It has finally arrived. The maddeningly meaningless pre-season has come to an end, and we are about 24 hours from the opening kick-off. Although Santa Claus would be sure to argue, this is the most wonderful time of the year.
Coming off of their second Super Bowl win in four years, the Pittsburgh Steelers are returning all but two starters.
Starting cornerback Bryant McFadden left for the desert of Arizona while starting inside linebacker Larry Foote asked for and received his release. The loss of McFadden was no surprise since the Steelers felt that William Gay was ready to step in and take over the position opposite Ike Taylor.
The departure of Larry Foote could prove to be a bit more damaging. The writing was on the wall, as third-year player and former first-round draft choice, Lawrence Timmons had been eating into his playing time.
The Steelers have proven time and again that if they feel that they have a competent replacement, they will let the free agent walk. It's been a recipe that has been difficult to argue with.
The more troublesome aspect of the 2009 team for me is the lack of depth: most notably on the offensive line and at linebacker.
The offensive line is returning four starters. All but RG Darnell Stapleton, placed on injured reserve, return to bring some continuity to this much maligned group. Former backup Trai Essex steps in to take over those duties.
However, none of the current backups have NFL game experience. Do the names Tony Hills (second season), Doug Legursky (second season), Kraig Urbik (rookie), and Ramon Foster (rookie) ring a bell? I didn't think so.
Just one injury to this group could prove damaging to the potential success of the team, not to mention fatal to Ben Roethlisberger.
The linebacking crew continues to be a team strength, and must be considered one of the top groups in the NFL.
The departure of the aforementioned Larry Foote opened the door for the more dynamic former first round pick, Lawrence Timmons. However, it greatly diminished the depth. Timmons is going to miss the opener with a high ankle sprain.
Stepping in for Timmons will be special teams dynamo Keyaron Fox. While competent, he leaves much to be desired when it comes to starting material.
The remaining backups at linebacker include Andre Frazier, Arnold Harrison, and Patrick Bailey. While all are very good special teams players, none will bring much to the table if called upon for extended playing time.
The failure of last years third-round draft choice, Bruce Davis, can't be ignored. Failing with a third-round pick is costly.
In today's NFL, it is nearly impossible not to have holes in your team. In fact, many coaches would take these weaknesses in a heartbeat. But true Steelers fans begin worrying right after the end of the previous season. I know I did.
The Steelers open this season as one of the favorites to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. As is almost always the case, remaining relatively healthy, and having competent backup play, will determine just how far they can go on their road to a repeat.