I had previously written this article prior to the 2008 season. You can see which of my predictions came true, and which did not.
The Pittsburgh Steelers will be challenged this season, with the NFL's toughest schedule. The key to being successful this season will be to get out to a fast start.
The Steelers open the season against the Houston Texans in what will almost be a must win game. After that, the Steelers will be tested with games against the Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars, Super Bowl Champion New York Giants, Indianapolis Colts, San Diego Chargers, New England Patriots, and Dallas Cowboys, just to name a few.
Head coach Mike Tomlin is entering his second season as Steelers head coach, and he should feel much more comfortable with his decision making and personnel. The Steelers lost a few key veterans to free agency, but are replacing them with young players full of potential. Here is a position by position break down of what to expect from the respective players.
I fully expect Ben Roethlisberger to pick up where he left off. Last season, Big Ben threw for 3,154 yards, 32 Touchdowns, with only 11 interceptions.
It was definitely a break out season for Ben, and with more weapons at his disposal this season, I would not be surprised to see his TD numbers somewhere in the high 30's. Charlie Batch was lost for the season with a broken collarbone, but Byron Leftwich allows Steelers fans to sleep a little better at night with his solid play in the preseason.
I loved Dennis Dixon at the University of Oregon, but if it ever comes down to him starting a game for us this season, we are in serious trouble. He just didn't get enough game experience in the preseason for me to feel comfortable with him playing any meaningful snaps under center this season.
Willie Parker looks to be fully healed from last seasons broken leg that cut his magnificent season short. All Willie Parker did prior to his injury was lead the NFL in rushing with 1,316 yards.
His two td's is a bit of a concern with all the uncertainty that the Steelers have in their goal line running game, but I'm sure that Fast Willie will be up to the task if called upon. Rookie runningback Rashard Mendenhall showed a lot of promise in the preseason with his tough running between the tackles, but his fumbling issues might cost him the goal line carries in the long run.
However, Offensive Coordinator Bruce Arians has insisted that he will still involve Mendenhall in the gameplan, so hopefully this will be the last time we hear Rashard Mendenhall and fumble in the same sentence. Mewelde Moore will the third down back; he was brought in for his catching, running, and blocking skills.
He will also help in the punt return game. Gary Russell will probably play minimally, but he could end up getting some goal line carries if Mendenhall continues to struggle with holding onto the ball.
Carey Davis is the starting fullback, and is our only fullback. He is very solid in the pass catching department, although he is not quite the blocker that Dan Kreider was.
Heath Miller continues to grow into the one of the elite tight ends in the NFL. His numbers increased last season, 47 rec. 566 yards, and his seven td's show that he is becoming a very reliable red zone target.
Matt Spaeth provides Big Ben with a 6'7" target, and his three td's in limited time last season is encouraging. The Steelers signed a third tight end, Sean McHugh, formerly of the Detroit Lions earlier last week. I assume that he was signed strictly for his blocking purposes.
With Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes starting, the wide receivers look to be the most reliable offensive group aside from the quarterback position. Santonio Holmes keeps flirting with a break out year, 52 rec. 942 yards, eight td's, and this looks like the year where he finally reaches his potential of 1,000+ yards and 10+ td's.
Holmes led the NFL last season with an 18 yards per reception average. Hines Ward is Mr. Reliable and the identity of this team; you already know what you're gonna get with him, so there is no need to explain.
Nate Washington returns as the number three receiver, but it would not surprise me to see Dallas Baker take that spot from him at some point in the season. Much has been made about Limas Sweed being the number 3 receiver, but I believe that Baker is the dark horse here. At 6'3", 208 lbs, he has the size and great hands that could make him a surprise impact player on this team.
The offensive line looked less than spectacular in the preseason, and often times Ben Roethlisberger was seen running for his life; a sight that is far to reminiscent of last season to Steelers fans. These offensive line woes could be due to the lack of cohesiveness or it could just be a preview of what Big Ben should expect this season.
I am going to assume that this unit will be fine once they get some more experience playing together. The loss of Alan Faneca was a big blow, but Chris Kemoeatu looks ready, willing and able to take over at left guard.
While he is no where near the pass blocker that Faneca was, he has a mean streak to him that will benefit him well as a run blocker. Justin Hartwig will almost definitely be an upgrade over Sean Mahan, and Marvel Smith looks to be fully healed from the back problems that plagued him last season. Willie Colon must step up and show the coaching staff something at Right Tackle or he will quickly be replaced by Max Starks.
The defensive line returns all three starters. Aaron Smith looked like an absolute beast in the preseason, and Casey Hamptopn seems to have his weight issues behind him; well, maybe not behind him, but at least he will be able to use his weight to the be the run stuffing force that we all know him to be.
