Pittsburgh Steelers: Preparing for the 2011 NFL Season.

Nick SignorelliSenior Writer IJanuary 27, 2011

Pittsburgh Steelers: Preparing for the 2011 NFL Season.

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    Congratulations to the Pittsburgh Steelers for earning their eighth trip to the Super Bowl, tying the Dallas Cowboys for the most played by one team. Regardless of what happens against the Green Bay Packers on February 6th, on February 7th, the Pittsburgh Steelers need to start to prepare for the 2011 season (Lets all hope they have to do so scheduling around a big parade!).

    Lets forget the whole labor dispute for a moment. I know we hear a TON of talk about either a lockout or a strike. I know that it seems that these two sides may never agree on anything.

    The reality is, no football means no money for either. And business is business, and both sides will eventually come to an agreement that us fans are waiting for, the resolution to the CBA.

    For this article, we are going to go on the premise that the NFL will be using the same set of rules for this upcoming season as they did the last.

    This is what I believe the Pittsburgh Steelers need to do to extend their streak of success into the future, starting with 2011.

Coaching Staff

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    Mike Tomlin

    Mike Tomlin is already locked up for at least the next three years following this season after signing a four year contract extension last year, though this Super Bowl may have earned him a raise.

    Tomlin is one of the finest young coaches, and like Bill Cowher and Chuck Noll, it appears that Tomlin is going to be on the Steelers sidelines for at least the next decade.

     

    Bruce Arians

    The Offensive Coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers was nearly run out of town after a 2009 season that saw the Steelers miss the playoffs.

    He was predictable and not creative at all.

    In 2010, for the most part, Arians called considerably better than he had done in years past, especially in the playoffs, where he seemed to have finally understood that running the football is as important to the success of Ben Roethlisberger as him passing the ball.

    Do I think he is the ideal candidate for the job? Hardly. That does not change the fact that he has called the offensive plays for the Steelers to reach the Super Bowl in two of the last three seasons.

    Arians is not going anywhere, like it or not.

     

    Dick Lebeau

    The master of the Zone-Blitz, that has made the Steelers defense one of the best in the NFL is in the last year of his contract. Even though he has taken every season, one at a time, he does not decide what he is going to do the following year, until the season is over.

    There is no question that the Steelers would love to have LeBeau back next year, and as many after that as he chooses to coach.

    The Arizona Cardinals may have something to say about that, though. After firing their defensive coordinator three weeks ago, they have been waiting for the Steelers season to end, so they can go after one of the Steelers coaches.

    Since LeBeau is not under contract, Chris Mortenson of ESPN believes that LeBeau may be heading to Arizona.

    LeBeau has squashed that story though. He stated on profootballtalk.com that if he is coaching anywhere, it is going to be in Pittsburgh.

    That leaves either linebackers coach Keith Butler or secondary coach Ray Horton.

    Butler was offered the defensive coordinator position with the Miami Dolphins last year, but turned it down to stay with the Steelers. He was told that he will take over for LeBeau when he eventually retires.

    Personally, I find it hard to believe that Butler would even think about leaving the Steelers, especially to coach a defense as poor as the one in Arizona. Not only that, the Steelers would have to give the Cardinals permission to even talk with Butler, based on his new contract.

    That means, Ray Horton may decide to jump ship. To go from the secondary coach to defensive coordinator would be a great step for him. Best of luck, IF he decides to go.

Quarterback

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    The Pittsburgh Steelers are set at the QB position, having a TRUE franchise signal caller in Ben Roethlisberger.

    That is not where the question lies. What is going to happen with the back ups next year?

    Dennis Dixon

    Dixon showed some promise as a solid back up and, depending on the CBA, will most likely be with the Steelers for another year, as a Restricted Free Agent.

     

    Byron Leftwich

    Byron Leftwich left the Steelers after their Super Bowl victory and, after one season in Tampa Bay, was traded back to the Steelers.

    Leftwich saw that the grass was in fact, not greener, and will likely be happy to stay in Pittsburgh with his current contract for the next two years.

     

    Charlie Batch

    I have continually said that Charlie Batch is due to retire. And every time I have said that, he has had to play in a game and show that he still has the talent to be a solid back up in the NFL.

