Roster Roundouts: A Pittsburgh Steelers Season Preview
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The Pittsburgh Steelers won the super bowl last year. If this article was written by Jeff Chadiha, it would end there.
The Steelers were probably the favorite of the 12 teams who made the playoff field to win it, but considering that all 4 of the teams’ losses were to teams who made the postseason, it’s pretty fortunate that the Steelers road to the playoffs went the way it did. If you assume a 50% probability for any game to be won or lost in the playoffs by any team in the postseason, there was a 7/8 probability that the Steelers would have had to face at least one of the Colts, Titans, Eagles, or Giants. As it worked out, they got to play the Chargers and Ravens, who they had already beaten in the regular season, and the Cardinals in the super bowl, who that had not seen in 2008.
Favorable postseason schedule or not, the Steelers were not a surprise to win their division, nor to do well in the postseason. It was a little surprising that they put it all together, as we generally don’t think of teams who get knocked out in the playoffs in the wild card round as preseason super bowl favorites: yet, in the AFC, the Titans and Steelers were the best two teams in the regular season this past year. The Redskins and Buccaneers weren’t so lucky, although there was a time last year where those two teams looked like the class of the NFC.
The whole year, Steeler detractors were waiting for the other shoe to drop. What would happen when someone FINALLY figured out the Steelers defense. How would they be able to trust an offense that ranked in the 20’s in most categories to come bail out their super bowl hopes?
It didn’t hurt that the defense was dominant into the playoffs as well, but in what should have been a Steelers’ rout on paper, the Cardinals solved the Steelers defense late in the second half. The difference in the game was one play; the James Harrison interception return for touchdown (the for touchdown is such an important part of that equation), and the final, game-clinching drive by Roethlisberger and Santonio Holmes.
The Cardinals more than overcame the talent gap between the teams, and for every play the Steelers made in that game, the Cardinals had an equally impressive play. But the Steelers benefited from leading the whole way until the final three minutes, and being able to drain the clock on a methodical drive to go win the game. That was the ultimate test. And maybe in an alternate dimension, that game ends differently. But, with their backs against the wall, the Steelers won a game in a way they would not have prefered to, but have proved able.
It’s something for the Steelers offense to build on going into 2009, because last year’s effort simply isn’t going to cut it this time around. The passing offense can’t wait until the last five minutes of every game to move the chains. The rushing offense cannot be as painfully ineffective in power situations as it was last year.
The hope is that the latter issue can be solved by Rashard Mendenhall, the second year player out of Illinois who had his season cut short by injury in the season’s fourth week. There’s concern about the legitimacy of Mendenhall pro prospects, just one season after his record-setting campaign in Champaign, he didn’t make much of a dent even before his injury. Mendenhall’s skills are undeniable, but it’s really not a good sign when a player with one pro-prospect type year in college doesn’t do anything as a rookie in the pros. For Mendenhall and his fans, a best case scenario involves his injury being just that, an injury, and he can hit the ground running so to speak this year. 1,300 rushing yards are not out of the question, but if he doesn’t win playing time with 3rd down abilities, it’s hard to imagine him getting even a single start.
The Steelers have an interesting issue, in that their biggest question mark going into the season is who they will have to start…in 2010. The following players are free agents at the end of the season: RB Willie Parker, DT Casey Hampton, DE Brett Keisel, and S Ryan Clark, all starters. The Steelers are theoretically limited in their ability to spend, even in an uncapped year, so Parker and Keisel might be the odd men out. We’ve addressed what the Steelers would like to see from the running back position, so now they need to see rookie DE Ziggy Hood step up and flash some ability as a defensive end.
It’s not like the Steelers to be forced into making some changes, as the team usually beats the free agency system with contract extensions to it’s talented players. In this sense, they are victims of their own success. So much quality talent throughout the defense means that you have to choose to pay James Harrison over a guy like Keisel, or a guy like Polamalu over a guy like Clark, or James Farrior over Larry Foote.