This might be the season that we see Brett Keisel beak out. Keisel has been solid over the years, but just hasn't quite gotten over that hump yet. The back ups are not getting any younger, but they can be counted on if needed.
If there is one player on the Steelers defense that you need to keep an eye on as a break out player candidate, it is none other than LaMarr Woodley. Taking over for the departed Clark Haggans at left outside linebacker, LaMarr Woodley is poised for big season after posting six sacks last season in limited time, including the playoffs.
James Farrior is fresh off of a new contract, and does not look to be slowing down anytime soon. Larry Foote beat out Lawrence Timmons for the right inside linebacker position, but expect to see Lawrence Timmons still get a substantial amount of time due to his explosiveness and playmaking ability.
James Harrison is coming off of his first Pro Bowl season, and will continue to play at a high level; he looked unblockable in the preseason, and as the strongest player on the Steelers, many can see why. The linebacker depth is pretty good with Andre Frazier, Donovan Woods, Timmons, Keyaron Fox, and Bruce Davis. Linebacker is arguably the deepest position on the team.
Ike Taylor and Deshea Townsend will man the starting cornerback spots once again. Ike Taylor is growing into one the NFL's premier corners, and if he could just learn to hold onto an interception, he could probably end up with 5-8 picks a year.
Supposedly, he has been working on his hands in the offseason, so this could be the season that Ike finally turns the corner into one the NFL's elite. Deshea Townsend needs to be called the Energizer Bunny because just keeps going, and going, and going.
Every season, it is expected that some up and coming corner will take his job in training camp, but every season, Deshea Townsend fights off the competition like Kimbo Slice. Bryant McFadden could probably start for many teams in the NFL, and some people believe that he should be starting for the Steelers, but for now, he will be relegated to nickel back.
I truly believe that McFadden will be starting over Townsend by the end of the season though; he is in a contract year, and had a fantastic preseason. It's only a matter of time before he gets his chance to shine.
William Gay is someone to keep an eye on; he has excellent ball skills, and is a solid cover corner. He reminds me of a younger Deshea Townsend, with probably a little more speed.
The biggest question with the safety position is whether Troy Polamalu will be healthy this season, and how effective will he be. Polamalu, when healthy, is one of the best safety's in the league.
He is also very vital to the Steelers defense because without him, the defense doesn't seem to function properly. He stayed out most of the preseason with a hamstring injury, but looks to be fully healed now, but we all know how tricky a hamstring injury can be.
Ryan Clark is back to full health, and deserves a standing ovation just for taking the field on Sunday. Clark missed most of last season after having his spleen removed and lost a considerable amount of weight.
Clark was sorely missed last season (see Anthony Smith repeatedly getting burned deep), and brings some stability back the free safety position that has sorely been missed. If there was one thing that we learned last season, it is that Anthony Smith is not a free safety.
He loves to hit people, but he can't cover a bed sheet on a mattress. Tyrone Carter is getting up there in age and is a liability in coverage, so that should tell you the importance on Ryan Clark.
I would go as far to say that he his the Steelers most important defensive player. Without him, Troy Polamalu is not allowed to roam freely all over the field.
The Kicking game will remain solid with Jeff Reed leading the way. Reed hit 92% of his field goals last season and made all of his PAT's.
The punting situation scares me. Daniel Sepulveda was lost for the season after suffering a knee injury, and Mitch Berger has been brought back from the disco era to lead the way.
I'm not sure how much he has left in the leg, but hopefully there is some accuracy in there. I'm not worried about the kick/punt return game with Rashard Mendenhall and Mewelde Moore handling kick returns, and Santonio Holmes and Moore taking care of the punt return duties.
Kickoff and punt coverage have been concerns for Steelers coaches and fans for as long as I can remember, and I'm not sure if those concerns will be eased this year, but with the additions of players like Keyaron Fox, who were brought in specifically for there special teams skills, it does show me that the team is not taking this issue lightly.
The Steelers clearly have their work cut out for them, but with 19 out of 22 starters returning, this is obviously a veteran team that knows what to expect, and knows how to handle adversity. If the offensive line holds up, then the offense can really do some special things this season.
Big Ben has all the tools, all he needs is the time to make things happen. The receivers are seasoned, and I expect them to put up some solid numbers.
The running game will be productive, and Rashard Mendenhall should have a prominent role by seasons end. The defense returns virtually intact; LaMarr Woodley will be an upgrade over Clark Haggans, and should produce double digit sacks.
With the enhanced pass rush, that should allow the secondary to make some more plays, and the return of Ryan Clark is a huge plus.
Although the Steelers have the NFL's toughest schedule, the playoffs are not out of the picture. If this team does what they are capable of, then they should not only make the playoffs, but they can go deep into the postseason.
Whether that means Super Bowl number six remains to be seen, but with a solid offensive line and a strong pass rush, anything is possible; just ask the New York Giants.