This is the second in a four-part series of things to look for in the final weeks of 2009 Steelers preseason. This series will look at remaining position battles, injury updates and prognoses, play-calling, coaching, and a season preview prior to the Sept. 10 opener against the Tennessee Titans.
The Steelers have played two preseason games thus far, winning at home in the Super Bowl rematch against the Cardinals and dropping the game at FexEx Field against the Redskins last Saturday. While the road for the seventh Super Bowl title is well under way, the Steelers have several questions that need answers soon. Some of those questions are:
Health and Contract Issues
Health: Thus far through the preseason, the Steelers have not been plagued too badly by the injury bug. Starting center Justin Hartwig and last season's starting right guard Darnell Stapleton have both missed time with injuries.
Stapleton's injury has led to former 2005 third-round draft pick Trai Essex to take the starting right guard job, forcing Stapleton to a backup role just like the beginning of last season before Kendall Simmons's Achilles tendon injury against the Ravens.
Punter Daniel Sepulveda, who missed all of 2008 with a torn ACL, has come back stronger than ever. He has so far been the most impressive and consistent Steeler in preseason with his booming punts. Needless to say, it is good to see him back.
Dennis Dixon suffered a separated shoulder, which will keep him out of action for at least two weeks. Given that Dixon will be the No. 3 QB this season, this is not that big of a blow to the Steelers. I would be surprised if Dixon is not the No. 3 QB on opening day.
Brett Keisel also missed some time, as did Willie Parker and most recently QB Ben Roethlisberger, who's with a foot injury. What does this all mean? It's all ordinary training camp stuff. If no one came out of training camp with some type of injury or soreness, I would have been shocked.
Roethlisberger's injury last week caused the Steeler Nation to hold its collective breath. Max Starks accidentally stepped on Roethlisberger during the final practice of training camp, which caused Roethlisberger to miss the preseason game against the Redskins.
However, news today that Roethlisberger will play against the Buffalo Bills this Saturday confirmed that the foot injury was not serious. All in all, the Steelers are healthy heading into the regular season. Let's just hope it stays that way.
After the Super Bowl XLIII victory, the Steelers have several players whose contracts will expire at the end of this season. 2008 Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison was rewarded with a new contract after months of negotiations. After Harrison's deal was done, the Steelers management got other deals done.
Receiver Hines Ward restructured and extended his contract, which now pretty much guarantees he will end his career in Pittsburgh. Most recently, underrated tight end Heath Miller was awarded a new contract that will keep him in Pittsburgh through 2014. However, the Steelers still have several more players left to deal with.
Brett Keisel has been a mainstay in the Steelers' defensive line since Kimo von Oelhoffen left for the New York Jets after the 2005 season. Keisel has been very underrated and not necessarily a household name outside of Steeler Nation.
Keisel will turn 31 next month, but I think the Steelers should sign him to a four-year deal. He is important and the Steelers still lack great depth on the defensive line despite Evander "Ziggy" Hood joining the team. I think this deal could get done as soon as the season begins a la Casey Hampton before the 2005 season.
Speaking of Casey Hampton, his contract will also run out after this season. Hampton is entering his ninth season and will turn 32 next week.
Although he has shown up to camp several times out of shape—drawing the ire of both Bill Cowher when he was the head coach and Mike Tomlin last summer—many would think that Hampton will be gone after this season. Before we throw him out, let's look at other attributes.
Hampton is quite possibly the best 3-4 nose tackle in football. He has been the lynchpin for one of the best defenses in the NFL since he came into the league in 2001. Hampton requires at least two offensive linemen to occupy him, which allows James Farrior and the other LBs make plays.
Although Hood was drafted to possibly take over the 3-4 nose tackle position in the future, I am not sure Hood can pull it off. Hood looks more like someone who can take over for Aaron Smith at 3-4 DE, not 3-4 NT.
I think the Steelers will take a wait-and-see approach for Hampton. If he stays healthy and leads the Steelers to a top-ranked defense again, coupled with Hood not doing much when or if Hood gets a shot a 3-4 NT, then Hampton will get re-signed.
Ryan Clark has become a reliable free safety who complements Troy Polamalu's aggressive and unpredictable style quite well. Clark, who will turn 30 in October, has become an intimidating hitter (just ask Willis McGahee and Wes Welker) and a dependable deep cover man.
