The Pittsburgh Steelers have been sitting on top of the world for the past five months.
This team has helped surpass every other NFL franchise in overall success, and now comes the time to defend that success.
The Steelers do not have as tough a road as one might think.
First of all, they do not have a rough schedule. In fact, this might be the easiest schedule I’ve seen for a defending champion in a long time.
The Steelers really only have three, possibly four, tough games before a convenient Week 8 bye. They see Tennessee the first game of the season, followed by a possible challenge at Chicago. The next tough game comes two weeks later against San Diego, but they get the Chargers at home.
The final week before their bye, the unstoppable force meets the immovable object when Adrian Peterson goes head-to-head with the Steel Curtain. This could be the marquee game of the first half of the season if both teams manage to stay undefeated, so circle this one on your calendars.
The second half of the season is a relative breeze, with the only challenges coming from Baltimore (twice) and Miami at the very end. Because of that, the Steelers should steamroll right back into the playoffs.
Regular season prediction: 13-3 (losses at Baltimore, Tennessee, and Green Bay).
Pittsburgh needs to do very little to restructure its roster, as the Steelers didn't lose much in free agency and added depth from the draft and injury returns.
Obviously, the turmoil surrounding Ben Roethlisberger's alleged rape case is a huge issue. But I won’t go in depth about that, considering the already heavy media coverage.
One issue that isn’t touched on enough is the replacement of Bryant McFadden. OK, so maybe he wasn’t Darren Perry, but he could hit hard.
Believe it or not, a good free safety is hard to replace. Right now, Ryan Clark, who basically worked nickel and dime packages for the Steelers last year, figures to be the starter come game day. But, we will see exactly how good he is—otherwise, the team may have to go get someone.
Another issue is lack of depth at two positions: Outside linebacker and offensive tackle. The Steelers will have a huge problem if either LaMarr Woodley or Lawrence Timmons go down early in the season, because the options left are young and rough around the edges.
When you look at the depth chart, offensive tackle may look safe, but Max Starks has a history of injury and Trai Essex is wildly inconsistent. I do not think they need to look for someone else, but team management needs to watch some of these guys closely.
One thing that will drastically improve is the depth in the backfield, which rivals that of Baltimore and Miami. Rashard Mendenhall is finally healthy and looking good going into training camp. That leaves Mewelde Moore as third man, but what a third man he is.
Carey Davis has emerged as a quality replacement for Dan Kreider, and Pittsburgh drafted a backup for him in Frank Summers.
Some smaller issues to keep in scope are the development of Limas Sweed in his second year as a pro, Heath Miller’s touches, and what the team should do if Roethlisberger is unable to perform during this court case.
Sweed has shown much promise, and he has the benefit of working with arguably the finest mentor (Hines Ward) and the fastest up-and-comer (Santonio Holmes) in the league. Heath Miller, now in his fifth season, deserves more touches with Holmes and Sweed spreading the field. As far as Big Ben goes, it would surprise me if the court case affected his play much, but Charlie Batch is a fine option if Roethlisberger has problems.
Lastly, and this is from a personal standpoint, all you diehards out there should keep an eye on A.Q. Shipley. He’s a rookie out of Penn State and the backup center.
I played against this guy in high school, and he is a behemoth. As much as I hated him then, this guy is born and bred Pittsburgh. He is the future anchor of that offensive line, so watch him closely over the next few years.
I think the Steelers have a great season ahead of them. My preseason prediction (pending the Big Ben fallout) is at least a return to the AFC Championship game, likely against the Patriots.
If I could pick an ideal Super Bowl matchup, I would say Pittsburgh and Minnesota. Feel free to disagree, but I think the rematch from the regular season would be phenomenal.