Around this time a year ago, a glance at the Pittsburgh Steelers' schedule more than likely would not have given most people thoughts of a 12-4 season, a division championship, and a NFL-first sixth Vince Lombardi Trophy.
In fact, many would have expected a tough road to the playoffs, given the less-than-impressive exit at the hands of the Jacksonville Jaguars the year before.
Yet the Steelers rode on the strength of the league's best defense, a recurring series of comeback victories by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and two of the most clutch plays in Super Bowl history by linebacker James Harrison and receiver Santonio Holmes to win Super Bowl XLIII.
With that in mind, I will venture a guess or few at the Steelers' expectations for the 2009 season, which, apologetically, don't vary much from last year's accomplishments: win at least 12 games, win the AFC North, and make a postseason run to defend their championship title.
What It Will Take To Repeat
Better offensive line play: Approaching the off-season, Steelers' director of football operations Kevin Colbert had some difficult decisions to make on the futures of Max Starks, Marvel Smith, Kendall Simmons, Chris Kemoeatu, Willie Colon, and Trai Essex.
Of course, Smith and Simmons suffered serious injuries, which opened the door for Starks and undrafted free agent Darnell Stapleton to step in as starters.
As it resulted, the Steelers won a championship without Simmmons, Smith, or the departed Alan Faneca, whom Kemoeatu replaced. That earned Starks, Stapleton, Colon, and Kemoeatu the reward of having the opportunity to start this season.
While yes, they did win the Super Bowl with those four, plus Justin Hartwig, the fact remains that Steelers quarterbacks were sacked 49 times last season. Such a feat may have been possible last year, but if that number is repeated or exceeded, getting back to the playoffs will be much harder.
The good news is, with the drafting of guard Kraig Urbik from Wisconsin, and Rimington Trophy-winning center A.Q. Shipley of Penn State, the possibility of depth and long-term solutions is on the way.
A repeat performance for the defense: The 2008 Steelers' defense drew comparisons to some of the greatest of all-time, racking up 51 sacks, including 27.5 from the outside linebacker duo of LaMarr Woodley and Harrison, the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year.
They were fourth in points allowed (20.3 per game), first in rushing defense (40.3 yards per game), fourth in total defense (298.3 ypg), and tenth against the pass (258 ypg).
They achieved that success despite injuries to veterans Casey Hampton, Bryant McFadden, Brett Keisel, and DeShea Townsend. McFadden has since left in free agency to the Arizona Cardinals, and inside linebacker Larry Foote has been released and signed with his hometown Detroit Lions.
The defense is confident they have a replacement for Foote in Lawrence Timmons, whom despite not being as strong a run-stopper is faster, better in coverage, and better in the pass rush (he had five sacks last season to Foote's 1.5).
McFadden's replacement will likely be William Gay, a third-year guy whose smart coverage ability and run-support capability may make him "McFadden Light."
Harrison has a long-term contract extension and Woodley contends he can still be better, keeping the linebacking corps among the best in the league, despite an aging James Farrior and a lack of depth inside behind him and Timmons. The secondary is just as capable of staying consistent, providing their hard-hitting safety pair of Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark are healthy.
The defensive line is aging, as the top five men on the depth chart (Hampton, Keisel, Aaron Smith, Chris Hoke, and Travis Kirschke) are all 30 or older. But this year's draft helped address that need with first-round pick Evander "Ziggy" Hood and Ra'Shon Harris.
A stronger running game: The injury bug bit the Steelers' backfield early and often, with Willie Parker missing five games, and last year's first-round pick, Rashard Mendenhall, being lost for the season with a broken shoulder during his first NFL start.
Mewelde Moore helped fill the gap with 588 yards on 140 carries, and the Steelers' backs as a group finished the season with over 1,500 rushing yards.
With Parker and Mendenhall healthy, Moore as the third down back (their second leading rusher last season and tied for fourth on the team with 40 receptions), and recently-drafted Frank "The Tank" Summers possibly emerging in goal line and short yardage situations, there are no weaknesses going into the season, except maybe at fullback.
A stronger running game will take the pressure off Roethlisberger to win games with his arm. If they can run the ball effectively and control the clock early, they can grind the opponent down late in the game and a more rested defense can slam the door.
Injured Players Returning: The Steelers had injuries at nearly every position on their roster, but their depth carried them through the regular season and postseason. Some of those replacements have moved on, while in other places, the starters will be welcomed back with open arms.
Quarterback Byron Leftwich has moved on to Tampa Bay to compete for the starting job, but he served his purpose well after Charlie Batch broke his collarbone and was placed on injured reserve. Batch is healthy again and ready to resume his role as Roethlisberger's backup.
Long-snapper Greg Warren will be back healthy for this season, as will punter Daniel Sepulveda. The loss of these two was largely felt when Mitch Berger continually proved inefficient in the punting game, and Warren's injury in the Week Eight loss against the New York Giants might have been one of the big momentum swings in that contest.
Contributions from rookies: Not many of the Steelers' draft picks are expected to start early, but they will be utilized in certain situations. Wide receiver Mike Wallace will compete for the third receiver slot with Limas Sweed and free agent pickup Shaun McDonald, but is better expected to fill the much-needed void in the return game.
Urbik has played guard and tackle in college, and might even get some looks at center, but will ultimately compete with Stapleton for the starting right guard spot. Shipley is more than likely the No. 2 center by default, but he and Urbik will be held to the standard of being ready to play with the first unit at a moment's notice.
Cornerbacks Keenan Lewis and Joe Burnett were selected this year in the third and fifth rounds, respectively, and they will battle for the fourth corner spot in the dime package. Burnett is a former all-conference kick and punt returner at South Florida, so expect him to be thrown into the mix on special teams as well.
What Might Stand In The Way
Super Bowl Hangover: It's hard to repeat as a Super Bowl champion, much less make the playoffs the following year. Considering the Steelers weren't expected to make that deep of a run last year, having the target on their backs should make it all the more difficult this season.
The toughest part of defending a championship is keeping the distractions at a minimum. So far, Roethlisberger hasn't been spotted on a motorcycle, and the attendance at mini-camp has been encouraging, including Parker (he is in the last year of his contract).
Head coach Mike Tomlin made it clear after the dust settled in Tampa that this year's team will not be the same as last year's, but the expectations for performance will not change.
His continued focus on wiping the slate clean and keeping the same level of intensity from day-to-day could be the difference between another significant playoff run and sitting on the outside of the playoff picture looking in.
Injuries/Lack of Depth: Pittsburgh saw injuries throughout the season, with key contributors falling left and right with short-term and long-term injuries. But they had their reserves prepared to step in and keep the ball rolling, largely in part to Tomlin's philosophy that reserves should practice and prepare to play like starters.
However, bear in mind that this is the National Football League. Injuries are one of the biggest factors in the game, making the battle of attrition all the more real.
Granted, having won a Super Bowl without two or your five starting offensive lineman, your starting punter, your backup quarterback and your backup running back isn't easy, but sometimes losing a key starter or your franchise player is even harder. Ask the New England Patriots if they wouldn't have wanted Tom Brady back last season.