The loss of a key player to injury or suspension can be the difference-maker for a potential Super Bowl team’s season. As the Pittsburgh Steelers can attest, losing more than one of those key players can be the difference between defending your Super Bowl title and missing the playoffs completely.
In 2009, the Steelers lost their way defensively, and while some of it had to do with decision making, it had more to do with losing two game-changing defenders early on.
With All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu out for most of the season, and lacking that extra “disruptive-something” when he was there, the entire Steelers defense changed as a result.
When you take away the most underrated defensive end in the league in Aaron Smith along the way, the Steelers lost two of the biggest cogs in their defense.
While James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, and the rest of the Steelers linebacking corps get most of the attention and stats, Aaron Smith is the catalyst for those stats, and might be the most important member of the Steelers front seven.
Case in point: The Steelers struggled to stop the run late in games, and the 16th-ranked passing defense was nowhere near the league-leading performance of 2008.
As the Steelers approach the 2010 season, there are 10 players the team cannot afford to lose for a substantial period of time if they hope to right the ship.
Coming off a career year in 2008, Harrison followed up his defensive player of the year award with 10 sacks and 60 solo tackles, earning him his third straight trip to the Pro Bowl.
Harrison is one of the most feared edge-rushers in the league, but he has been no stranger to the trainer’s table. A reoccurring biceps injury in 2009 was the latest in a line of injuries, highlighted by a neck injury in 2007.
Despite early and often nagging aches and pains, Harrison has been surprisingly durable since taking over for Joey Porter as the starter in 2007—missing only one game.
He will be 32 this season, and the small nicks and bumps that start to add up around this age will need to be kept to a minimum.
Harrison and his counterpart, LaMarr Woodley, are responsible for the larger part of the Steelers’ pass-rush. Although they drafted an ungodly number of linebackers in April, none are ready to step in and be what Harrison is for the defense.
It is obvious that the franchise has little confidence in the current state of their young players at the position.
Joe Burnett and Keenan Lewis are both promising young players, but will need at least another year to develop. Crezdon Butler is nothing more than a question mark as rookie.
After incumbent starter William Gay disappointed in every way in 2009, the Steelers were willing to give up one of their fifth-round picks in 2010 to reacquire McFadden in order to solidify their porous pass defense.
The Steelers spent a second-round draft pick in 2005 on McFadden, who signed a two-year contract in Arizona to play under former Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm last season.
He started and played in all 16 games for the first time in his career during his first season with the Cardinals, setting career highs in tackles (64) and passes defended (15).
McFadden knows the scheme and had success in Pittsburgh during his first run in black and gold. The Steelers will count on McFadden to step in and pick up where he left off during their Super Bowl run in 2008.
If they are to improve on their 16th-ranked pass defense this season, McFadden will have to stay healthy and be there to team up with the inconsistent Ike Taylor, in order to make it happen.
It may be uncommon to see a long snapper appear on a list like this, but the Steelers have learned just how valuable a healthy man at the position can be.
Since being signed by the Steelers, he has suffered season-ending knee injuries in each of the last two seasons.
After suffering a season-ending knee injury in Week Five of the 2008 season, Warren tore his ACL during Week 14 last season, leaving the Steelers to turn to guys who have more experience bagging groceries than playing in the National Football League.
If the Steelers are going to regain Super Bowl form, they are going to have to make it through the season without having linebacker James Harrison snapping the ball with field goals on the line in 2010.
After being the 15th overall pick by the Steelers in 2007, Timmons has been a slow bloomer. Making the move to inside linebacker has put him in more of a position to succeed, and he finally showed signs of coming into his own last season.
Timmons played in 14 games last season, starting 13 of them on his way to 86 tackles and seven sacks.
The two games he missed were due to a hamstring injury. Timmons has missed some considerable time during training camp, which hurt his early development as a rookie.
This may very well be captain James Farrior’s last season with the team. With Farrior’s speed on the decline, Timmons has an opportunity to become the number one guy.
If Timmons can stay on the field this season, and he works on fighting through lead blocks, he could easily lead the team in tackles as Farrior rides into the sunset.
After signing a new five-year contract in the offseason, Kemoeatu came into his own as a run blocker for the Steelers in the first 10 games of 2009 before being sidelined with a season-ending knee injury.
Kemoeatu was given more direct responsibility along the line in 2009, as the Steelers began using his mobility more often as a pulling lead blocker.
The former sixth-round pick has been a bit of a project up to this point of his career, but has shown flashes of brilliance that would lead you to believe he has what it takes to become one of the better offensive guards in football.
If the Steelers hope to run the ball more often and more effectively this season, Chris Kemoeatu will be one of the major reasons they will be able to do it. His ability to stay healthy, something few Steelers linemen have been able to do in recent years, will be a major difference-maker, both in his presence on the field and in helping the offensive line gel into a cohesive unit.
"With the 18th pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers select Maurkice Pouncey, center, Florida."
It’s not often a rookie will make a list of guys who need to stay healthy for his team to succeed, but Pouncey makes the list at No. 5.
The Steelers struggled in every facet of blocking last season. Some of it could be blamed on injuries. Most of it could be blamed on poor performance. The addition of a high pedigree player like Pouncey is exactly what the doctor ordered for the Steelers offensive front five.
