STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
Coming off a Super Bowl-winning season and having one of the more favorable schedules in the league, the playoffs were expected to be a foregone conclusion for the 2009 Steelers. When Troy Polamalu was injured in Week 1, though, you had an inkling things wouldn't be easy. The team lost its next two games but responded with five straight wins - punctuated with victories over the 6-1 Broncos and 6-0 Vikings. However, Polamalu was re-injured in Week 10 - never to see the field again in 2009 - and a five-game losing streak ensued. Lowlights were losses to Cleveland, K.C. and Oakland. The season ended with three straight wins, but the damage was done, and Pittsburgh missed the playoffs for the first time under coach Mike Tomlin.
Off the gridiron, the team didn't fare much better. Kicker Jeff Reed exchanged blows with a paper towel dispenser in February of '09 and was issued another disorderly conduct citation in October. A pending suspension for Santonio Holmes resulted in his trade to the Jets for a fifth round pick - after leading the team and finishing seventh in the league in receiving yards last season. Then, with a sexual assault allegation already in tow, Ben Roethlisberger's conduct in Georgia cast an even murkier shadow on himself. He was reportedly shopped prior to the draft, but it appears no team wanted to pony up enough to acquire a troubled two-time Super Bowl winning QB facing a suspension. How he will respond to his troubles, on and off the field, is of major concern heading into the 2010 campaign.
The coaching staff has its share of issues as well. Despite the achievements of the offense (first season in franchise history with a 4,000 yard passer, two 1,000 yards receivers and a 1,000 yard rusher), offensive coordinator Bruce Arians was told to run the ball more this year. He was expected to be fired during the offseason and needs to comply if wants to remain in Pittsburgh. Speaking of coaches, it's crucial for Tomlin to start righting the ship, since he will soon be looking for an extension. A rebound by the defense is vital to that end. The Steelers blew fourth-quarter leads in five of their seven losses in 2009; unacceptable for a team that prides itself on defense. Perhaps in hopes of trying to rekindle some old magic, the team brought back former starters Larry Foote and Bryant McFadden.
The Steelers will have a tough enough task at hand in trying to get back to the playoffs with their star quarterback on the sidelines to start the season, but perhaps more importantly, this is a proud franchise that will be looking to rebuild its image in the wake of unfortunate off-field events that have shook its foundation.
Round, Overall, Player
2. (52) Jason Worilds, LB, Virginia Tech-Strong pass rusher should provide young depth to the linebacking corps.
3. (82) Emmanuel Sanders, WR, SMU-Slightly built but speedy. Might see return work as he develops as a playmaker.
4. (116) Thaddeus Gibson, DE, Ohio State-Decent pass rusher will be converted to OLB in Pittsburgh.
5. (151) Chris Scott, OT, Tennessee-Can play either guard or tackle.
5. (164) Crezdon Butler, CB, Clemson-Has a decent motor but struggles in run support.
5. (166) Stevenson Sylvester, LB, Utah-More depth at the linebacker position.
6. (188) Jonathan Dwyer, RB, Georgia Tech-Stock fell significantly for a few reasons. Low risk in sixth round, though.
6. (195) Antonio Brown, WR, Central Michigan-Another receiver who might help with returns.
7. (242) Doug Worthington, DT, Ohio State-Steelers think he'd be a better fit at DE.
Antwaan Randle El, WR (Redskins) Can help out in a few areas but not a fantasy force.
Byron Leftwich, QB (Buccaneers) Brought back to help out in the wake of Roethlisberger's suspension.
Santonio Holmes, WR (Jets) His baggage won't be missed but his team-high 1,248 receiving yards will be.
Willie Parker, RB (Redskins) Became not-so-fast Willie due to injuries last few seasons. Just eight total TDs over his last 40 games.
Deshea Townsend, CB (FA) 12-year vet started just six games over the last two seasons.
HANDOFF TO MENDENHALL
When the 2009 season ended, owner Art Rooney Jr. said that he and coach Mike Tomlin agreed they neded to emphasize running the ball more consistently "to get where they want to go to" in 2010. Dial up Rashard Mendenhall, who replaced Willie Parker as the starter and finished with over 1,300 yards from scrimmage and eight total touchdowns. Is he up to the task of taking on a bigger role? He had less than 20 carries in seven of the 13 games in which he started, but that likely won't be the case in 2010. Mewelde Moore and Jonathan Dwyer are in the backfield mix but not really threats to create a true time-share situation. Dwyer, depending on his adjustment to the pro level, might however provide a boost in short-yardage situations.
How will Mike Wallace fare in an expanded role in the offense? The rookie did well as the Steelers' No. 3 receiver last year, averaging 19.4 yards per catch. His limited role and fast feet helped him get behind DBs focusing on Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes and Heath Miller. Now that Holmes is out of the picture and Wallace steps up to the split-end plate, he'll need to adjust to more attention from defenses. Keep in mind that the team will be without Ben Roethlisberger for at least a quarter of the season (possibly six games), so the passing attack will likely be dialed back a few notches in those games.
CAN POLAMALU'S KNEE HOLD UP?
The Steelers were 4-0 with Polamalu in the lineup (not counting the loss to Cincy in Week 10 since he played just the opening series) and 5-7 without him. Pittsburgh gave up just 12.8 points per game in his four appearances but allowed a 10-point differential (22.8 PPG) in the 12 games he was absent. Their No. 1 rank against the pass in 2008 (156 yards per game, 12 touchdowns allowed) dropped to 16th last year (215 yards per game, 22 touchdowns). His injury was not the only reason for Pittsburgh's defensive struggles (losing Aaron Smith for all but five games was also a big factor), but you cannot deny his absence on the field affected both the secondary and linebackers. The defense may not bounce back to their 2008 levels, but a healthy Polamalu could at least help get it closer.
CAN THE TEAM STAY CLEAN OFF THE FIELD?
With multiple off-field incidents this past year, the Rooneys seem to be fed up with the resulting hit on the franchise's image. There is talk that the team issued a zero-tolerance policy for poor behavior off the field and though Tomlin said that doesn't really exist, you have to expect that the team will not treat any poor off-field behavior lightly going forward.
Rising: A shift back to a run-oriented approach and a depleted passing game works in Rashard Mendenhall's favor. Can he handle the load?
Declining: Ben Roethlisberger was bound to lose value even before the suspension. No Holmes and more running was bad enough. Missing at least four games puts an even bigger hurt on his numbers.
Supersleeper: Jonathan Dwyer could be a draft steal if he adjusts quickly and can help out around goal line.
Troy Polamalu, S INT in three of four games in 2009. His presence is crucial to the chemistry of the team's defense.
Lamarr Woodley, LB Career-high 13.5 sacks last season bested James Harrison for the team lead.
James Harrison, LB Had 10 sacks last year, and wound up recording none over his last six games, as he blitzed less.
RotoWire Rank: 2