Pittsburgh Steelers: Headed to the Playoffs In 2010?

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Pittsburgh Steelers: Headed to the Playoffs In 2010?
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The 2009 season left a bitter taste in the mouths of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ players and fans. The defending Super Bowl champs entered last season with high hopes of adding another Lombardi Trophy to their record six. 

Instead the 2009 season was a perplexing failure. The Steelers lost to teams they would not normally expect to lose to, and did so in an atypical manner. 

A franchise that prided itself on tough defense and attention to details suddenly failed to hold leads late in games, and their kick coverage letdowns were an embarrassment. Despite a franchise-record 4,328 yards passing by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger the team finished the season with only a 9-7 record and out of the playoffs. 

The Steelers’ 2009 woes seemed to continue into the off-season. Roethlisberger became the fodder of late-night pundits after accusations of sexual assault were levelled at him following a night of drinking in Georgia. Charges were dropped, but the D.A. released a very salacious version of the details of that night and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell decided to Suspend Roethlisberger for the start of the season. Roethlisberger is scheduled to miss between four and six games. 

As if the Roethlisberger scenario wasn’t enough offseason bad news, the team traded Super Bowl MVP wide receiver Santonio Holmes to the New York Jets after he violated the NFL’s substance abuse policy. 

The combination of last season’s disappointing results and the offseason issues of Roethlisberger and Holmes have some experts and fans predicting that the Steelers will have a woeful 2010 season. 

Last year’s results proved that it can be difficult to predict success and failure in today’s NFL. However there are a number of reasons why it might be reasonable for Pittsburgh to rebound in 2010 instead of sinking into irrelevancy. In order to look closer at the 2010 version of the Steelers, we can compare how the team’s units break down compared to last year. 

 

OFFENSIVE LINE 

The offensive line has been the most maligned unit of the Pittsburgh Steelers in recent years. Roethlisberger is annually one of the most-sacked QB’s in the league, and the power run-blocking that was a staple of old Steelers teams just isn’t that powerful anymore. In 2009 this was a unit that had trouble moving the pile on short-yardage downs, and too often fans saw Rashard Mendenhall encountering first contact with the defense while still in his own backfield. 

So the offensive line was mediocre last season. This season should see an improvement in the line’s performance, however. The line should be improved with the addition of first-round draft pick Maurkice Pouncey of Florida. Pouncey is expected to start in the right guard position this season before ultimately moving to the center spot, where the team believes he will be a fixture for many years. 

Another improvement to the offensive line involves a coaching change. Larry Zierlein came in as the offensive line coach when Mike Tomlin took over as head coach in 2007. However Zierlein’s players did not develop the way the team hoped and their performance were maddeningly inconsistent. The fact that occasionally this group seemed able to play at a high level brings hope that they will improve as a unit under the tutelage of new offensive line coach Sean Kugler. 

The switch to Kugler and the addition of Pouncey suggest that the offensive line will be a stronger unit in 2010 than it was in 2009. 

 

RECEIVING CORPS 

In 2009 the Steelers group of receivers was one of the league’s best, and were a team strong point. Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes had excellent seasons, backed by an emerging star in rookie Mike Wallace. Heath Miller was a dependable set of hands at tight end, and Mewelde Moore was a useful receiver coming out of the backfield on passing downs. 

With the release of Santonio Holmes in the off-season there will be a lot of pressure on Mike Wallace to be effective at the wideout. Wallace is a faster route runner than Holmes, but will have to develop techniques to beat cornerbacks who try to jam him at the line of scrimmage. If he can break free there are few cornerbacks in the league with the wheels to keep up with him. 

The Steelers brought back a familiar face when they signed free-agent receiver Antwaan Randle-El, who is expected to assume the #3 role previously held by Wallace. Arnaz Battle was also signed to add experience and depth, while the team used their third-round draft pick on SMU’s Emmanuel Sanders. Sanders is unlikely to see much playing time in 2010 but has a skill-set which suggests he may be a viable replacement for Hines Ward in future seasons. 

