The Five Players the Steelers Cannot Do Without If They Hope to Repeat as Super Bowl Champs
Every season there seems to be a theme or at least a fad that starts in week one and continues throughout the year. Whether it is the season of the rookie quarterback like we had last year, or the re-emergence of a particular defensive scheme, there are always new factors being introduced to the league that make it that much more interesting.
Injuries are a reoccurring theme every year, and this year the plot is getting thick pretty early in the story. No one wants to see a guy get hurt. Everyone cringes at the thought of losing a superstar or one of those key players that could shift the destiny of an entire team.
Names like Brian Urlacher, Matt Cassel, and Donovan McNabb have appeared on the injury report after week one, and each situation will have a definite impact on their team’s chances to make the playoffs.
With Troy Polamalu going down already in Pittsburgh, injuries are and should be on the mind of the Steelers and all who follow them. After all, the teams that manage to stay healthy usually have the best chance of hoisting a Lombardy Trophy at season’s end.
So then I pose this question: What five players must stay healthy this season for the Pittsburgh Steelers to have a chance of repeating as Super Bowl Champs?
No. 5 Hines Ward
Santonio Holmes has clearly become the number one receiver in the Pittsburgh lineup, but Hines Ward is still the emotional leader of the Steelers’ offense.
As ward goes so too go the Steelers. Ward brings a physical toughness to the field that most defenses look for from their best linebacker.
He will unquestionably go down as the best blocking receiver the NFL has ever known. His gritty determination is contagious to his teammates, and enough to make almost every defender he plays against lose his cool.
The Cheshire cat grin that spreads across his face after making a chain-moving catch, throwing a big block, or getting chippy with a mouthy defender is what has always made Hines Ward special.
It is the times when Ward loses that grin, like he did last Thursday, that fans and teammates should worry about the current situation. Mostly because Ward’s emotional lows tend to be just as contagious as the unflappable enthusiasm he shows the other 98 percent of the time.
If the Steelers hope to have success this season it is essential that Hines Ward and his signature grin be on the field for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
No. 4 Troy Polamalu
Polamalu proved just how vital he is to the Steelers defense last Thursday night. In the first half of the game against Tennessee, his play set the tone for the first half of play.
While I have discussed his importance at length in my last article, and stated the fact that the Steelers should be able to maintain their defensive prowess in his absence, Polamalu will need to return at full strength by mid season if they hope to make it back to the Super Bowl.
Only Ed Reed of the Baltimore Ravens rivals Polamalu’s game changing ability. Even then, Reed is not the dominant force that Polamalu is when it comes to stopping the run or playing the game in the opponent’s backfield.
While the team will get by without him for the short term, there is no doubt that Polamalu’s absence creates a void that cannot be filled by anyone else in football.
The Steelers are going to need him if they hope to beat the AFC’s best when it comes time for the playoffs.
No. 3 James Harrison
With a slightly inconsistent secondary, the Steelers rely on the disruptive style of their front seven to give the opposition little or no time to throw the football.
With the zone blitzing packages Dick Lebeau’s 3-4 defense creates, there is no doubt the Steelers will bring the heat on every play. No one is more important to their success than James Harrison.
Last year’s defensive player of the year, and one of the most feared linebackers in the game today, Harrison has a motor that won’t quit. The constant threat of Harrison blitzing off the edge coupled with the uncertainty of whether or not he will mask the blitz and drop back into coverage (ah la Super Bowl XLIII) keeps offenses thinking quick short passes, the very thing that causes turnovers in a zone defense.
Harrison is no one trick pony either. His ball skills and run defense have improved greatly over the last few years. Making him a dangerous weapon in almost any situation.
If the Steelers are to continue to be the king of the hill in 2009, James Harrison will have to be on the field for the Steelers Defense.
No. 2 The Offensive Line
The line is widely considered to be the Achilles heel of the defending Super Bowl Champs. They are also the most important link to them continuing to win football games and ultimately having an opportunity to defend their title.
The Steelers spent most of the summer trying to compensate for injuries up and down the offensive line, after refusing to go out and upgrade this past offseason.
Center Justin Hartwig missed most of camp with a broken toe, and starting right guard Darnell Stapleton is on the IR with a knee injury. Adding up the tendency for Max Starks to miss a game or two with minor injuries and the fact that the offensive line tends to be the area where injuries happen the most in the NFL, and you can certainly understand why this is a concern.
The best remedy for this group is going to be the opportunity to play the same five guys on a consistent basis.
They say practice makes perfect, and there is no truer case than with the offensive line. The ability to work as a cohesive group, one man functioning as an extension of the next is the only way that this unit will succeed this season.
Whether it’s in the running game or protecting the quarterback, consistency and familiarity with one another and the weaknesses of those around you allows for a group to form a bond.
If the Steelers hope to follow up last years title run with another of its kind, the offensive line is going to have to find a way to stay healthy and build some form of cohesion amongst a group that is struggling to put the same lineup on the field from week to week.
No. 1 Ben Roethlisberger
Love him or hate him, Ben Roethlisberger is the heart and soul of the Steelers offense. You would be hard pressed to name five starting Quarterbacks in the NFL that could succeed in his current situation.
With the poor offensive line play the Steelers have been getting Rothlisberger’s ability to move the pocket and keep the play alive is undoubtedly what is keeping the Steelers offensive hopes alive.
While Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon are quality backups, there is no way that the immobility of Batch or the inexperience of Dixon could hold on under such duress.
Holding on to the ball for what often seems too long, has been Roethlisberger’s greatest strength and weakness during his career. While in years past his style of play has made fans and coaches alike nervous and sometimes frustrated, it is that style that will allow the Steelers to be competitive this season.
The offensive line of the Steelers has yet to prove that they are able to hang in there and block for the running game. A maligned running game combined with Bruce Arians’ pass happy offensive style, makes the passing game and Roethlisberger that much more important to the team’s success.
Roethlisberger will have to stay healthy if the Steelers have any hopes of repeating their championship run from a year ago.
The Wrap Up
The Pittsburgh Steelers have a way of displaying tremendous resolve when it comes to overcoming injuries and continuing to win football games.
This season they are the defending Super Bowl Champs. Everyone has marked them on their calendars as the team to beat. In order to overcome the extra hype and the minor issues they are facing from within, the team’s key players are going to have to find a way to stay healthy in order for them to succeed.