Pittsburgh Steelers: The Future Is Now

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Pittsburgh Steelers: The Future Is Now
(Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
The future is now. Friday, July 31, the Pittsburgh Steelers report to training camp to prepare for the 2009-10 season.

Already there is a distraction before camp begins, as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger deals with charges of sexual assault on a female Harrah’s employee.

But with the distraction, comes focus and coach Mike Tomlin will see to it that the team is focused for the challenges ahead.

"There will be a new 53-man roster. A lot of the faces will be the same. But nothing stays the same in this game," says coach Tomlin.

As the Steelers prepare for the challenges, which lie before them, here are a few objectives Steelers fans should watch for, over the course of camp and the preseason.

 

Anchor the Offensive Line

Considered the weak link last season, five offensive linemen who started in Super Bowl XLIII will return for 2009-10 season.

Roethlisberger was sacked 49 times and the team’s rushing attack ranked 23rd in the NFL, the second-lowest since the Steelers joined the AFC in 1970.

Many sports critics believed the line's demise started with the release of OG Alan Faneca.

If that is the case, someone should explain 2005, 2006, and 2007 when Roethlisberger was sacked 47, 46, and 47 times, respectively, with Faneca in the lineup.

No, the linchpin was not the loss of Faneca, but two missing components that supported the Steeler's smash-mouth running game, a starting fullback, and a blocking TE.

These two key components supported the running game and protected the quarterback in the passing game. In the past, it was FB Dan Kreider and TE Mark Bruener.  

Before his release in 2007, Krieder played six seasons using his bruising-style to pave the way for RB Jerome Bettis in the running game.  

Drafted in 1995, TE Mark Bruener, became one of the league's best blocking tight ends and was elected honorary offensive linemen by his teammates, before being released in 2003.

Another member of that support group was Matt Cushing TE/FB who played backup to both and was released in 2005.

It was the combination of these three who helped the offensive line establish the running game.

I am not saying that these men need to come back. What I am saying is the Steelers need to consider these prototypes for the sole purpose of anchoring the running game, supporting the offensive line, and protecting the quarterback in the passing game.

In 2007, offensive coordinator Bruce Arians gave the starting nod for FB to Carey Davis who has never played in an NFL game, over Kreider because of his ability as a ball carrier and pass catcher.

Davis was supposed to give the offense more flexibility. However, he has contributed little to either the running or passing games, and his blocking was clearly inferior to Kreider's.

As a solution for FB, start TE/FB Sean McHugh instead of Davis. McHugh became a major contributor as a blocker for Parker and Roethlisberger.

A four-year letterman at Penn State from 2000-2003, McHugh started at fullback his junior and senior seasons.

As a Detroit Lion in 2006, McHugh played tight end and fullback replacing both TE/FB Casey Simmons and FB Cory Schlesinger.

If Davis is supposed to give the offense more flexibility with his pass catching ability, let him be provide depth at fullback, and in some situations replace McHugh on passing downs.

McHugh, along with TE Heath Miller, should be able to support the line and the running game (although I am not really sold on Miller as a blocker, but he is better than Matt Spaeth).

 

Re-establish the Running Game

Arians has been criticized for disbanding the run to promote more of the passing game. But is that really true?

Looking at the 2008 season statistically, there were 46 more attempts passing than rushing and three more passing touchdowns. So did he really disband the running game?

Arians had to work with what was given to him. The running game suffered because of the lack of cohesiveness on the line.

With Kendell Simmons lost for the season and Marvel Smith having back spasm issues, the Steelers had to rebuild their offensive line.

In 2008, the Steelers' running game recorded 460 rushing attempts/1,690 yards, 16 TDs and averaged 3.7 yards per carry. This average is the lowest since 2003, when they averaged 3.3 yards per carry.

Averaging just under 106 yards per game, the running game ranked 23rd in the NFL last season.

With an experienced line, and possibly the addition of McHugh at FB, the Steelers would be poised for a more productive running attack.

After suffering injuries to shoulder and knee last year, is RB Willie Parker in the downside of his career?

In 2006, Parker rushed for 1,494 yards—13 TDs (4.4 yd/carry); 2007, 1,316 yds—two TDs (4.1); 2008, 791 yds—five TDs (3.8) as a starter.