At age 34 some analysts think that Hines Ward has lost a step, but Ward is a fitness fanatic, and just put up the second best numbers in his career in 2009. He should contribute strong numbers in 2010. 

On the whole, I believe the Steelers group of receivers will be somewhat weaker this season than in 2009 due to the loss of Santonio Holmes. However I expect that Wallace will put up strong numbers this season, and I think Heath Miller’s role will be bigger this season. The drop-off in performance from the group of receivers should not be significant. 

 

RUNNING BACKS 

Willie Parker was released in the offseason, and signed with the Washington Redskins. Parker’s numbers had been in steady decline as he reached age 30 and he was supplanted as the primary back by Rashard Mendenhall. Mendenhall had a solid season in 2009 and more is expected of him this year. 

A decent blocker and reliable receiver, Mewelde Moore is expected to continue in his role as a third-down back this season. Georgia Tech’s Jonathan Dwyer may prove to be a steal considering the team obtained him in the sixth round, but will not see the field much in 2010. 

There has been an indication from Steelers’ President Art Rooney II that the Steelers intend to re-establish themselves as a running team in 2010, and it will be interesting to see if that means a return to a significant role for a fullback in the offense. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians has loathed to incorporate a fullback into his schemes, but many feel that Arians is feeling pressure to keep his job. Perhaps that pressure will see Arians work to develop more of a power game in 2010. 

On the whole we should expect improved numbers from the running game in 2010. The primary players return to the field this season, and the loss of Parker primarily presents a depth issue only. Barring an injury to Mendenhall, we should expect the 2010 running game to be similar to last season’s performances. No drop-off is expected here. 

 

QUARTERBACK 

The quarterback position represents a real issue for the Steelers in 2010. We know that Roethlisberger will miss at least four games due to suspension. The best-case scenario sees Roethlisberger returning after Week #4 so that he can take advantage of Pittsburgh’s bye week and be ready to take the helm in Week #6. Roethlisberger had an excellent year in 2009 and should do so again this year, if he can put his legal issues out of his mind and focus on the task at hand. Last year’s performance followed similar allegations from Nevada, and Ben proved he could focus and perform. I expect him to play well this season, but I can understand the doubts that some fans and analysts hold. 

Last year Dennis Dixon was Roethlisberger’s backup, and performed reasonably well in his only game. Given little practice time, and facing a stout Ravens’ defense, Dixon played well in the first half. Second-half adjustment by the Ravens combined with Arians’ insistence on playing conservative offense and keeping Dixon in the pocket led to second-half problems and ultimately a loss. However Dixon proved to be calm under pressure and demonstrated elusiveness that makes him a threat to run on any play. 

Byron Leftwich was re-acquired from Tampa Bay in a trade, and will compete with Dixon for the starting job until Roethlisberger returns from suspension. Leftwich is the antithesis of Dixon: a slow-footed, classic pocket-passer. He has a strong arm and familiarity with Arians’ offense, but will be vulnerable behind a weak offensive line. 

If Dixon and Leftwich can get the Steelers through Roethlisberger’s suspension in reasonable shape, then quarterbacking won’t be the team’s undoing. Right now, however, it remains the million-dollar question. 

 

DEFENSIVE LINE 

Last year the defensive line struggled after the loss of DE Aaron Smith due to a shoulder injury.  However Nose Tackle Casey Hampton was a Pro-Bowl selection, and the line showed improvement as rookie end Ziggy Hood worked his way into the line-up in the season’s latter stages. 

This year Ziggy is expected to start at one end, with Smith in full health at the other end flanking Hampton. The backups were old last year, and will be old this year. This is an aging unit that will require an infusion of youth in future drafts. 

However the starting triumvirate of Hood, Hampton and Smith this season represents a solid improvement over the trio of Keisel, Hampton and Kirschke/Eason who played the bulk of 2009. 

