Pittsburgh Steelers Predictions: Five Keys to the 2011 Season
It doesn't hurt to get an early start on predicting who the best players will be at the end of the season. The earlier you get into predicting, the tougher your predictions are. That just makes it all the more fun in my opinion.
These are awards for every major category I could think of. I went the safe route on some picks and took a chance on some others. Let me know what you think and who you guys would put in place of my selections.
Stabilize the Offensive Line
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The Pittsburgh Steelers look stronger then ever at three of the offensive line’s five positions.
Chris Kemoeatu is as solid as they come at left guard, and right tackle Willie Colon was considered the team’s best linemen before going down with a ruptured achilles in the 2010 preseason.The only reason he does not retain that title is because of the freak athleticism and veteran instincts of wunderkind center Maurkice Pouncey.
Right guard has been a subject of concern, but the team should be fine there. They were looking at Chris Scott earlier in camp, but it seems Ramon Foster will be the starter. Tony Hills is getting time there as well. Either of the three will be a massive, road-grading run blocker.
The team released both of its starting tackles from the Super Bowl unit, Max Starks and Flozell Adams. In their place are a mixture of veterans with limited experience in Jonathan Scott and Tony Hills, and a big rookie with big upside in Marcus Gilbert. Gilbert started against the Atlanta Falcons, as Scott was out with an injury.
The tackle from Florida came into camp out of shape and out of luck, but a talk from former college teammate Pouncey quickly got the rookie on the right page. In the start against Atlanta, Gilbert impressed, not allowing a sack to one of the NFL’s premier quarterback abusers in John Abraham.
Upgrade the Nickel Package
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If you ask this writer, William Gay should have retired after this play. As it is, he is still the Pittsburgh Steelers’ incumbent nickel cornerback. Could Keenan Lewis finally be the guy to replace him?
With injuries to starting cornerbacks Ike Taylor and Bryant McFadden, Lewis has gotten the rare opportunity to match up against the other teams’ starting quarterbacks and receivers. He has stepped up big with three passes swatted down and one interception in the last two weeks.
Lewis has the size the Steelers covet in their corners: At 6’ 208 lbs, he is not afraid to come up in run support, as he had 14 tackles in those two games alone. Lewis looks like the favorite to push Gay out of the starting job, though it is worth noting that Crezdon Butler was all over the field against the Atlanta Falcons with 18 tackles, two passes defensed, and an interception returned for a touchdown.
Gay has received a lot of flack, but there is another more popular player that should be replaced as well, albeit only in passing downs. Everyone loves James Farrior; coaches, teammates, fans, but with every passing season, the 36-year-old becomes more of a liability in pass coverage.
If second-year man Stevenson Sylvester can step in on third downs, it would be another big win for the pass defense. Sylvester too has looked good in the preseason, as he has 16 tackles, one for a loss, in the last two weeks.
Beat the New England Patriots
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The New England Patriots have long been the Pittsburgh Steelers’ nemesis. Pittsburgh handled every AFC powerhouse throughout the last decade—both in the regular season and the playoffs: The New York Jets, the Indianapolis Colts, and, of course, the hated Baltimore Ravens.
Ever power except the Patriots. Beating the Patriots would go a long way toward locking up the top seed in the AFC, as they would hold the tiebreaker should the conference favorites end up with the identical records at the end of the year.
For the past decade, the marquee midseason matchup has been Colts vs. Patriots. With Manning’s neck on the mend, and the Colts potentially on decline, a match-up between the two teams with half of the past decades’ championships (and two more appearances) could replace that.
Sweep the AFC North
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If the Pittsburgh Steelers do sweep the North, there is only one matchup on the schedule in which the Black and Yellow would not be a heavy favorite: The October 30th match-up against the Patriots.
The Steelers have split the last two regular season series' against the arch-rival Baltimore Ravens, though both losses were without Ben Roethlisberger. Last season’s defeat did not hurt them, but the 2009 overtime loss cost them a playoff berth.
The Cincinnati Bengals are in complete rebuilding mode, and the question should not be if the Steelers beat them, but by how much. On paper, Cleveland should be an easy matchup, too, but with Colt McCoy’s quick trigger and nimble feet, they could be a team that sneaks up on the ‘Burgh.
Sweeping the division would be a huge step toward sealing the AFC’s top seed.
Clinch the Top Seed Early
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The last key should not come as a surprise: It has been hinted at it the last two slides, but that does not downplay its significance.
The Pittsburgh Steelers clinching the top seed has a lot more relevance to their success than merely home field advantage and bragging rights, though those don’t hurt either. No, it comes down to being able to rest their two most important stars: Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu.
Resting Roethlisberger is not as pertinent as resting Polamalu. “Big Ben” has that clunky kind of game where if he can walk he will find a way to be effective. Hell, he played through the end of the regular season and all through the playoffs on a broken foot.
Malu’s game, however, is based on quickness and explosion. As soon as he blew the open field tackle that resulted in a touchdown against Ray Rice and the Ravens, there was no doubt in my mind he was not right; No. 43 may have never missed a tackle like that in his life. The only hope for Steelers fans was that it was the kind of injury a bye week before the Super Bowl could miraculously heal. It didn’t.
Indeed, it took Polamalu’s calf well into the offseason to get right. If Pittsburgh can indeed sweep the division and take out the Pats, they should feel comfortable resting Polamalu for Week 17 or earlier—necessity pending, as all of their final five opponents had losing records in 2010.
A healthy combination of Roethlisberger and Polamalu will make all the difference between completing the mission towards Super Bowl number seven.
Thanks for reading. Feel free to leave a comment thanking me for my work, or calling me an idiot for my thoughts. You can follow Alexander on twitter @thesportsdude7, or become a fan on his bleacher report profile.