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Roster Roundouts ’10: A Pittsburgh Steelers Season Preview

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Pittsburgh Steelers (projected finish: 12-4)

Team synopsis: The Steelers are quarterback-less for the first four games of the season.  Kind of.  There’s a mini-QB competition brewing in Steelers camp between Byron Leftwich and third year developmental prospect Dennis Dixon to start these four games.  It’s not really a competition in that Leftwich has already been named the starter for these games, but Dixon could find himself as the no. 2 QB when Roethlisberger comes back if Leftwich doesn’t play well.  Regardless of if the Steelers start 2-2, 3-1, or 4-0, there are going to be a lot of wins this season for this team, who can stretch the field with the best of them.  And, oh yeah, that defense will be back.

Best Players

  • QB Ben Roethlisberger (suspended 4-6 games) (drafted — Miami (OH)/2004 1st round pick)
  • RB Rashard Mendenhall (drafted — Illinois/2008 1st round pick)
  • WR Hines Ward (drafted — Georgia/1998 3rd round pick)
  • TE Heath Miller (drafted — Virginia/2005 1st round pick)
  • NT Casey Hampton (drafted — Texas/2001 1st round pick)
  • LB James Harrison (signed — Kent State/2001 undrafted free agent)
  • LB Lamarr Woodley (drafted — Michigan/2007 2nd round pick)
  • S Troy Polamalu (drafted — USC/2003 1st round pick)
  • S Ryan Clark (signed — Washington/2006 free agent)

Best Prospects

  • QB Dennis Dixon (drafted — Oregon/2008 5th round pick)
  • WR Mike Wallace (drafted — Ole Miss/2009 4th round pick)
  • WR Emmanuel Sanders (drafted — SMU/2010 3rd round pick)
  • C/RG Maurkice Pouncey (drafted — Florida/2010 1st round pick)
  • DE Ziggy Hood (drafted — Missouri/2009 1st round pick)
  • LB Jason Worilds (drafted — Virginia Tech/2010 2nd round pick)
  • LB Thaddeus Gibson (drafted — Ohio State/2010 4th round pick)

Dennis Dixon is in an odd, but favorable, place for a developmental quarterback.  He’s behind Ben Roethlisberger, a franchise quarterback who has both lead great offenses and super bowl teams (though strangely never in the same year).  But Roethlisberger has worn patience in Pittsburgh away to the point where neither of his super bowl rings can shield him from criticism for his behavior or his play.  He may have an $100 million contract, but he’s in the third year of that deal, and when base salaries start to get expensive, Roethlisberger will have to remain a good soldier and an even better quarterback to justify that kind of money after 2010.  Carson Palmer and Joe Flacco aren’t the only AFC North quarterbacks on the hot seat in 2010.

Roethlisberger’s career has been wildly inconsistent.  He’s played six NFL seasons and has started 86 NFL games.  Only twice has he thrown more than 18 TDs in a season.  Those years, he threw 32 and 26 TDs.  He failed to complete 60% of his passes two separate years, this despite being a 63.3% career passer.  The only constant in Ben’s career is that he gets sacked at Carrian rates.  In many ways, Roethlisberger’s career was in the basement between 2006 and 2008.  He won a super bowl at the end of those seasons, but Ben is a career 6.7 NYPA guy, and his NYPA figures declined each year from 2005 through 2008, first to 6.3, then 6.2, then a below league average 5.9.  But in 2009, for all the off the field trouble he caused, Ben Roethlisberger had his best season on the field since he was a complementary part on the 2005 super bowl team, and considering he was the best player on the offense this year, it was probably his best season in his career.

The tricky part is, Roethlisberger’s best years would seem to be two to four years in his future.  And Dennis Dixon’s best years would seem to be beyond that.  Yet, there’s a realistic scenario where Leftwich and Roethlisberger are elsewhere in 2011, and Dixon is the Steelers quarterback.  I’m not sure that even in that situation, that Dixon is a long term solution, but that scenario gives credence to a 2010 QB competition that otherwise would not be one.