 

LINEBACKERS 

Historically the linebacker position has been one of the strengths of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and 2009 was no exception. James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, James Farrior and Lawrence Timmons formed a formidable foursome in 2009, and all return for 2010. Farrior is starting to show his age, particularly when dropping into coverage. However the team upgraded the linebacker depth by bringing back another familiar face in ILB Larry Foote. 

The Steelers also drafted a number of linebackers in this year’s draft. Virginia Tech’s Jason Worilds is a 254-pound defensive end who will be converted to outside linebacker in Pittsburgh’s 3-4 defensive system. The second-round pick probably will see little playing time this season, but does add even more depth. 

The linebacking crew should be expected to perform this season at a level similar to what we saw last year. 

 

DEFENSIVE BACKFIELD 

Last season the Steelers defensive backfield lapses cost the team a playoff spot. They gave up leads late in the fourth quarter of a number of games. 

That group was exposed by the loss of safety Troy Polamalu. Polamalu is a key component of many of Dick LeBeau’s complex blitzing schemes, and the defense did not look the same in his absence. 

When William Gay was platooning with Bryant McFadden in 2008, he looked to be a capable corner. However Gay struggled last year when handed the starting job and was a liability, to the point that he was replaced late in the season by an aged DeShea Townsend. 

This year McFadden is back in black and gold. He will probably get the nod at one corner with Ike Taylor returning on the other side. Last year’s pair of rookies, Keenan Lewis and Joe Burnett will also get an opportunity to prove they can play the corner. Also, the Steelers were able to re-sign Safety Ryan Clark when it looked like he was sure to sign with the Miami Dolphins

The defensive backfield looks to be much stronger in 2010 than it ended up in 2009. The return of Troy Polamalu is a primary factor: opposing offenses should expect to see more of Blitzburgh this year. We can also expect the cornerback position to be stabilized by the return of Bryant McFadden. 

 

SPECIAL TEAMS

Special teams were a mixed bag for the Steelers in 2009. The kicking and punting games were solid: both Daniel Sepulveda and Jeff Reed had good seasons. Stefan Logan proved to be a better return man than the Steelers have had in recent years, particularly at the punt return position. He appeared on a number of occasions of being inches away from breaking a return for a touchdown, and I expect he’ll handle those duties in 2010.

The kick coverage teams were beyond abysmal in 2009, allowing return touchdowns in three consecutive games and four overall. When returners weren’t taking it to the house they were repeatedly putting their offenses close to centerfield if not beyond. Those performances cost Special Teams Coach Bob Ligashesky his job, and were one reason behind the Steelers’ drafting numerous linebackers this year. 

A number of those hungry linebackers will be expected to shore up the kick coverage in 2010, and along with a new coach and undoubtedly more emphasis in practice we should see a radical improvement in 2010. 

 

CONCLUSION 

I expect to see significant improvement at defensive line, in the defensive backfield, and on kick coverage in 2010. There should be some improvement at offensive line as well with the addition of Pouncey and a new coach. 

The balance of special teams squads, linebackers and running backs should roughly perform the same this year as last year. 

The receiving corps is somewhat weaker than in 2009 due to the loss of Santonio Holmes. Quarterbacking probably will be in decline overall, simply due to the suspension of Ben Roethlisberger. Leftwich and Dennis Dixon are more competent backups than those employed by a number of other teams, but they are not at Roethlisberger’s caliber. But Roethlisberger should be behind center for ¾ of the season, and can have another great year if he keeps his focus. 

My conclusion: despite the Roethlisberger imbroglio, the Steelers should improve on last year’s 9-7 record. They may not win their division, given the improvements made to an already dangerous Baltimore Ravens’ squad. But if the Steelers can overcome Ben’s absence in those early games and qualify for a wildcard spot they will be a formidable opponent. The addition of McFadden and a healthy Polamalu and Smith herald a return to dominant defense in Pittsburgh, and a return to the NFL playoff picture. 

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