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Balancing Atop the Steel Beam

The Pittsburgh Steelers, winners of two of the last five Super Bowls, have fallen. Can they get up? Off field incidents have become commonplace over the last couple years. Linebacker James Harrison (alleged battery of his girlfriend), receiver Cedrick Wilson (gun-shooting girlfriend), kicker Jeff Reed (assault of a Sheetz paper towel dispenser, confrontation with Pittsburgh Police along with TE Matt Spaeth), and offensive line coach Larry Zierlein (email list of graphic sex video to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and other league officials).

The media is now focused on Ben Roethlisberger and Santonio Holmes, and rightly so. What's gotten into the Super Bowl XLIII winning tandem? What's gotten into the Steelers?

Pittsburgh looks like a team in trouble, on the field as well as off. Roethlisberger's ability to wing it when he has to covered up a lot of problems. First, the offensive line is dreadful. Certainly Big Ben contributes to their issues by scrambling like Fran Tarkenton, but he wouldn't have to risk life and limb if his blockers blocked. A pocket passer would get crushed, somebody like Charlie Batch, if he had to play behind Pittsburgh's inconsistent line. Dennis Dixon, and his blazing speed, might come to the forefront in 2010, but his play might be too one-dimensional and schemable by better defenses.   

Second, Santonio Holmes might not have the flashy 1000-yard receiving totals like so many do, but he made the big catches time after time for Pittsburgh. Holmes snagged the disputed game-winner in Baltimore two seasons ago and has come up big time and time again. It says something that the Steelers could get nothing better than a fifth-round pick for him, however. He's a big play receiver. Who is going to take his place. Right now the team has Mike Wallace and Hines Ward at receiver. Limas Sweed? Please. The Steelers like to spread it out but have no one to throw it to (and possibly no one to throw it). Tight end Heath Miller could see an increased share of looks, but he's already taxed as one of the team's few good blockers. Hopefully Antwaan Randle El and Arnaz Battle have something left in the tank, but neither is in the class of Holmes.

Rashard Mendenhall better not do anything stupid between now and September.

And that's just on offense. Troy Polamalu turns 29 in four days and there are no guarantees his knee issues ever go away (in addition to his five concussions). Steelers management has allowed him to train aside from the team, but maybe that's sending mixed signals to his teammates. I don't think they'll make Polamalu come to Pittsburgh, but he does get special treatment. The defensive line is comprised of players over 30, except for 2009 No. 1 pick Ziggy Hood. He better mature in a hurry. The linebacking crew is in such flux that the team brought back Larry Foote after a year in exile with Detroit because Lawrence Timmons can't call defensive signals. James Farrior is 35 and has lost a few steps. And that doesn't touch upon a secondary that was routinely torched in 2009 and is generally acknowledged as the weakest link. Pittsburgh's got 11 picks in next week's draft. Director Kevin Colbert better be burning the midnight oil right about now.

When a team loses to Kansas City, Oakland and Cleveland, you know you have problems. And that was before the 2009 offseason ever began. Coach Mike Tomlin's contract runs out at the end of 2010 and questions have arisen about his ability to motivate his players? Did he lose control in 2009? Chances are he'll get extended, but the team has made it a policy to extend coaches two years before their deals run out and so far nothing's happened.

Now, the Steelers have had three coaches since 1969, but one wonders about the direction of the franchise and the faith it has in Tomlin.

It doesn't look to get any easier with Pittsburgh's Super Bowl core players aging while other AFC North teams seem to be on the upswing.  There's a real chance the 2010 season turns out to be longer than the current offseason. As Steelers coach Chuck Noll once said: "We have many problems and they are great." Personally, I'm sick of seeing Roethlisberger in suits instead of his uni and the season's still four months away.