Perhaps being born in the 'Burgh in the days of the Steel Curtain, during the Steelers’ dynastic run in the seventies won’t allow me to separate myself from my bias. Or maybe the fact that the Steelers have been perennial contenders since I was a student in middle school has me looking at the NFL through black and gold tinted lenses. However, the fact remains that I cannot remember the last time that the NFL preseason rolled around and I didn’t feel good about Pittsburgh’s chances. The Steelers have not had a losing season since 2003. The Steelers’ offensive line suffered a series of key injuries that season that never allowed the team to live up to its full potential. As a matter of fact, they finished a terrible 6-10 that season and that was the last time I can remember being pessimistic about the team. However, they parlayed that dismal finish into drafting Ben Roethlisberger during the offseason. They followed the underwhelming 2003 season with a 15-1 performance in 2004 with a rookie Roethlisberger at the helm. Unfortunately, when they reached the AFC Championship, they ran into a New England team that was at the peak of its own dynasty.
This season many members of the sports media have picked Pittsburgh as the third best team in the AFC North; I can’t say that I blame them. Ben Roethlisberger landed a four to six game suspension for landing into some trouble during the offseason that I am sure I don’t need to explain. Santonio Holmes also wound up in a tight spot that resulted in a trade to the New York Jets. The defense, although finishing fifth overall in the entire NFL, is coming off a disappointing season by Pittsburgh standards. The offensive line has been in decline for several years now which has impacted the Steelers traditionally strong rushing attack. There are several players that are unhappy about their contract situations going into the season. It’s beginning to look like a perfect storm that is destined to implode the team this season.
But wait, Big Ben missed four games to injury in 2005 and somehow the Steelers managed to win Super Bowl XL that season. After the 15-1 campaign in 2004, another high profile Steelers’ receiver ended up playing for that other football team in New York. There was talk that the Steelers would certainly feel the effects of the loss of Plaxico Burress. However, as already mentioned, the Steelers managed to pull out a Super Bowl win the following season. Last season Aaron Smith and Troy Polamalu both missed ten full games. Pittsburgh also felt the loss of Bryant McFadden to the Arizona Cardinals; William Gay did not perform at the level expected in McFadden’s absence. Bryant McFadden is back in black (and gold) and Aaron Smith and Troy Polamalu are both healthy. All eleven defensive starters from the Super Bowl XLIII team are back with the Steelers and poised to live up to the city of Pittsburgh’s steep expectations. The offensive line has already taken a big blow with the loss of Willie Colon for the season. However, the 2009 Steelers lost Marvel Smith on the offensive line. Furthermore, Flozell Adams has been signed to fill in for Colon; this is arguably an upgrade. Coach Tomlin has promised a renewed dedication to running the football; no one knows what the running game will look like, but the Super Bowl XLIII Championship team finished the regular season 23rd in rushing offense. I also believe that most players understand that the lack of a CBA and the possibility of a lockout next season have affected contract negotiations.
Historically, Cincinnati can’t string two good seasons together. The Bengals have also added Terrell Owens to their roster, and I think everyone knows the reputation that follows him. I also have serious questions about the defense in Cincinnati. For some reason, Marvin Lewis, the great architect of the legendary 2000 Ravens’ defense, can’t seem to replicate his success from Baltimore. Cincinnati has been an offensive monster for years, but they have lived and died by the turnover on defense. I truly believe that Pittsburgh can overtake Cincinnati this season. The Ravens are looking very tough, but they always give the Steelers a competitive game even when their record would indicate otherwise. Whether the Steelers can win the division or not, I believe that they can put themselves into the playoffs, and everyone knows that a Steelers team in the playoffs is a dangerous team.
The Steelers are certainly not the favorites to hoist a Lombardi Trophy at the conclusion of this season. Many questions loom around the team. The Steelers have overcome similar obstacles in the recent past. I am by no means proclaiming that my Steelers will win Super Bowl XLV; however, I am telling everyone not to count them out just yet. If the Steelers win a seventh ring this season, remember that I was the one that told you that they were the sleeper team to pick. But, if this season gets immortalized in the halls of mediocrity, blame my optimism on the black and gold blood that oozes through my veins. Regardless of what you think about my opinion, I am entering this season as optimistic and as hopeful as any other season that I can remember.