Muted Expectations: Steelers Not Primed For Repeat
The 2009 Steelers will look to emulate the teams of 1975 and 1979 who went on to repeat as champions, rather than the squad of 2006, who crashed back to Earth without a playoff appearance, one season after winning it all.
At one of his many press conferences following the Steelers 27-23 win over the Arizona Cardinals in Superbowl XLIII, Head Coach Mike Tomlin was quick to keep the Q&A focused on the game and the season that had just ended. He said that "repeat" and "defending" (as in "champion") would be stricken from his locker room's vernacular.
No one expects Tomlin to require any less effort from his players in the upcoming season. His job is to prepare his players for each game and piece together enough victories to win a game, a division, and a championship. Many would say his remarks were more to keep his team humble, or keep it looking forward instead of back.
A select few might suggest that Pittsburgh was fortunate to claim last season's title, its most prominent strengths overcoming its most glaring flaws.
Can the Steelers do it again in 2009?
While they have a defense that is shaping up to be another dominant unit and a quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger who can make the improbable happen, fortunes in the sports world tend to even out.
The team's biggest weakness is its offensive line. In 2008, Big Ben was sacked 46 times during the regular season and eight times in three playoff games. That is an average of nearly three times per game, and it does not include the numerous hits he took after getting rid of the ball.
Add to that the punishment of the two previous years (sacked more than 45 times in each), and Steeler fans should be grateful that Roethlisberger's nickname is "Big Ben", and not "Gentle Ben".
The Steelers have, so far, made no signings in the offseason for a solid center or right tackle. Their only draft acquisitions for the front five were an early third-rounder (Kraig Urbik from Wisconsin, who may contend for a guard spot) and a seventh round pick (center A.Q. Shipley from Penn State, who may not even make the team).
Roethlisberger's body can only take so much abuse, so if he goes down, backup quarterback Charlie Batch is too old, and backup Dennis Dixon is too green to pick up the slack.
Besides a more stalwart O-line, the other facet that could help take pressure off Roethlisberger is an effective running game.
Willie Parker, the Steelers' starting running back for most of the season, rushed for a below-league average 3.8 yards per carry in 2008. Some might argue that a bad offensive line would naturally lend itself to a sub-par rushing performance, but somehow, third-down back Mewelde Moore managed to do well. He rushed for 4.2 yards per carry, which was about the league average, with approximately 40 percent of the team's carries.
Relying on Parker to keep the Steelers out of third-and-long situations has been an uphill battle. Parker can put together some impressive totals, but many of those yards come after Roethlisberger has already managed to escape pressure and throw touchdowns for a lead.
Pittsburgh's offensive line and its running back situation do not compliment each other, and the incompatibility nearly spelled disaster for the Steelers in several 2008 contests.
The X-factor is the return of second-year back Rashard Mendenhall. Unlike Parker, he has the size to be able to break tackles, but it will not matter if he can't find any cracks the offensive line may provide.
The other area of concern is the aging defensive line. Casey Hampton, Aaron Smith, and Brett Keisel are all over 30 years old. First-round draft choice Ziggy Hood provides a young backup, but he will need a season or two of experience to adapt to Dick LeBeau's 3-4 style defense (Hood's Missouri Tigers operated out of a 4-3 base).
There are plenty of weapons on defense, though, to keep damage to a minimum should one of the D-lineman suffer an injury. Still, even healthy, it will be a tall task to stay in the top two or three in virtually every defensive category for a second consecutive season.
The receiving corps, a major concern among Steeler fans, should be fine without Nate Washington; Limas Sweed should improve significantly with more experience during games. He has already shown the ability to get open behind an opposing defense. The Steelers needed to draft another offensive lineman with their third pick, not wideout Mike Wallace.
They also signed five free agents just this month, but they were a kicker, a punter, a cornerback, and two more wide receivers.
The 2008 Steelers were only barely cohesive enough to bring a sixth Lombardi trophy to Pittsburgh, and the 2009 edition will be hard-pressed to claim a seventh.
It is not realistic to expect Roethlisberger to be able to compensate for the failings of his protectors to such a great degree two years in a row.
It is not realistic to expect the fourth-worst rushing offense in the NFL to keep opposing defenses honest.
It is not realistic to expect a defense, even with most of its core intact, to come up with game-changing turnovers and hard-nosed goal line stands time after time.
And while Mike Tomlin will work hard to get his players ready from week to week, deep down, he may not expect it either.
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