    Though the only way he will come back to the Steelers next year is if there is an injury to one of the above mentioned men, Batch will probably sit at home, in Pittsburgh, and wait for his phone to ring.

Running Back

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    Rashard Mendenhall

    Mendenhall has shown the Steelers that they were right drafting him in the first round (23rd) of the 2008 NFL Draft.

    He has become the complete Steelers running back, no longer afraid to take on a hit by a defensive back by running out of bound, but running over them.

    He also has the agility, thanks to dance lessons, to be able to move better while on the run. Remember Lynn Swann taking ballet lessons? That is what Mendenhall has done with dance (Hopefully, that has nothing to do with his humping of Ben Roethlisberger in the AFC Championship game).

    Though Mendenhall signed a five year contract as a rookie, which will keep him with the Steelers through the 2012 season, he may in fact be due for a raise.

     

    Isaac Redman

    Redman has shown that he is the short yardage back that the Steelers have been looking for. He is good at getting the yard or two on third and short and has made leaps in his ability to pick up the blitzers.

    Redzone should have a larger role come 2011 and will be with the Steelers at least for next year.

     

    Mewelde Moore

    The cold, hard reality is that Moore is losing playing time to Redman on third downs. Moore is still a quality back up and capable of holding the third running back position, if he chooses to accept it.

    The only question is, will he in fact be willing to accept that role?

Wide Receivers

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    There is talk that Hines Ward may be calling it a career after Super Bowl XLV. Ward has even asked on Facebook what the fans think of the idea of him retiring.

     

    Mike Wallace

    When the Steelers traded Santonio Holmes to the New York Jets last offseason, many people believed that Mike Wallace would not be able to fill his shoes. Not only has he filled them, he has passed anyone's expectations as to how good he was going to be.

    Not only is Wallace a deep threat, he can go over the middle or turn a simple five yard hitch into something spectacular.

    Wallace finished fifth in the NFL with 1,257 yards and 10 scores. He also led the NFL in catches of  more than 20 yards with 26.

    No matter who is on the team in 2011, Wallace will be the best receiver on the team.

     

    Hines Ward

    Though I personally hope that Ward returns to the Steelers in 2011, reality is, he may retire. The Steelers have set themselves up nicely for his departure with the drafting of Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown.

     

    Emmanuel Sanders

    Sanders was drafted in the same round as Mike Wallace was the previous season, but his rookie season was no where near as successful as Wallace. However, Sanders will not be asked to do in his second year what Wallace was asked to do this year.

    Sanders, at most, will be asked to be the number two option, and if he continues to improve, then the Steelers will be set at that position.

     

    Antonio Brown

    Sanders does not have a lock on the second WR position if Hines Ward does decide to retire. He is going to have to fight Antonio Brown for it.

    Brown has come up big in both of the Steelers playoff games, meaning two things.

    1 - The game is not too big for him. When any rookie can make big catches in the biggest games of the season, (59 yard reception off his helmet against the Ravens to set up the winning score, completion that ended the game against the Jets on 3rd and 6).

    2 - Ben Roethlisberger has the faith in Brown to throw him the ball in big situations. That means Brown probably has the edge up against Sanders for either the second receiver (IF Ward retires) or third (if Ward does not retire)

     

    Limas Sweed

    Forgot about him, didn't you?

    It seems like Sweed will probably be the odd man out in the Steelers' rotation. However, he does posses something that none of the other receivers have: size.

    At 6'5", Sweed would present serious match-up issues with any team in the red zone. If he could overcome his health issues and dropping the ball issues, then there may in fact be a place in Pittsburgh for him, as the fourth receiver.

     

    Antwaan Randle El

    Though Randle El coming back to the Steelers was a nice story, the reality is, there simply may not be enough roster spots for him to stay with the team.

    The only way I can see El staying with the Steelers is if Ward retires. A solid veteran leader in the receiving corp is always important, and El would be able to do that in the absence of Hines Ward.

    Anyone else on the roster (Arnaz Battle) will be used pretty exclusively on Special Teams. They pose no real options playing on the offense.

Tight End

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    Tight End is one of the most important, but least respected, positions on the Steelers. Though it is considered a skill position, blocking in Pittsburgh is almost as important as catching passes.