The Steelers should be fine in the long run, but this years’ defense is thinner than the team is used to. Lawrence Timmons will be stepping into the starting lineup finally, and he’s got all the talent in the world, but the team wants to see him improve the run defense. The team lost corner Bryant McFadden in the offseason, and while they’ll be able to field a pair of very good corners, McFadden’s departure thins out the secondary to five good players: Clark and Polamalu at safety; Deshea Townsend, Ike Taylor, and William Gay at corner. It’s not a defense that can suffer injuries like the Ravens did last year, and remain near the top of the league in all categories.
Given that, can the offense be expected to pick up the slack? If Ben Roethlisberger is who we think he is, then yes, we can expect him to rebound from his performance last year. His play in the playoffs was much more in line with who we believe he is, and less like the player he was for most of last year. Secondly, Santonio Holmes did not make the jump as the third year receiver we all expected, but if the playoffs are any indication, he’ll make that jump to a top tier WR this year. Holmes may never be an elite player, but he’s not the next Deion Branch either. Hines Ward is probably staying right at this level of production for another 2-3 years, and it looks like the team found a keeper in WR Mike Wallace in the third round. He’ll win the 3rd WR job if last year’s 2nd rounder Limas Sweed doesn’t win it, but it may only be a matter of time anyway. The odds on Limas Sweed’s Steelers tenure with the Steelers outlasting Hines Ward’s is at even, and dropping every day.
The guy I like is unheralded second TE Matt Speath, who sees the field plenty already, and could replace Heath Miller in the lineup with absolutely no drop off in production. Guys like Speath are the steals who will buffer against players like Mendenhall and Sweed not panning out, should both fail.
The Steelers have issues like any other team, and this team will not be a favorite to repeat as champs, but they actually have a schedule advantage over the Ravens. The pitfalls could include a vastly improved AFC North this year, and a struggling offensive unit being unable to pick up for defensive drop-off. The Steelers’ roster is still talent loaded, but not quite as deep, and being a preseason favorite means nothing come the season. Yet, you look at the AFC North, and the Steelers are the easy pick, not because of who they have been, but who they are.
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As part of their organizational philosophy, the Steelers don’t view their undrafteds as roster longshots, so there’s quite a few with chances to be on the 53-man.
-RB Issac Redman has dominated in the preseason, probably the surprise of camp. His questions have to do with his blocking or receiving, you know, those critical things that keep veteran RBs in the league and young ones out of it.
-WR Brandon Williams has looked good in camp, and might be a front-runner over Shaun McDonald for the 5th WR spot. He was a third round pick of the 49ers in 2006, so he didn’t come from nowhere, but he didn’t play last year. He’s never seen action on a team outside of the NFC West, so he becomes a developmental target on the Steelers. The guy adds value as a punt returner.
-TE David Johnson, a rookie 7th round draft choice from Arkansas State, could join two mammoth tight ends at the position if he can bounce incumbent Sean McHugh from the 53-man roster.
-OT Jason Capizzi has suddenly become a favorite to make the roster as a backup tackle. This is the way the Steelers have chosen to build up their OL, they fixed the starters last year, and they are trying to be patient in developing backups. Capizzi might be verification of their strategy.
-C A.Q. Shipley was a 5th round draft pick who was anointed the center of the future in OTA’s, but his training camp hasn’t gone as planned. The team has signed Alex Stepanovich to provide depth on the interior OL, which means that they’ll stick Shipley on the practice squad if he can’t shape up.
-CBs Keenan Lewis and Joe Burnett are deadlocked in a battle with journeyman Keiwan Ratliff in an attempt to be the guy who wins Bryant McFadden’s spot on the active roster. Lewis, from Oregon State, has the name recognition, and was the third round pick to Burnett’s 5th round pick. The Steelers apparently couldn’t afford to miss, but now they just have to make the right call.
- G Trai Essex
- C A.Q. Shipley
- DE Travis Kirschke
- LB Andre Frazier
- CB Anthony Madison