The 2008 Steelers overcame several handicaps to win the Super Bowl.
The playcalling for much of the season was uninspiring, the punter was only mildly better than the kid who punts for your local pee wee team, and the offensive line was stitched together with bubble gum.
Yet, this squad navigated one of the toughest ranked schedules in league history to hoist the Lombardi Trophy at season’s end.
Yet, these Steelers are not being picked by many experts to win the Super Bowl next year.
These experts may very well be right. Thirty-two teams will begin next season with the Lombardi trophy as their ultimate goal, even the Lions and the Browns.
It is easy to predict that the Steelers won’t repeat based on sheer probability.
I don’t know if they will win the Super Bowl or not.
There are several really good teams in this league, and, come playoff time, a fluke bounce one way or another could determine which one of those teams comes out on top.
But, there are plenty of reasons to believe that next year’s black and gold squad not only will be better than the 2008 team, but might be significantly better.
Bruce Arians was not a good offensive coordinator through much of 2008.
The playcalling for much of the season consisted of up the middle for nothing, up the middle for nothing, sack on third and long, punt.
As such, he became one of the most vilified guys on the Steelers' sidelines. When the subject of Arians came up, more than a few fans were ready to shout, "Off with his head!"
It was all the more frustrating when it seemed like the Steelers' offense only came to life when it went to the no huddle, which was suspiciously the time when Arians was not calling the plays.
He also suffers the misfortune of being the second half of a coordinator duo that features one of the best coordinators in the history of the league in Dick LeBeau.
But, he was much better by the playoffs when he opened up the playbook earlier and provided the offense the freedom to make plays.
The playcalling was much less predictable and played to the player's strengths. Arians has had plenty of time to learn to trust his quarterback and learn the strengths and weaknesses of his players.
He will likely be a much better offensive coordinator in 2009.
His job depends on it.
The offensive line will be much better in 2009.
There really is nowhere to go but up from the offensive line the Steelers fielded early in 2008, following the loss of Marvel Smith and Kendall Simmons to injury.
They were far better by the end of the 2008 season than in the season's first half. They played three solid games in the playoffs, including holding up against one of the league's premier pass rushing teams in the Ravens.
It is likely that this group will continue to improve next year while becoming more in-sync with one another.
Darnell Stapleton played admirably in his first year starting and will likely continue to improve, and so will the other players on the line.
Good offensive lines don't just spontaneously come into existence. They take time to develop. More so than other positions, playing together as a unit has a big impact on their overall development.
That should continue to be the case with this group.
Depth is a real concern and is the one factor that could derail these guys from really taking a big step forward.
Wide receivers tend to improve dramatically in their first few years in the NFL.
It is one of the toughest positions to adjust to in moving from the college game, where they dominate with their physical gifts, to the pro game where even the worst NFL cornerbacks are significantly better than what they played against in college.
Wide receivers need to learn how to adjust their routes, make appropriate reads, and get in sync with their quarterback.
They need to learn to make the catch when the defender is right on top of them.
Santonio Holmes looks ready to make the jump from good to great based on his playoff performance of 2008. He is a much more confident receiver, even recently stating that he wants to be in the Hall of Fame one day.
I’m also looking for Limas Sweed to take a monstrous step forward to more than adequately compensate for the loss of Nate Washington.
Defense wins championships.
So says conventional wisdom.
Except, of course, when offense wins championships.
Facetiousness aside, the Steelers' 2008 defense was nothing short of incredible.
They carried a team that had the 23rd ranked offense in the league to a Super Bowl title. It is always hard to appreciate greatness in the present.
But, I wonder if it was the best defense in history, surpassing even the 70s Steelers' units, the 1986 Bears, and the 2000 Ravens.
What is scary is that they haven't peaked quite yet.
They should be better in 2009. Nearly all of their players are still in their playing primes: Lamarr Woodley should be even better in his third season, and Lawrence Timmons adds another weapon to the master Dick Lebeau’s arsenal.
LeBeau now has a linebacker corps that even exceeds his famed 90s bunch in athleticism and ability.