     

    Heath Miller

    Heath Miller proved that he is useful beyond numbers. Though his 2010 numbers were not as good as 2009, he did not have Ben Roethlisberger throwing to him for the first four games of the season.

    Also, he was asked to stay in and block a lot more, with all the injuries to the offensive line.

     

    Matt Spaeth

    Though Spaeth is nowhere near the talent of Heath Miller, it is obvious that Ben Roethlisberger likes him and is not afraid to throw his way when in trouble.

    Though Spaeth is set to become an Unrestricted Free Agent, he will not get any big offers from other teams to leave the Steelers.

     

    David Johnson

    I almost put Johnson at running back because he is the closest thing to a full back that the Steelers have on the roster.

    Though Johnson did not play as well this year as his rookie season in 2009, he still has the ability to pick up a blitz and to make plays when necessary.

Offensive Line

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    Once again, the biggest questions about the Steelers heading into the offseason is what is going to be of their offensive line? Though, again, they have played well enough to get the Steelers to the Super Bowl, there are still many questions about what is going to happen with them in 2011.

     

    Maurkice Pouncey

    Being voted into the Pro Bowl his rookie season shows that the Steelers hit the nail on the head with this first round pick from 2010.

    Pouncey is a beast and will be the anchor for the Steelers for years to come.

     

    Max Starks

    If, and that is a big IF, Max Starks can get healthy after suffering a neck injury that ended his season in 2010, then he will still be a quality tackle for the Steelers.

     

    Willie Colon

    Willie Colon was brought back to the Steelers under a one year restricted free agent tag. Though he would have drawn interest last year, coming off a torn Achilles tendon, odds are, not many teams are going to take a chance on him, at least not for big money, next year.

    Colon will probably be back with the Steelers under a one or two year contract.

     

    Flozell Adams

    One of the few times the Steelers went after a free agent, and it paid off.  Adams did a wonderful job converting to the right side of the offensive line. He is still under contract for another year and will probably be asked to return.

     

    Chris Kemoeatu

    Last off season, the New York Jets went hard after Kemoeatu, but he decided to stay with the Steelers and is going to another Super Bowl because of it.

    Though he does not dominate like many of the guards in the NFL, he still does a great job. If he can learn not to hit people after the whistle, then he would be even better.

     

    Ramon Foster

    Ramon Foster has done a decent job at right guard, but like Kemoeatu, he is not going to be given a starting position next year.

    Every other player on the offensive line is going to have to prove they deserve a roster spot after this year.  There will be an open competition, and the best will get it.

    Look for the Steelers to spend a high round draft pick on the offensive line, and whatever position that is for, that player is going to have a chance to earn starting playing time, like Maurkice Pouncey did this year.

Defensive Line

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    Though the Steelers defensive line is considered old by many standards, they have a look to them that most teams wish they had. All three of the starting defensive linemen have been voted to the Pro Bowl in the last two years.

    Just because they are not young does not mean they still have a lot of life left in them.

     

    Casey Hampton

    Big Snack has been destroying offensive lines for year, and there is no reason that he is not going to again in 2011.

     

    Brett Keisel

    Keisel was named to his first Pro Bowl in 2010, and he won't be able to play in it because of the Super Bowl, and Keisel is just fine with that.

    Keisel has played a great year, filling in for the injured Aaron Smith.

     

    Aaron Smith

    After another injury shortened his 2010 season, the Steelers refused to place Smith on the season ending Injured Reserve. That means, come the Super Bowl, Smith will be able to fit into the defensive line rotation.

    If Smith can play like he did before he was injured, the Steelers defensive line will be solid again in 2011.

     

    Ziggy Hood

    I find it hard to believe that a first rounder for the Pittsburgh Steelers is finding a hard time cracking the starting line, but when you have two Pro Bowl players at your position ahead of you, you will have your work cut out for you.

    Hood has done a great job filling in for Aaron Smith, and as he showed in the Playoffs to this point, the bigger the stage, the better he is going to play.

     

    Still, don't be surprised to see the Steelers draft another big body in the early rounds to give some of these "OLD" guys a breather from time to time.

