, Big Ben Chase the Past

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Return to Glory?: Steelers, Big Ben Chase the Past

Icon18 months after their Super Bowl victory, the Pittsburgh Steelers are already back on the proving ground.

8-8 will do that to you.

The Steelers’ 2006 season was particularly frustrating because of how it started and how it finished.

Eight games into the year, Pittsburgh was 2-6 and out of the playoff picture. In the second half, they went 6-2—and looked a lot like the team that stormed to a Lombardi Trophy in 2005.

Pittsburgh is hoping to build on that momentum in 2007. For that to happen, someone or something needs to make a difference.

The bad news is there aren't many obvious candidates.

QB Ben Roethlisberger?

No.

The worst quarterback ever to win a Super Bowl (there, I said it) looked far worse in his sophomore year than he did in his rookie season. Everyone seems to think that 2006 was a fluke and that Big Ben is bound to return to form. From where I sit, it seems just as likely that he peaked as a rookie, and that it's all downhill from here.

Those are not reassuring words for Steeler fans.

Roethlisberger’s problem is his decision-making. He forces balls into coverage, and he can be indecisive. Many people are enamored of his physical tools, but great quarterbacks are made of much more than physical tools.

Roethlisberger has the potential to be an average NFL starter who will have his moments over the course of his career. He is not an elite quarterback.

How about RB Willie Parker?

Not by himself.

Fast Willie had a superb year, rushing for nearly 1,500 yards and 13 touchdowns. Not bad for a guy who was supposed to be little more than a change-of-pace back.

Despite those big numbers, though, Parker can't carry the Steelers alone.

If the Pittsburgh ground attack is going to work, Najeh Davenport has to play better. Davenport was supposed to fill Jerome Bettis’ shoes in 2006, grinding out tough yards and spelling Parker as needed. Instead, he ran for just over 200 yards and one touchdown.

If Davenport can up those numbers in 2007, the running game by itself could carry this team to eight wins.

S Troy Polamalu and the defense?

Not like they used to.

The Steel Curtain is slowly going the way of the dinosaur. The 2006 Steelers defense still ranked in the top 10 in the NFL, but the unit struggled against the pass.

In the offseason, the team parted ways with LB Joey Porter, whose best days may be behind him. Porter will be replaced by special-teamer Jerome Harrison or rookie Lawrence Timmons.

The loss hurts chemistry and morale more than it does the defense’s overall talent level. Porter's attitude and energy were infectious; someone will have to fill the void.

Can new head coach Mike Tomlin be the difference?

Not right away.

Sean Payton aside, rookie head coaches rarely see immediate NFL success. Tomlin has a lot of pressure on him to succeed, especially given the Steelers’ illustrious coaching history, but he seems like a good fit for the job: tough, stern, and confident.

He'll make this team better. It’s just hard to tell when.

Well then, what about turnover differential?

You got it.

The great Steeler killer of 2006 was turnovers—Roethlisberger interceptions, punt-returner fumbles, and a host of other game-changing miscues were reponsible for the team's poor start. If the Steelers can turn their negative turnover differential into a positive one, they should win more games than they did a year ago.

It won’t be enough to topple the Ravens and Bengals in the AFC North. But if the Steelers slip into the playoffs, anything can happen.

Projected Finish:  9-7, 3rd AFC North

Keep your eyes on
: LB Larry Foote—With Porter gone, Foote will get a well-deserved turn in the spotlight.

Take your eyes off:  CB Ike Taylor—The vital cog in a 20th-ranked pass defense. 

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