What a long strange trip this has been. Coming into last season, the Pittsburgh Steelers were the defending Super Bowl champions, having defeated the Arizona Cardinals in one of the best games in Super Bowl history, 27-23. Entering this coming season starting Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger became the subject of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's firing squad by earning a six game suspension(can be reduced to four games depending on behavior), while Left Tackle Willie Colon will miss the entire season with a torn Achilles tendon. The contrast in season beginnings is quite vast. Coach Mike Tomlin has just re-signed with the team continuing their storied tradition of keeping coaches long term.
Examining the football side of the team, there's a lot of talent to work with. The AFC North is the toughest division in football featuring the Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, and up and coming Cleveland Browns. It's a division that's wide open, and there's a potential four team race for the division crown if the Cleveland Browns can find their way to some early wins. The offensive line for Pittsburgh is an absolute mess. If Roethlisberger is going to miss six games, Byron Leftwich is going to be on his back a lot to begin the year. The Steelers did sign former Dallas Cowboy Left Tackle Flozell Adams to a contract for this season. Adams is certainly on the downside of his career but will fill the void left by Colon well enough. Rookie center/guard Maurkice Pouncey out of Florida will be a major addition to the middle of the line this season. Pouncey should be able to start immediately at guard, if the Steelers elect to keep Justin Hartwig.
When you talk Pittsburgh Steeler football you've got to talk about Hines Ward. Ward is entering his 13th season in the black and gold. Alongside Mike Wallace and the returning Antwaan Randle El, the Steelers receiving corps is not very strong in depth. Tight End Heath Miller essentially plays the third receiver role so well that the weakness in depth is often veiled over quite well.
The Running Back position is rock solid in Pittsburgh, like always. Third year pro Rashard Mendenhall and rookie Jonathan Dwyer have the backfield taken care of very well. There will be no ego trips here like in years past with Willie Parker. Mendenhall is a stud fantasy running back too that can be selected in a third or fourth round of a fantasy football draft.
The Pittsburgh Steelers defense is an aging group. Much like the Baltimore Ravens defense, there is a strong veteran presence with a small but talented young core. Linebackers Lawrence Timmons, Patrick Bailey, James Farrior, James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, and talented rookie Thaddeus Gibson are a talented group. There is no better group of Linebackers in the NFL.
Defensive Line issues however, show the age of the Steelers defense. Aaron Smith has 12 years of experience, Brett Keisel has 9, with a proven history of injuries, and this is the weak spot for Pittsburgh. Rookie Doug Worthington and second year player Steve McClendon will need to do well in practice to earn playing time.
The secondary for Pittsburgh is incredibly talented. William Gay, Bryant McFadden, and Ike Taylor are all very skilled
Kicker Jeff Reed is a bit flaky. He's complained the entire off-season about a lack of a contract extension. He's also had a few run-ins with the local Pittsburgh police. Reed is a good kicker, not great. If he has a couple of bad games early, look for Pittsburgh to replace him without much consideration. He appears to be on a tight leash.
This season is going to be one of questions for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Offensive Coordinator Bruce Arians swears up and down, Roethlisberger is a changed man. While that might be possible, Big Ben will still be missing out on at least four games and will not be permitted to practice with his teammates for at minimum a month. It's going to take a few games to get back in the swing of things for number 7. If he misses six games that could be half the season until the Steelers get back to normal. There would be no way to make the playoffs entering week nine at 2-6.
My season prediction for Pittsburgh is 6-10, with wins over Tampa Bay (Away), Cleveland, Oakland; Buffalo (Away), Cincinnati, and Carolina. Losing your best player for four games minimum is a rough spot to be in. Ben Roethlisberger has only himself to blame for that, and as leader of the team his teammates should want to step their own game up in his absence. I think this team is a case of too little too late. There's just not enough talent to make up for the absence of the team’s best player.