It’s been reported Parker had a good offseason and feels ready to play.

Even with a healthy Parker, the Steelers are hopeful he will have his speed back.

Speed is fine. Getting him to run the perimeter is fine.

What is missing, however, is that short-yardage back, one who can punish defense up the middle, or punch in a touchdown from the red zone—someone who can close a game.

A closer in baseball is a pitcher whose goal is to protect a lead or give his team a chance in the bottom of the ninth, to get some runs to win the game. As a closer, his goal is to keep the opposition from scoring again by putting his team in position to win.

Jerome Bettis role was a closer; one who could shut the door on the opposition by wearing down defenses, eating up clock time, moving the chains, and punching in a touchdown from the one-yard line.  

Bettis was especially crucial late in the fourth quarter. Pound the defense up the middle, shut them down—win the game.

Parker could not prove in these past two years that he is that type of closer.

The 2007 draft pick Rashard Mendenhall returns to camp after suffering a season–ending shoulder injury during the fourth game of the season, against the Baltimore Ravens.

At training camp, he has to prove he can be productive.

Mendenhall played in all four preseason games last preseason. He carried the ball 54 times for 222 yards (4.1 yd/carry), and one TD.

On the down side, he fumbled three times in two preseason games, which was attributed to his adjusting to the faster pace of the NFL

Can he prove to be the closer the Steelers so desperately need?

If Mendenhall is put in the position of "the closer," he must be efficient in short yardage play, especially in the red zone, and most importantly have a very low fumbling percentage.

Vulnerable Up the Middle and to the Right

In the Super Bowl, QB Kurt Warner found success in the second half with the short passes, right, left, and up the middle, to all three of his receivers.

The same happened against San Diego and the Colts earlier in the season. 

Late in the season, the secondary had been getting beat on the short pass (right, left, and middle) and with a breakdown in the coverages, the deep ball up the middle caught them by surprise.

In the playoffs against S.D., Vincent Jackson and Darren Sproles caught deep passes up the middle for 41- and 62-yard TDs.

With McFadden gone to the Arizona Cardinals, it will be up to CB William Gay to step up to the plate.

Gay and McFadden alternated playing time last season, each taking consecutive defensive series. Gay started four games, while McFadden had a broken forearm late in the season.

Gay has successfully defended receivers such as Houshmandzadeh (CIN), Antonio Gates (SD), Wes Welker (NE), and Roy Williams (DAL).

The Steelers drafted CB Joe Burnett and Keenan Lewis for possible depth at this position.

 

Special Teams

During the offseason, the Steelers were busy re-signing and retaining key playmakers that made up the 2008 special teams’ unit such as Anthony Madison, Keyaron Fox, Andre Frazier, and Patrick Bailey.

A huge boost for the kicking team will be the return of punter Daniel Sepulveda, who has recovered from a torn ACL, and kicker Jeff Reed returning for his eighth season.

Although the Steelers finished 2008 as the AFC's No. 1 special teams' kick return defense, and No. 4 in punt defense, based on yards per return, there is need for much improvement on the return team.

Ranked 29th in the league on kick returns, and No. 31 on punts last year, expectations are high to see an improvement in the return game.

This year’s rookie class provided the Steelers with two return specialists, WR Mike Wallace (kickoffs) and CB Joe Burnett (punts).

Although Wallace is expected to fill the need for wide receiver, he could also be the long-sought kickoff returner that has eluded the Steelers for such a long time.

CB Joe Burnett has a reputation of being a defensive playmaker, an athletic cornerback who intercepted 16 passes and also returned five kicks—three punts and two kickoffs—for touchdowns in four seasons at Central Florida.

Nicknamed Smokin’ Joe, Burnett will get his chance to help improve the kick and punt return units.

Another offseason acquisition as a return specialist is two-year veteran RB Stefan Logan. He is competing for a spot as a returner, and has impressed the organization with agility similar to San Diego Charger RB Darren Sproles.

 

Who to watch out for this training camp...

LB Lawrence Timmons

RB Rashard Mendenhall

RB Willie Parker

CB William Gay

CB Joe Burnett

WR Mike Wallace

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