Pittsburgh Steelers Preview: Nitpicking the Champs

Marky BillsonContributor IJune 24, 2009

TAMPA, FL - FEBRUARY 01: Offensive linemen (L-R) Willie Colon #74, Darnell Stapleton #72, Justin Hartwig #62,  Chris Kemoeatu #68 and Max Starks #78 of the Pittsburgh Steelers stand in the huddle against the Arizona Cardinals during Super Bowl XLIII on February 1, 2009 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images) Steelers won 27-23.



An activity where being perfect means only breaking even.


A process where the slightest error is overrated.


Nobody likes a nitpicker. He’s the guy who thinks he did you a favor by not setting you up with Cindy Crawford because of the mole on her face.


Yet when a team wins the Super Bowl and looks to repeat, nitpicking can be a healthy process to figure out how to stay on top, or the process that identifies how a team won’t.


As such, in the case of the Pittsburgh Steelers, while their lines and secondary may have been good enough to win the Super Bowl last season, any one of these units might be the Achilles' heel of the team in 2009.


For instance, the entire starting defensive line will be 31 years old or more on Sept. 19, the birthday of 30-year-old Brett Keisel.


Concern for injury and age? Perhaps, but even with Aaron Smith (33) and Casey Hampton (32), calling any member of the unit past their prime would seem to be premature.


Besides, there’s enough depth with Travis Kirschke, Chris Hoke, and first-round draft choice Ziggy Hood that the defensive line doesn’t figure to be a weakness in 2009.


Three years from now? Maybe.


But not now.


Secondary? The main concern seems to be if William Gay can replace Bryant McFadden as the Steelers’ starting corner.


Why wouldn’t he be? Gay had as many tackles as a reserve (41) as McFadden did as a starter, a role he filled only eight times in 2008. If he can’t, Deshea Townsend, whose game-winning interception against Dallas propelled the Steelers to their championship run, is in reserve.


Throw in draft choices Keenan Lewis and Joe Burnett, and an answer at right cornerback figures to be found.


No, the primary weakness of the 2009 Steelers figures to be what it was in 2008: the offensive line.


A strong argument can be made that despite winning the Super Bowl, or quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s praise of the line’s play in lieu of answering Andrea Kremer’s questions following Pittsburgh’s 10-6 victory at Cleveland Sept. 14, the Steelers had their worst offensive line since the mid-'60s, when the Steelers allowed more than 60 sacks in both the 1965 and 1966 seasons.


Last season the Steelers allowed 49 sacks, the highest since the 1989 Steelers allowed 51.


But the '89 Steelers had future Hall-of-Famer Dermontti Dawson at center and Pro Bowl selection Tunch Ilkin at right tackle.


That team allowed the rather pedestrian Tim Worley to average 3.9 yards per carry, while this team could only get burner Willie Parker to average 3.8.


And that team didn’t see their running backs consistently suffer injuries throughout the season.


In an interview I conducted with Ilkin for Bleacher Report on June 2, he spoke of how the Steelers reduced their sacks allowed total from 51 in 1989 to 33 in 1990.


“The thing about it is if everyone got a little better, the cumulative effect of everyone getting just a little bit better will have a profound effect on how much time the quarterback has,” Ilkin said.


A clichéd answer, perhaps, but not without truth. The hope with Pittsburgh’s offensive line is that none of the unit’s members have started at their position for the Steelers for as many as three years, so with experience they will jell.


In 1990, the reduction of sacks came with experience. Left tackle John Jackson, a 10th-round draft choice in 1988 from a Division I-AA college, became a full-time starter for the first time in 1989.


Wobbly at first (he started his first game as a rookie in the 1988 preseason against New Orleans and allowed five sacks lining up against Pat Swilling), by 1990 Jackson was hailed as one of the Steelers’ top linemen, as Pittsburgh went from allowing nearly three to fewer than two sacks a game.


So perhaps signing Max Starks to his four-year, $26.3 million contract on June 23 made sense; not only because the contract comes with a $10 million signing bonus that will free salary cap room, but because Starks figures to improve in his second year at left tackle after switching from the right side last season.


After starting 34 straight games, Willie Colon enters his prime at right tackle. Veteran Justin Hartwig will likely make better calls in his second year as the starting center, and Chris Kemoeatu and former Rimington Award finalist Darnell Stapleton will be in their second year as starters at left and right guard, respectivelyunless second-round pick Kraig Urbik starts in place of Stapleton.


Then again, Colon and Starks have been oft-criticized by Steelers fans, Hartwig nearly cost the Steelers the Super Bowl with his holding penalty that turned a first down reception by Santonio Holmes into an Arizona safety, and, with the exception of tight end Heath Miller, the line will have no starters who were drafted in the first two rounds of an NFL draft.


Also, just like New England last year, the Steelers are likely doomed if Roethlisberger goes down, while projected third receiver Limas Sweed still hasn’t shown he has hands.


But that’s nitpicking.