The Steelers enter the season with the highest of expectations, and the toughest of challenges: to repeat as Super Bowl champions.
Most of the Steelers’ pieces return from last year, but just like every team in every year since free agency began, there are plenty of questions to answer. What effect will the departure of Larry Foote have on the defense?
Will the receiving corps be much better, much worse, or just different? Can the offense survive another year of Bruce Arians’ nightmarish play-calling?
Here is what to expect from the Pittsburgh Steelers as the open the 2009 Season:
Willie Parker Will Be Back In Form
Parker was only given four carries throughout the entire preseason, but in those carries he showed his old explosive running style.
Against the Titans he might not put up great statistics because of the Titans stingy defense but he will show the NFL that he is once again healthy, strong, and most importantly to his game, fast.
Many feel Parker is on the decline and Rashard Mendenhall is ready to share the starting role, if not take it over completely. On Thursday night, “Fast” Willie will prove he is the feature back for the Men of Steel and ready for another Pro Bowl season.
Keyaron Fox’s NFL Arrival
Starting ILB Lawrence Timmons missed practice on Sunday due to a high ankle sprain and is currently listed as questionable for the season opener.
If Timmons doesn’t start then sixth year player and special team’s captain Keyaron Fox will take his place next to James Farrior. Fox, while getting some attention on special teams last year, is a relatively unknown player who might just get his opportunity to shine.
Timmons will be the starting ILB for the Steelers this season but expect Keyaron Fox to make a statement if he gets the starting nod on Thursday. Fox knows it’s his chance and he has the talent and drive to show he just might be worthy of being a sort of “fifth starter” at linebacker.
Heath Miller Will Get More Targets than Ever
Bruce Arians loves his tight ends. He loves having three on the field at one time, he loves using them instead of the incredibly effective full back, and he loves drafting one every single year.
Bruce Arians loves his tight ends so much in fact that his phenomenal starting TE was only 12th in the league in receptions?
Expect that to change. Despite missing two games last season, Heath Miller had a career high in receptions. He totaled 11 receptions in three playoff games, eight of which went for first downs.
As Ben Roethlisberger progresses as a quarterback and continues to throw more often, Miller will become more and more of a receiving threat. That progression will start against a Titans defense that ranked 20th in pass defense in 2008.
The O-Line to be Better but not Good Enough for the Fans
The keys to a good offensive line, besides raw talent, are cohesion and chemistry.
The Steelers really didn’t have much of either last year due to injuries early and often among the front five. Injuries to Kendall Simmons and Marvel Smith caused major shifts in personnel for the front line and killed the chemistry that was built during training camp and the preseason.
The line is healthy this year, with the exception of Darnell Stapleton who went out so early that Trai Essex has been able to build chemistry with the rest of the starters.
The rest of the line has had one more year to improve as players and as a unit. So while parts of the line may have weak links in individual performance, that overall failure of group blocking that has plagued the team for the best few years should be at an end.