It's hard to imagine room for much improvement on a returning Super Bowl Champion team. But the 2009 Pittsburgh Steelers are coming into camp with a very legitimate opportunity to improve in six facets of their game.
1. The Steelers should improve in the punting game. The healthy return of punter Dan Sepulveda to the active roster all but assures improvement in the punting game for the Steelers. The 2008 Steelers were just plain horrible in the punting game. They ranked 30th in the NFL in yards per punt last season.
In DSep's rookie season, they ranked 18th. Sepulveda is a talented kid with a booming foot. The return of DSep should mean the Steelers will have a decidedly improved outcome in the battle for field position in 2009.
2. The Steelers should improve in the kick/punt return game. Although Santonio Holmes lit it up with some clutch punt returns late in the season, for the most part the Steelers return game was very ordinary. As a team, they ranked merely 24th in the NFL in kick and punt returns last season.
The camp roster is loaded with talented return guys for 2009, and one or two of them should be able to rise up. The improvement should be most evident in the kick return game in 2009.
3. The Steelers should improve in rushing offense. A healthy and hungry Willie Parker coming into his contract year and a healthy and eager Rashard Mendenhall should alone be enough to boost the league's 23rd ranked rush offense to the top half of the NFL. But there's also hope for improved run blocking from the Steelers offensive line in 2009.
The combination of improved cohesion across that unit plus the influx of highly touted rookie talent at right guard and center could push the offensive line's run production higher in 2009. Expect the Steelers to exhibit a new found toughness in the short yardage offense. Rookie RB Frank Summers and the emerging Rashard Mendenhall should compete to beef up the short yardage attack.
4. The Steelers should see the impact of the more explosive Lawrence Timmons playing full time at inside LB in 2009. Larry Foote was always reliable and often stellar at making the timely big tackle for the Steelers. The loss of his veteran presence in the center of the Steelers defense is not to be taken lightly.
That said, much is expected of Lawrence Timmons, a former 1st round draft pick. In terms of talent, Timmons has "freak" written all over him. He has viable potential to be a tremendous play maker in Dick LeBeau's defense, both stopping the run and defending the pass.
5. The Steelers should exhibit more explosion in the passing offense in 2009. The coming of age of Santonio Holmes in the playoffs last year gives the Steelers a solid veteran presence at WR coming into camp. But the third WR position vacated by Nate Washington is where the Steelers should see improvement in explosion.
Washington was widely regarded as one of the better third WRs in the NFL last season. There's no question he provided at veteran presence to the Steelers in the vertical passing game. But the NFL is all about matchups. And secnd year WR Limas Sweed presents all kinds of problems for opposing defenses as a third WR for the Steelers. At 6'4" and 220 lbs, Sweed is an imposing physical specimen. His combination of size and speed will require defenses to pay heed this year, leaving more advantageous matchups for veterans Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes in the passing game.
Sweed, a high draft pick with lofty expectations attached, has his rookie learning curve behind him now and he's bristling with confidence entering 2009.
6. The Steelers should improve their pass rush in 2009. Amazing to believe, but very true, these Steelers should be even better at rushing the passer in 2009. The addition of 1st round pick DT/DE Ziggy Hood, with his speed, leverage and quickness, should enhance the interior push the Steelers will exhibit on obvious passing downs.
The matchups the Steelers should be able to create across opposing offensive lines with Hood in the mix is plain scary. With Timmons and Hood wreaking havoc in the interior line of scrimmage, this Steelers defense in 2009 has a potential to rise to a level of greatness the kind of which Steelers fans could be hard-pressed to acknowledge as the greatest ever.
Each of these six facets of the Pittsburgh Steelers football team should show improvement over the 2008 Super Bowl Champion team. Once again, the Steelers coaching staff and front office have done a solid job of addressing the team's areas of need. In the event that all six of these elements indeed show modest to significant improvement, expect the 2009 Pittsburgh Steelers to make a serious run at a title defense.