That’s because Byron Leftwich is a much better quarterback than he’s given credit for.  Leftwich was below average in three starts last season, but much better than you would think: he did, after all, put up 41 points against Dallas and Buffalo.  And while a zero spot against the Giants the following week got him benched, Leftwich made only one crucial mistake in that game, or about five less than the Tampa secondary.  Before last season, he was a well-above backup QB for the Steelers, following a short, mildly successful career as the Jags starting quarterback.  The only year Leftwich ranked as a below average passer between 2004 and 2009 was in 2007, when he was released by the Jags before the first game, and signed with the hapless Falcons, where he was badly outplayed by Joey Harrington.  He was acquired in the offseason for a 7th round pick.

Whoever quarterbacks the Steelers this year can simply hand the ball to Rashard Mendenhall.  Mendenhall rushed for 1108 yards on 242 carries (4.6 YPC average) in 2009, which, if you are keeping count is 400+ yards more than Felix Jones had last year, and Jones went one pick before Mendenhall in the 2008 draft.  He’s also a gifted receiver out of the backfield, with 25 receptions last year that went for more than 260 receiving yards.  Perhaps the best part of a Rashard Mendenall carry is that the play almost never results in a Ben Roethlisberger sack.  While Mewelde Moore has long been an undervalued third down back, and he will likely carry the no. 2 RB role this year, most fans are excited to see how 6th round pick Jonathon Dwyer does in the backfield this year.  Dwyer can play a FB/HB combo role, and his upside looks something like Baltimore’s LeRon McClain.  He’s an upback in the I-backfield, but also has vast experience playing out of a singleback look for the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.

The receivers are the strength of the offense.  Santonio Holmes has been jettisoned, some think, for Ben Roethlisbergers indiscretions.  Holmes was moved for Holmes’ mistakes.  If a double standard exists, it’s because Roethlisberger is an $100 million quarterback, and Holmes is a receiver on his rookie contract.  Not because of a preference for an alleged rapist over a pain-in-the-ass with an assault charge and a marijuana possession charge.  There was just little indication that the Steelers were going to keep Holmes beyond this year.  Like Roethlisberger, Holmes has been inconsistent.  Unlike Roethlisberger, he didn’t rebound to have a great 2009 season.  Hines Ward is nothing if not a consistent pro bowl performer.  He’s a card holding member of the “Tony Gonzalez age curve” club, which means that Ward’s 2010 season should look like his 2004, 2006, and 2008 seasons.  He’s the same player.

But what gets you excited about the Steelers is a prospect like Mike Wallace, the second year player out of Ole Miss who was outstanding last season.  He was one of three Pittsburgh receivers with better than 200 receiving DYAR, and did his damage in about half the attempts of Holmes and Ward.  This year he will be more targeted, and better covered.  The Steelers like the upside of their third round pick, Emmanuel Sanders, but I’m more excited about the potential of Antonio Brown, a three year starter at CMU who is just 21 years old, can return punts, and could beat out Arnaz Battle for a spot on the Steelers.  Another dependable target, Antwaan Randle El returns to the team after four mostly productive years in Washington — unless you want to talk about the punt returns (let’s not).

Heath Miller returns as the tight end.  Matt Speath is the other blocking tight end, but I’m guessing we’re going to see less of him.  The Steelers run a lot of three WR stuff, and even when they do run two TEs, David Johnson is the tight end who adds another element to the passing game.  It will be interesting whether Johnson’s downfield ability allows him to get more yards this year than Miller, as he certainly will not be targeted more often.

The running game with Mendenhall should assist Flozell Adams, who replaces the injured Willie Colon at RT, to feel like he still belongs in the NFL.  Adams is at his best when going forward — and when his offense “goes on one.”  In the Steelers preseason opener, he let Lions DE Cliff Avril run right around him for a vicious sack on Leftwich.  Right now, Trai Essex is another weak Steelers lineman placeholding at RG until Maurkice Pouncey is deemed ready to take over at that position.  Chris Kemoeatu is solid when healthy at LG, Max Starks can handle the LT position, and I think Jeff Hartwig is better than he gets credit for at Center, at least since coming over from Carolina.  The weakness here is on the right side, where Pouncey seems close to ready to jump in.

