By Rick Kinigson
STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
Although the Steelers' 2010 season ended in disappointment, the campaign was actually quite impressive considering they were without Ben Roethlisberger for the first four games (suspension). They lost only four games, won their 20th division title since 1970 and made it to their third Super Bowl in six years. The question is can they do it again, or is their too much rust on the Steel Curtain?
Pittsburgh did not make a huge splash in the free-agent market, focusing instead on re-signing their own players and working to get under the salary cap. They signed all seven of their draft picks, and re-signed Willie Colon, Jonathan Scott, Ike Taylor, Mewelde Moore and Daniel Sepulveda.
Offensively, Pittsburgh is an above average team, having scored 23 points per game over the past two seasons. In 2010, the Steelers ranked 14th in passing (225 yard per game) and 11th in rushing (121 yards per game), and have an exciting young nucleus of fantasy players led by Rashard Mendenhall and Mike Wallace. And, of course, they have Roethlisberger, who averaged 267 passing yards per game, for a full season.
One area of concern was pass protection, and the offensive line was decimated by injuries last season. Head Coach Mike Tomlin and the front office quickly addressed this need, grabbing Florida tackle Marcus Gilbert in the second round of the draft. The Steelers may need to push him in to action quickly, with Scott, Colon and Chris Kemoeatu all dinged.
Another big concern is the age of the defense, with five of the front seven starters age 32 or older. But that was also a source of concern last season, and there was no drop-off in production on defense. The Steelers' linebackers are some of the best in the league with James Harrison on hand and the emergence of Lawrence Timmons, and the secondary was led by Defensive Player of the Year Troy Polamalu. Defensive end Aaron Smith's season-ending triceps injury allowed for increased playing time for Ziggy Hood, and the Steelers hope they get the same type of performance from first-round draft pick Cam Heyward this season.
Despite having the top-ranked defense in the league, the Steelers were exposed in the Super Bowl when Green Bay spread the field and forced the cornerbacks into single coverage. Fortunately, the team resigned Taylor, as Bryant McFadden and William Gay are barely serviceable and were often picked on by opposing offenses.
The previous two times the Steelers made it the Super Bowl -- after the 2005 and 2008 seasons -- they missed the playoffs the following year. But under Tomlin's leadership, Pittsburgh has the talent to make another run at the Super Bowl in 2011.
Round, Overall, Player
1. (31) Cameron Heyward, DT, Ohio State
The number one ranked defense stockpiles talent for the future.
2. (63) Marcus Gilbert, OL, Florida
Gives Roethlisberger much needed time in the pocket.
3. (95) Curtis Brown, DB, Texas
Nice combination of size, speed and athleticism.
4. (128) Cortez Allen, DB, Citadel
Could be used in nickel and dime packages.
5. (162) Chris Carter, LB, Fresno State
All he does is catch...oh, wait, wrong guy. Likely to only see special teams action.
6. (196) Keith Williams, OL, Nebraska
Outstanding work ethic.
7. (232) Baron Batch, RB, Texas Tech
Re-signing of Mewelde Moore may limit his opportunities this season.
John Gilmore, TE (FA - TB)
Former back-up to Kellen Winslow is now back-up to Heath Miller.
Antwaan Randle El, WR (FA)
Considering the health issues of Hines Ward and Emmanuel Sanders, this move speaks volumes regarding his declining skills and attitude.
Flozell Adams, OT (FA)
There's always the chance Pittsburgh will re-sign Adams, who provided veteran leadership that is difficult to replace.
Max Starks, OT (FA)
Although is started just seven games last year (neck), Starks played well when healthy.
TRUE FRIENDS STAB YOU IN THE FRONT!
James Harrison, the most-fined player in the NFL last season, "apologized" to teammates for criticizing Ben Roethlisberger and Rashard Mendenhall in an interview that appeared in Men's Journal this August. "That's all behind us. Those comments were taken out of context with a long conversation. It's not anything I haven't talked to those guys about or my teammates about," said Harrison. "Any comments that I made that offended anyone, I apologize." Although the apology appears to be somewhat insincere, Harrison's off-the-field remarks are consistent with his on-the-field style of play of delivering hits to the head and attacking defenseless players. Fortunately for Big Ben and Mendenhall, Harrison's attacks were only verbal.
WILL BIG BEN GET HIS CLOCK CLEANED?
Aside from the bruising Ben Roethlisberger's reputation took last season, he has been sacked 82 times in his last 27 regular-season games. Ouch! The Steelers must do a better job of protecting him, and have opted to wipe the board clean by releasing their two starting tackles from last season, Max Starks and Flozell Adams. This is nothing new for Pittsburgh, who managed to make it to the Super Bowl last season with only one of the team's original starters. Despite this, the line still allowed Rashard Mendenhall to run for 1,273 regular season yards, while Roethlisberger had arguably the best season of his career, throwing for 17 touchdowns and 3,200 yards in only 12 regular season games. The biggest difference in Roethlisberger's performance was that he threw only five interceptions. There are many reasons for this, but the play of the offensive line in front of him was a big part of it.
Chris Kemoeatu (despite his tendency for holding) is ingrained as the team's left guard, and Maurkice Pouncey and Ramon Foster continue to develop. The team saw many good things from Doug Legursky however, with Starks gone, an inconsistent Jonathan Scott returns to handle the crucial blindside protector role. If second-round pick Marcus Gilbert can make the transition to the professional level, he could potentially see significant time at guard or tackle.
WE KNOW THEY CAN RUN, BUT WHO WILL CATCH?
Mendenhall left. Mendenhall right. Mendenhall up the middle. We may be seeing that a lot this season, since the Steelers have some potential issues at wide receiver. Hines Ward (thumb surgery) and Emmanuel Sanders (multiple foot surgeries), combined with the failure (or lack of interest) to sign any free-agent receivers (translation: Plaxico Burress), may give Antonio Brown an opportunity to show what he can do. If not, the Steelers will need to find someone else, either on their roster to through free agency, or the days of "Ground Chuck" may be back in Pittsburgh.
Rising: Ben Roethlisberger put up solid numbers in 2010, even after missing four games. If the O-line gives him time, his performance should be even better, in line with his 2009 campaign (4,328 yards, 26 touchdowns, 12 interceptions).
Declining: Hines Ward is still dependable, but turned 35 this year and, for the first time, has experienced off-the-field distractions.
Sleeper: Antonio Brown has the opportunity to surpass Ward and Sanders as the No. 2 option in the passing game.
Supersleeper: Isaac Redman averaged 4.8 yards per carry (compared to 3.9 for Rashard Mendenhall). With little else on the roster, Redman would benefit if Mendenhall is injured.
Lawrence Timmons, LB
Timmons is undersized, but has the athleticism to become a pass rushing force.
James Harrison, LB
Harrison creates turnovers, and appears healthy following offseason back surgery.
Troy Polamalu, S
Polamalu is productive when on the field, but his style of play makes him an injury risk.
RotoWire Rank: 1