The one question mark is how the team will compensate for the loss of Bryant McFadden. But, with the promise that William Gay showed last season, it is a rather small, nearly microscopic, question mark.
I never thought there would come a day when I dreamed of the return of a punter.
But, that day arrived by the middle of the 2008 season.
Mitch Berger was so bad as a punter that he actually became a Steelers’ weapon at times, ping ponging short punts off the heads of unsuspecting opponents just running down the field looking for someone to block.
That didn’t happen often enough to compensate for the bad field position he constantly inflicted on the Steel Swarm defense.
Daniel Sepulveda will be back this year, significantly improving the Steelers’ ability to win the field position battle.
An offense pinned deep against this group of defenders is an offense in real trouble.
The Steelers had absolutely no ability to convert short yardage situations in 2008.
First and goal from the one yard line was always an adventure, and one that usually ended badly.
The return of Rashard Mendenhall and the addition of a tank (Frank Summers) should help improve this element of the offense.
I also think a healthy Willie Parker playing for a new contract will certainly help stroke the Steelers’ once feared ground game back to life.
Ben Roethlisberger did not have his best season in 2008. He was phenomenal when the Steelers needed him the most. That is partly what makes him such a special player.
But, he was often playing hurt, starting with the first game of the season when he injured his shoulder against the Texans.
He was sensational when running the no huddle offense, showing what he can do when given the chance to carry the offense.
He really seemed to be clicking with his receivers as the season entered its final phase.
Roethlisberger will almost certainly have a much better season statistically in 2009. He now has two wide receivers who he trusts completely and a tight end in Heath Miller, who really seemed in sync with him by season's end.
People forget how young Mike Tomlin is as a head coach because he has been so successful.
But, he is entering only his third season.
Tomlin acknowledged as much when he said he needs to get a lot better. He was a much better coach in 2008 than in 2007, vaulting among the elite coaches in the league.
Look for him to be even better in 2009. He now has two years of familiarity with his players and his coordinators.
He knows what they are capable of and has their trust.
The Steelers will probably not be better because of their schedule.
But, they may look a whole lot better.
Last year, they played a veritable assassin’s row of teams, matching up against nearly every top team in the league during the regular season while catching very few breaks.
The fates have rewarded them by handing them what looks like a much softer schedule in 2009.
Schedules matter a lot when it comes to success, allowing some teams, such as the Atlanta Falcons and Miami Dolphins in 2008, to over perform while causing other teams to appear to under perform.
An easier schedule also helps in earning better playoff positioning.
A favorable schedule only helps a team get better by enabling them to build confidence and get in sync.
A negative side effect of a weak schedule is that it can cause a team to become overconfident or unable to thrive in pressure situations against good competition.
Last year's Steelers were better come playoff time because of the level of competition they had to beat to get there.
This year's squad will not run that kind of a gauntlet. Nonetheless, the Steelers open the season with a very tough test against the Tennessee Titans.
The Steelers suffered a ton of key injuries in 2008. It seemed like just about everybody spent some time out of the lineup with injuries, even forcing James Harrison into one ill-fated long snap.
And, when they weren’t forced out of the lineup, key players were playing hurt. This was especially problematic on the offensive side of the ball, but also affected the defensive secondary.
It was amazing that the team kept right on chugging along and winning in the face of so many injuries.
The Steelers will have injuries in 2009.
It is a part of the game.
But, it is hard to believe they will have as many major injuries to key players as plagued the squad in 2008.
If they were as good as they were in 2008 while playing through so many injuries, how good would they have been if they had stayed healthy all year?
Hopefully 2009 will provide the answer to that question.
There you have it.
These are the 10 reasons I think the 2009 Steelers will be a much better squad than the 2008 edition that won it all.
I don’t have a crystal ball.
I don’t know if they will win the Super Bowl, and, if they do, it will only be after running a playoff gauntlet of very good teams.
Luck and good fortune are always one variable in that equation. But, regardless of the outcome, they will field a much better team to start the 2009 season.
The sky is truly the limit.