Linebackers

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    As always, the Pittsburgh Steelers linebackers are some of the best in the NFL. It is their pedigree, it is their way of life. The Steelers D lives and dies because of the play of their line backers, and they have some of the best in the game at their respective positions.

     

    LaMarr Woodley

    Regardless of what the Steelers do this off season, bringing LaMarr Woodley back MUST be priority No. 1.

    Woodley is an absolute beast and needs to remain with the Steelers regardless of what they must do to keep him: Franchise Tag, or pay the man what he is worth.

    It is not often that the Steelers would suffer by losing one of their line backers, but losing Woodley would be a blow that is hard to recover from.

     

    James Harrison

    Currently the highest paid player on the Steelers defense. As important as Silver Back is, I think keeping Woodley is even more important.

    That is not to take away from Harrison, who could have been the DPOY had he not racked up over $100K in fines.

     

    Lawrence Timmons

    Lawrence Timmons spent his first season as the lead linebacker on the inside for the Steelers and had an amazing year.

    Timmons led the Steelers with 135 tackles and ranked eighth in the NFL. He has the speed to cover most running backs out of the back field, and when he hits an opponent, he REALLY hits him

     

    James Farrior

    You know what?  I have said for the last two years that it is time for Farrior to call it a career, and both times, he has played like he was 30 again.

    Not to break tradition, I am going to say it again.  Farrior is getting old, and it is time for one of the younger guys to step up and take some playing time away from him.

    IF, however, none of them can step up and earn that playing time, then I would be happy to have Farrior back for another year.

     

    Jason Worilds

    Looks to be a solid contributor and have a great future with the Steelers. Though he has not seen much playing time this year, he did have a few plays for a banged up James Harrison and pressured the opposing QB on two of the three plays (The other play was a run.).

     

    Stevenson Sylvester

    Though we have not been able to see Sylvester get much defensive playing time, his special teams contributions have been amazing.

    Sylvester likes to hit, and it showed while covering punts and kicks.

    Personally, I hope that Sylvester can push James Farrior for playing time. But, even if he can't this year, he has a bright future in the Black and Gold.

Cornerbacks

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    The Steelers cornerbacks are not like most corners in the NFL. In most cities, their main job is to cover the receivers. In Pittsburgh, they must also support the run, and currently, the Steelers corners are great at that.

     

    Ike Taylor

    Though Ike Taylor is in the final year of his contract, it is believed that he is going to be one of the top priorities this offseason. Because of his close, personal friendship to the Rooney family, they may already have the framework of a deal worked out.

    Taylor is an important player for the Steelers, and though he is getting older, he has shown this postseason that he can still cover the other team's best receiver.

     

    Bryant McFadden

    After leaving the Steelers after Super Bowl XLIII, McFadden came back to the Steelers and signed a four year contract extension.

    Though he may not be the best corner on the team, he certainly holds his own against all competition. McFadden has brought the Steelers pass defense back to respectability, only allowing 6.3 yards per pass, first in the NFL.

     

    Will Gay

    The Steelers allowed McFadden to leave as a free agent because they believed that Will Gay would be able to fill his shoes.

    They were wr-wr-wrong (It is still kind of hard to admit that).

    Now that Gay has been pushed to the nickel back, he is back to playing great. However, no team wants to have a player that is playing at his best and still only good enough to cover the other teams third receiver.

    Gay may be out the door if one of the younger guys can step up.

     

    Keenan Lewis

    Keenan Lewis is a long time friend of Mike Wallace. That relationship may help him stay on the team and keep Wallace happy.

    Lewis showed promise in his rookie year, but has not showed the improvement this year that many expected.

    If Lewis can take that next step, he may push Will Gay out the door in Pittsburgh.

     

    Crezdon Butler

    As a rookie, Crezdon Butler did not see much playing time, but for one, I was not surprised. The Steelers defense is very complex, and it normally takes a player at least a year before they really get it.

    Don't believe me? Remember Troy Polamalu's rookie season. He showed promise, but nowhere NEAR what he is today.


    Still, don't be shocked if the Steelers address the CB position early in the draft. Taylor is getting old, and if Lewis or Butler are not showing the promise that got them drafted, the Steelers may bring in someone they think can do the job better.

    Remember, it is not often the Steelers are incorrect.

