The season is coming up on us quicker than ever, and has already provided us with more headline stories than years past.
Brett Favre's annual will-he-won't-he, Kurt Warner retiring, T.O. in Cincinnati, OchoCinco already talking his trash, and Ben Roethlisberger's pending suspension. Just to name a few.
Now it's safe to say that every fan in football knows about Big Ben's conditional four to six-game suspension. It can be reduced to four games if he meets all the standards that Commissioner Roger Goodell laid out for him, and Goodell recently said that Ben has gone above and beyond what was asked of him. However, any announcement on reducing his suspension will not be made until after the preseason.
Therefore, the Steelers are preparing for the first month plus without their two-time Super Bowl Champion quarterback. Which begs the question, can they keep their heads afloat without him?
The Steelers return all 11 of its starters on defense while getting a healthy Troy Polamalu and Aaron Smith back. They also brought back Bryant McFadden and Larry Foote from their last Super Bowl run, when they had the NFL's top defense. 2009 first-round pick Ziggy Hood has been working out all offseason and is down to 20 percent body fat, and is said to be the most impressive of all players so far in training camp. With all the athleticism, strength, and flat-out skill they have on this side of the ball, Dick Lebeau has plenty to work with in creating new blitzes and cover schemes.
The defense alone will be enough to keep the Steelers close in games without Ben.
The biggest concern last year was the special teams. However, that could become a strength this year.
The Steelers brought in Will Allen and Arnaz Battle to help on coverage units. Also expected to contribute now will be Larry Foote, William Gay, and the two rookie linebackers, Jason Worilds and Thaddeus Gibson. They also return last year's special teams ace and stellar fill-in MLB Keyaron Fox.
With the return of Antwaan Randle El, the return game seems to be more reliable. He is not without competition though, as rookies Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders will push him along with last year's return star, Stefan Logan.
Now onto the offense.
The Rooneys sent a stern message down to the team that they needed to run the ball more. Arians and Tomlin are sticking behind that, saying they will run the ball more effectively, which starts in the trenches.
They began the process of an improved run game by drafting Maurkice Pouncey with the 18th overall pick in the draft. Then Willie Colon went down with an injury. Instead of sitting back, the Steelers brought in Flozell "The Hotel" Adams to compete at RT. With all that competition and talent, the Steelers figure to return to a mauling offensive line to help the run game, especially with a full season under Rashard Mendenhall's belt, a 1,000-yard season in which he showed a lot of promise.
The WRs need mention too.
Hines Ward, despite reports of being "old," is still playing at a level that makes him a top 10 NFL WR. Yes, I said it. He had 95 receptions, 1,167 yards, and six touchdowns last year, how could you not consider him one?
They also brought back Antwaan Randle El, a 50+ reception guy who has experience and success in the Steelers offense. He also throws in the trick play, which helped the Steelers' Super Bowl run in 2005.
Mike Wallace seems poised to step in and become a top target in the offense. With unmatchable speed and solid hands, he has the skill-set to put it all together this year. The only question now is, will he?
The Steelers also have two rookies, one of which seems to be playing to start on this team: Emmanuel Sanders. Coming from June Jones's pro-style offense, he is a great route runner with great hands and good speed. He also loves to hit, just check out this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RNthxAPLaFw .
Looks like the second coming of Hines Ward, doesn't he?
Now the Steelers have a competition at QB to see who will start while Ben is out. They have Byron Leftwich, who is likely to start and has had success in the Steelers system and the NFL. They also have young Dennis Dixon, a superb but raw talent who could potentially be a starter somewhere in the NFL one day.
So the Steelers aren't without the right pieces to keep them afloat, but what about their competition?
Week One puts the Steelers up against the Atlanta Falcons. Matt Ryan figures to have a true breakout season, with great targets like Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez. The Steelers figure to stop the run game as they always do, putting the pressure on Ryan to perform.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Falcons will be without starting DT Jordan Babineaux, due to a one-game suspension. However, the Falcons added Dunta Robinson to boost the secondary. While it should be a close game, it is easily winnable for Leftwich and the Steelers, especially with Leftwich seeing them twice last year.
Week Two, the Steelers will face a challenge. Can they stop a 2,000-yard rusher? If so, they should come away with this game. The Titans are lacking pass catchers with Kenny Britt being their best, and mediocrity in Justin Gage and Nate Washington.
On defense, they are really going downhill and Mendenhall should carve through the defense. All Leftwich needs to do is keep the ball away from this ball-hawking secondary.
I hate saying any game is an easy game, but the Steelers should come away from Week Three with a victory from the subpar Buccaneers. Lacking on both sides of the ball, it shouldn't be difficult for the Steelers to play Steeler football and grind it out. Especially since Leftwich knows the Bucs well, having played there last year.
Week Four should be the hardest game of the season so far against the division rival Ravens. This game is always physical and hard-fought, no matter how the teams are playing that season.
Baltimore figures to have a high-flying offense with Flacco, Rice, Boldin, and Mason. However, Boldin can't stay healthy in a weak division, let's see how he does playing the Steelers and Bengals twice a year.
They are also going downhill fast on defense. Ed Reed will miss this game and Domonique Foxworth the season. This really hurts an already weak secondary. Ray Lewis is also getting older, although still a force. The biggest question is, can Suggs come back from injury?
This will be a close game, but very winnable.
With the suspension suspected to be reduced to four games, the Steelers can easily come out of it with a 3-1 record. Then they will get their starting QB back, who is in the best shape of his life after a Week Five bye, poised to make another playoff run.