With the difficult learning curve of the NFL ahead of him, it is imperative that he stay healthy and get as many reps during training camp as he can. Once he learns the system, his ability to continue to learn and form a sense of communication and cohesion with fellow offensive linemen is critical to his early development.
Head coach Mike Tomlin plans on starting Pouncey out at guard, but as long as he stays healthy and learns the system, don’t be surprised to see him anchoring the line by 2011.
With the departure of Santonio Holmes, Limas Sweed being placed on IR, and question marks as to what Antwaan Randel El and Arnaz Battle will bring to the table, there has never been a bigger need for Hines Ward to stay healthy for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Despite nagging hamstring issues in each of the last few seasons, Ward has had outstanding numbers finishing each of the last two years with over 1,000 yards receiving and at least six touchdowns.
With Holmes gone, the Steelers are counting on second-year player Mike Wallace to step up and take his game to the next level as well, but Ward and Wallace will be counting on each other to draw defenders in key situations.
Wallace should become the Steelers’ NO. 1 receiver this season. If he does, it will allow Ward to go about his business much the same way he did last year with Holmes in that role.
Wallace is a burner with the ability to stretch the field, but Ward is going to get you the tough yards when the chips are down.
With a backup quarterback at the helm in the early going, Ward will be counted on to get it done. The Steelers will be looking to him to bring leadership and a few clutch catches in the absence of Ben Roethlisberger.
Aaron Smith is one of the best 3-4 defensive ends to ever play the game. While the job is far from glamorous, he does it better than anyone else in the league.
The Steelers are known for their linebackers and the gaudy numbers they put up, but for every sack and tackle they get, there were three guys up front in the trenches that made it possible and Smith is the best of the bunch.
When it comes to stuffing the run and making the 3-4 system effective Aaron Smith is the catalyst. He never takes a play off, and he always seems to be around the ball. It is the push he provides that opens opportunities for guys like LaMarr Woodley to come into the league and have immediate success.
Take him away from the Steelers run defense and the impact is enormous. While Ziggy Hood waits in the wings as last year’s first-round pick and the eventual heir to the throne, he is far from ready to do what Smith is capable of.
After a torn rotator cuff sidelined him for the season after just five games, Smith finished the season on the IR for the second time in three years.
The 2007 season was cut short for Smith because of a torn bicep. The Steelers finished the season 10-6, but four of their six losses came after Week 11 when Smith went down.
When Smith came back in 2008, the Steelers were able to finish 12-4 and win the Super Bowl.
Don’t believe there's a correlation?
Take him and Polamalu out of the lineup in 2009, and the team finishes 9-7, losing five in a row at one point and giving up over 100 yards rushing five times in the remaining games after Smith’s injury.
In order for the Steelers to regain form this season, they need Aaron Smith to stay healthy.
It’s been a rollercoaster ride of a career for Rashard Mendenhall so far.
Whether it’s getting his shoulder broken by a Ray Lewis hit his rookie season, being benched for lack of preparation in his second, or taking the starting job from Willie Parker, Mendenhall has had some major ups and downs in his short time in the league.
Despite his first-round pedigree and all the hype that came with him, Mendenhall has not always lived up to the fanfare. Yet, if he can get past the injuries and the tentative fear of another injury, Mendenhall showed the potential last season to be the No. 1 guy in the 'Burgh.
After Mendenhall rushed for over 1,100 yards and seven touchdowns once he supplanted Willie Parker as the starter, the team let the not-so-fast Willie Parker depart for Washington this offseason.
The Steelers gave Mendenhall the vote of confidence as their No. 1 guy, and the No. 1 guy he will have to be. With a platoon of third-down running backs, and a green-but-promising rookie in Jonathan Dwyer, Mendenhall is the only option the Steelers have for a true No. 1 back.
The Steelers are going to have to find a way to keep the often-banged-up Mendenhall healthy if they hope to challenge for a playoff spot. The addition of the big-bodied Dwyer for short yardage and goal line situations should be a step in that direction, taking the physical running aspect that Mendenhall seems to be uncomfortable with away from him.
With the exception of Ed Reed in Baltimore, there may not be a better safety in the NFL, and even Reed can’t do all the things that Polamalu does defensively.
Polamalu missed all but five games in 2009 and still led the team in interceptions. His ability to disrupt the game defensively is unparalleled by any one player, and allows the Steelers and defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau to run the zone blitzing scheme in ways no other team in the NFL can.
Polamalu’s worth to the Steelers defense was proven in exasperating ways last season as the flat-footed Tyrone Carter and company tried to compensate for his loss, but to no avail.
There are players with a nose for the ball and then there are ball-hawks, guys who are always around the football making plays.
Those instincts cannot be taught, and the athletic ability to follow those instincts without being burned is that much more difficult. Polamalu’s ability to read and decipher offensive plays before—and while—they are happening allows him to cover like a corner, stop the run like a linebacker, and rush the passer as well as anyone in the league.
His reckless style of play that makes him so great may also be his biggest weakness. The way he launches his body around like a human torpedo has also caused him as much harm physically as he has caused to opposing offenses.
Finding a way to keep Polamalu healthy has become the million-dollar question in Pittsburgh.
The team certainly may be willing to pay more than that to find a foolproof way to do it. Because it recognizes that its ability as a franchise to make it to the Super Bowl once again rests as much on the shoulders of Troy Polamalu defensively, as it does on the shoulders of Ben Roethlisberger offensively.