Safeties

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    The last line of defense for the Steelers is the safety position. Currently, it is one of the strongest units on the team.

    For the Steelers, playing safety does not simply mean covering the pass. Troy Polamalu does what no other player in the NFL can do and has to be accounted for on every play, or he WILL make your team pay.

     

    Troy Polamalu

    Coming back after a 2009 season where he was injured for most of it, Troy Polamalu is a once in a life time player. Covering a pass, defending a run or blitzing, Troy Polamalu can do it all.

    When Polamalu is in the game, the entire defense is better. To prove it, look at the difference between the Steelers defense in the last three years.

    When Polamalu plays, the Steelers win. When he does not play, well, they still win a lot, they are just not as dominant.

     

    Ryan Clark

    After almost signing with the Miami Dolphins last year, Ryan Clark came back to the Steelers and is the perfect running mate for Troy Polamalu.

    When Polamalu blitzes, Clark covers the deep pass.

    Over the playoffs, the Steelers have resisted sending pressure with Polamalu as much as normal and are starting to apply it more with Ryan Clark, and it is working.

    However, as hard of a hitter as Clark is, the Steelers are going to have to think about bringing in someone that will be able to play, and play well, to prevent any type of let down in case of injury.


    Will Allen

    Allen was signed by the Steelers last offseason in case they lost Clark. When the re-signed Clark, Allen was forced to get his playing time on special teams.

    Allen is a solid special teams player, and that is probably as far as he is going to go with the Steelers.


    Ryan Mundy

    A product of Pittsburgh, Mundy has shown that he does have the talent to play the position, but he has to be more contestant that he has been.

    If Mundy is ever going to replace Clark, or be able to fill in better for Polamalu, then he is going to have to be more effective.

     

    The Steelers may use a mid round pick at this position, simply for depth.  Mundy has the potential, and Coach Tomlin seems to like him, so he will probably be the main back up again in 2011.

Special Teams

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    In 2009, the Special Teams  were anything but special in Pittsburgh, as, quite honestly, they sucked.

    This year, the Steelers wised up and showed Jeff Reed his walking papers. With the ACL injury to Dan Sepulveda, the Steelers have done a great job at finding replacements for their former starters.

     

    Shaun Suisham

    Many people believed, me included, that it would be hard to replace Jeff Reed, because kicking in Heinz Field is so unpredictable. When the Steelers decided to sign Shisham, everyone thought they were wr-wr- they didn't know what they were doing.

    Once again, the Steelers brass proved they know more than we do, as Suisham has converted on 14 of 15 field goals, and all of his extra points. He has also kicked a 48 yard field goal in Heinz Field.

    Just because he didn't find any success with the Cowboys or Redskins does not mean that he can't do it for the Steelers.

    And doing it, is just what Suisham is doing.

    Hopefully, the Steelers will be bringing Suisham back for the next couple years. Besides, he already tackles better than Jeff Reed.

     

    Daniel Sepulveda / Jeremy Kapinos

    When it comes to the punting duties, the Steelers have a good problem to have. They are going to have to decide between the injured Dan Sepulveda and Jeremy Kapinos.

    Sepulveda does a great job, when not injured. He is having a hard time staying off of IR with torn ACL injuries. This is his second in three years.

    Kapinos has done a respectable job, averaging just over 41 yards on his 14 punts for the Steelers this year. (Kapinos had four punts for the Colts this year, and averaged 44.5 yards on those).

    It appears that Sepulveda and Kapinos are both going to be brought back and compete for the punting duties next year in training camp.

Conclusion

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    Every team in the NFL has questions about their roster. The fact that the Pittsburgh Steelers have most of those questions answered means the future looks bright in the City of Pittsburgh.

    They have the TRUE Franchise QB, stud running back, fantastic receivers (even IF Hines Ward retires), phenomenal line backers, and a great secondary.

    In my opinion (and, maybe this is my Steelers bias coming out), there is no reason that this team can not be competitive for years into the future.

    In order for a team to build a dynasty, and to be successful over the long haul, they need depth, skill, and luck to go along with it.

    The Steelers already have the depth and skill, and all we can hope for in the future is the luck of no injuries.

    If that happens, we could be looking at the next great Steelers dynasty!