The big question on defense is the three guys up front.  Casey Hampton got an extension to remain the nose, and he’s got the best backup nose in the league in Chris Hoke, who has been backing up Hampton professionally for seven years now.  Aaron Smith is still a top 3-4 defensive end, but has now suffered season ending injuries in two of the last three seasons.  Ziggy Hood is next in line to get his shot.  Brett Keisel, another veteran, plays on the opposite side, with Scott Paxson holding a utility role on the DL  Hood is the entire concept of youth on this defensive front, so it will be interesting to see what becomes of 7th round pick Doug Worthington (Ohio State), in a direct competition with Nick Eason — who was brought back for depth purposes — for the last spot on the roster.  This seems to be the most settled position from a roster standpoint (even if the production is the largest question mark), so this is a classic case of veterans placeholding until the youngsters are ready.

The Steelers also graduate their linebackers from the bench to the starting lineup.  This year, it’s Lawrence Timmons moving on up, starting alongside James Farrior, and being pushed from behind by Larry Foote, back after a one year trip to the Lions.  Fourth round pick Thaddeus Gibson might not have tremendous upside, but can play either inside or outside after playing DE for the Buckeyes last year.  Second round pick Jason Worilds is a player who the Steelers are really excited about, as he was taken to be the replacement for James Harrison two or three years from now.  There’s a spot on the roster at ILB for both Keyaron Fox and Stevenson Sylvester, but Patrick Bailey was impressive last year in limited time, so for Sylvester, this is his best chance to prove he belongs in the NFL.

Troy Polamalu is back, and with Ed Reed not quite back, this changes the landscape of the AFC North more than any suspension to Roethlisberger.  Polamalu and Ryan Clark make the best safety duo in the NFL, and after adding Will Allen from Tampa Bay, they also have the best 1-2-3 punch at safety of any NFL team.  Corner is still a little think behind Ike Taylor, but the Steelers traded for Bryant McFadden from Arizona just one year after he signed a multi-year deal with Arizona to leave Pittsburgh.  Joe Burnett played well last year by most measures, but William Gay really did not.

Fighting for a spot on the roster

Roethlisberger’s suspension throws an issue into the quarterback situation with regards to keeping Charlie Batch.  Batch served as the second QB since 2006, following Tommy Maddox’ release.  He was on IR all of 2008, and played a little bit in the loss at Kansas City last year, but left that game with an injury and was placed on IR again.  Roethlisberger’s suspension triggered the Leftwich trade, and unless they keep four QBs, Leftwich is getting Batch’s roster spot.  However, if there was ever a circumstance for keeping 4 QBs, a four game suspension to your franchise QB would be it.  That, or having Jon Gruden as your head coach.

The Steelers will keep four RBs, nominally, at least.  The fourth is Stefan Logan, who is the team’s return specialist.  He wears number 11.  The only fullback on the roster is Dwayne Wright, a second year back from Fresno State.

If Brown and Battle are, uh, competing for the same spot, that might give Brandon London an opening to make the team as a fourth or fifth receiver.  But Battle might be on the team regardless, depending on his role.  In that case, if the Steelers keep Brown, there is no room for London.

Trying to figure out who will be a backup Steeler lineman is difficult.  Essex/Pouncey is obvious.  The team’s backup Center, Doug Legursky, isn’t as critical now that Pouncey, who played Center in college, is capable of sliding over due to injury.  He’ll probably still make it.  Between those 2.5 backups, they can cover the entire right side of the line.  Kraig Urbik, a third round pick of two years ago, is very much on the bubble, and could lose his spot to veteran Adrian Jones, or just to another position.  Then with room for up to two tackles, the Steelers have to choose between Tony Hills, Ramon Foster, Jonathon Scott, and 5th round pick Chris Scott out of Tennessee.  I feel Chris Scott would have to be very good to make the roster, because Jonathon Scott was a higher pick of two years ago, Foster can play inside, and Tony Hills was a higher pick just two years ago.

Crezdon Butler, the team’s fourth round pick out of Clemson, was almost certainly taken with fixing the CB situation in mind.  If he starts his career as the fifth corner, William Gay would battle to hold the nickel position, and hold of Joe Burnett.  Then either Keenan Lewis or Gay would be the release that opens a spot for Butler on the Steelers pressure-first defense.  Ryan Mundy has the inside track as the fourth safety, and the backup for Will Allen, should he have to play.  Competition for Mundy may come in the form of undrafted rookies Da’Mon Cromartie-Smith, and/or Justin Thornton.  Yes, there are more Cromartie’s in this world than you thought.

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