Clark does have some injury history, but given that past safeties who played in his stead (mainly the forgettable Anthony Smith) have not performed nearly as well as Clark has, he seems like a good bet to come back. I think a deal could get done before opening day.
Deshea Townsend: Townsend has been with the Steelers since 1998, which makes him—along with Hines Ward—the longest-tenured Steeler on the team. Townsend will turn 34 in September. The only CB I could think of who played at such a high level at that age was Hall of Famer Darrell Green.
Given that William Gay did well last season and Townsend has become the third CB, I don't see Townsend coming back next season. I think rookie Keenan Lewis will be eased into the third CB slot after Townsend leaves. Instead, I see Townsend likely retiring as a Steeler after this season, ending a solid 12-season run in black and gold. Stay tuned.
William Gay, in his short time in Pittsburgh, has done a capable job. He signed a three-year deal his rookie season in 2007 and that ends after this season. Gay will no doubt have a great opportunity for a big contract since he will be the starter opposite Ike Taylor this season.
If Gay has a big year, then expect him to want a larger deal than Bryant McFadden got from Arizona this summer. If Gay has a good year and holds his own, then the Steelers should have some leverage in negotiations. Gay will be 25 when 2010 season begins.
Veterans Tyrone Carter and Travis Kirschke will likely not be retained by the Steelers after this season. I believe Kirschke will retire after 2009 and Carter might try to go elsewhere. However, one cannot fight age and both are well over 30 now.
I am a huge Jeff Reed fan. He does not get nearly enough credit for his ability to make kicks in Heinz Field and at end of games. If anything, I wish he would stay out of the news with his strange antics off the field but one cannot deny his importance to the team.
Reed will be back, as no other kicker has proven they can master the wind and the turf at Heinz Field as well as he has. Reed could be franchised if no deal is reached in time.
The Steelers would be making a huge mistake if they treat Reed as just another kicker. Remember Kris Brown and Todd Peterson? The Steelers don't play many games in a dome, they play half of their games in one of the most challenging places to kick a football. I think Reed will be back but a deal won't be reached any time soon.
First off, I am not a big Willie Colon fan. He is probably the weakest link of the Steelers' much-maligned offensive line. I think if Colon gets moved to right guard (where his short arms and poor technique would not exposed as much) he could be good, but at right tackle he is a liability.
Having said that, Tony Hills—the guy who could possibly take over for Colon—has not exactly shown much promise of becoming a solid offensive lineman. If Colon has a good year in whatever position he plays, the Steelers will bring him back. If not, Colon will not be tendered a new deal.
Justin Hartwig has been solid at best. He has not been Jeff Hartings or future Hall of Famer Dermontti Dawson, but he has not been Sean Mahan either. But Hartwig is over 30 and the Steelers could use someone like rookie A.Q. Shipley or second-year man Doug Legursky to take over the center position. I would surprised to see Hartwig retained after 2009.
Matt Spaeth has not exactly been great as the backup tight end to Heath Miller since his rookie season in 2007. However, Spaeth is a big target at 6'7" and he will turn 26 in November. If Spaeth shows any kind of promise this season, the Steelers will bring him back unless he gets too expensive. I do like Spaeth, so I hope he has a solid 2009 season.
Charlie Batch, who will turn 35 in December, will be the backup QB for the 2009 season and I think he will retire after this season. I would be very surprised if he comes back for the 2010 season.
The Steelers are grooming Dennis Dixon to be the backup QB and Batch, a great team player, is the perfect veteran QB to show Dixon the ropes. Expect Batch to take a front-office or coaching job with the Steelers after he retires.
By far the most intriguing potential free agent is Willie Parker. Parker has been very good, with three 1,000-yard rushing seasons in addition to helping the team win two Super Bowls in the last four seasons.
Parker has had an injury history going back to 2007 when he broke his leg while leading the league in rushing late in the season. Parker will also turn 29 in November. However, he has showed his signature speed this preseason and looks more motivated than usual.
If second-year RB Rashard Mendenhall has a monster season, then I do not expect to see Parker with the Steelers next season. However, I have little faith that Mendenhall will do anything to unseat Parker from what I have seen thus far. Parker will be the ultimate wait-and-see for the Steelers, and nothing will get done anytime soon.
Of course 2010 could be an uncapped year given the current collective bargaining agreement, so much of the free agent signability could change. However, I hope to see most of the players I mentioned above come back to the Steelers for the 2010 season.
Tomorrow, opinions and analysis on play-calling and coaching as the Steelers head into the regular season.