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2008 NFL Season Previews: #10 Pittsburgh Steelers

August 20, 2008

Division: AFC North
2007 Record: 10-6
Head Coach: Mike Tomlin
Offensive Coordinator: Bruce Arians
Defensive Coordinator: Dick Lebeau

Key Additions:
C Justin Hartwig
RB Rashard Mendenhall
LB Keyaron Fox
Key Losses:
G Alan Faneca
LB Clark Haggans
RS Allen Rossum
TE Jerame Tuman
WR Cedrick Wilson
Breakdown of the offense:
Last season Pittsburgh won their 18th division championship since the NFL-AFL merger. They tied with the Cleveland Browns with a record of 10-6, but won the tie breaker thanks to their two wins over the Browns. Reaching a 19th division crown is going to be a lot tougher in an improved AFC North. The Browns added more pieces while the Steelers didn't do much after adding Rashard Mendenhall in the first round of the draft. They lost the glue of their offensive line, Guard Alan Faneca during free agency to the Jets. All of this to go along with the toughest schedule in the NFL, where their two "wild card' opponents are the Chargers and Patriots. Meaning it will be a tough road for the Steelers to get back to the playoffs.

Last season Mike Tomlin showcased Ben Roethlisberger and their stable of receivers, leading Roethlisberger to 32 touchdown passes and a 104.1 passer rating(both franchise records). Roethlisberger was rewarded with a monster 8 year $102 million dollar deal. Tomlin and Arians unleashed Ben on the league last year, and you can expect them to do it even more this season. Charlie Batch suffered a broken collarbone in the first preseason game, he is expected to miss 4-6 weeks. So the Steelers went out and signed Byron Leftwich to compete with Dennis Dixon for the job as backup to Big Ben.

Willie Parker would have won the NFL rushing title last season if he could have managed to stay healthy. His health will not be an issue this season as he was running 4.4 40s in spring drills and running the ball well in training camp, expect him to vie for the rushing title again this season. He is a productive workhorse who gained 1300 yards on 300+ carries last year, has over 1200 yards rushing in each of the last three seasons, and two Pro Bowl selections vaulting him to the upper tier of running backs in the league. During the draft the Steelers were expected to grab an offensive lineman, but all of the top tier prospects were gone by the 23rd pick. So they drafted Rashard Mendenhall out of Illinois, which changed the dynamic of the offense almost immediately. Allowing them to implore the running back by committee approach. He adds versatility to the backfield and the Steelers will not experience a drop off when Parker needs rest. Carey Russell will be the starting full back. Gary Russell and Mewelde Moore will battle for the 3rd running back spot.

Big Ben wished for a tall receiver and the management delivered by drafting Limas Sweed out of Texas. The 6'4 receiver should fit right in with this fantastic core of receivers. Santonio Holmes has come into his own in the league, developing into a deep threat while averaging 18.1-yards per catch (league leader). Hines Ward has been the most consistent piece of this offense since their Super Bowl run, he is getting older but you can't tell if you watch him play. The future hall of famer is a 4 time pro-bowler and holds all of the franchise career and regular season records for wide receivers.Nate Washington will compete with Sweed for the third wide receiver position. But didn't take advantage of the spot when Sweed wasn't there so don't expect him to now. Heath Miller is a consistent tight-end in the passing game and as a blocker. He is also a favorite of Roethlisberger in the red zone, expect bigger numbers for Miller in 2008. Matt Spath is a fantastic second tight-end, he was having a fantastic rookie season before slowing down towards the end of the season. Spath will be used much more in this pass happy offense.

How will the team play without the centerpiece of their line for the past six seasons? That is the question that has been worrying Steelers fans all off-season. Alan Faneca demanded to be paid like an elite lineman and he deserved it. The Steelers are well known for not ponying up the dough for players, and it usually pays off. But will it this time? It barely did last year after the departure of center Jeff Hartings, the line struggled late last season even with Faneca. So the task of replacing the six-time pro bowler at guard has been given to Chris Kemoeatu, the native of Tonga and former Utah Ute is a 6’3”, 344-pound left guard. He will not replace Faneca this season, but may blossom in time.

Justin Hartwig will be his inside partner, he is a strong, well-sized center at 6’4”, 312. He is mediocre in pass protection, which is partly why he was released after just two seasons in Carolina, one of which was lost to injury. Last year’s starting center, Sean Mahan, is still on the roster but working as a backup to Kemoeatu and Hartwig. Right guard Kendall Simmons is reliable and offers good mobility in the run game.

The Steelers add even more question marks at tackle, where they have four well-sized, mostly qualified players to fill two starting positions: Marvel Smith, Max Starks, Trai Essex and Willie Colon. The questions build due to the fact that all but Colon are in the final year of their contract. Marvel Smith is an outstanding left tackle when healthy, but dealt with back problems last season. Starks held a starting job in his second and third seasons as a pro, but last year he was beat out by the promising Willie Colon. Yet the Steelers still decided to use the transition player tag on him. Colon is an immovable force in pass protection, and should continue to improve as long as he works on his awareness. Essex handled the left side duties in Smith’s absence down the stretch last year. He fought hard but showed too many flaws in his technique.

Breakdown of the defense:
Nose tackle Casey Hampton is a monster in the middle and a big reason why this defense ranks near the top year in and year out. But due to his enormous size endurance and durability are constant struggles. He is joined up front by defensive end Aaron Smith and Brett Kiesel. Smith is coming off of a quiet season where he had only 31 tackles and 2.5 sacks, but can still be effective at times. Kiesel is a very active player but there is nothing extraordinary about him, he is just average.

Larry Foote and James Farrior are expected to be the starting middle linebackers, but Lawrence Timmons may take Foote's spot after being moved from OLB to MLB in his second season. Foote is serviceable and few players can take on blocks as well as him. Farrior at 33 is losing a couple steps but is a very smart linebacker and is always in the right spot. James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley are the starters at OLB. Harrison led the team with 8.5 sacks last season and earned Pro Bowl honors. He got those honors not due to his sacks but mostly to his play in coverage and on run defense.

At the corners are Ike Taylor and Deshea Townshend. Taylor is a fantastic cornerback on the wrong defense, his biggest asset is in man-to-man coverage while the Steelers defense calls for a lot of zone. Deshea Townshend is an enigma, he is consistently inconsistent but hey he has his own tv show. Troy Polamalu is maybe the best strong safety in the league, atleast top three. He had a down year last season because of a bum knee, but he looks healthy and ready to lay the pain on opposing offenses. At free safety is Ryan Clark who lost his spleen and gallbladder to a blood disorder last November. Still, the Steelers think he’s a safer option than Tyrone Carter or Anthony Smith.

Season Outlook:
Before I did this preview I dismissed the Steelers from being a contender, but if their defense can manage to be average they could be dangerous. The offense is stacked at all of the important positions and they can attack you in a lot of different ways. The defense will be fine as long as Polamalu can stay healthy. They may have the toughest schedule in the NFL, but its not that much harder then the schedules of the other teams in their division. I see them winning 11 games and making it to the divisional round of the playoffs. But for the future, they need to start getting younger on defense or they will be average very soon. And if the defense cannot hold up this season, atleast they can watch Desheas' show.

Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 7 vs. Texans 1 p.m. (CBS)
Week 2: Sunday, Sept 14 @ Browns 8:15 p.m. (NBC)
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 21 @ Eagles 4:15 p.m. (CBS)
Week 4: Monday, Sept. 29 vs. Ravens 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 5 @ Jaguars 8:15 p.m. (NBC)
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 12 Bye Week
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 19 @ Bengals 1 p.m. (CBS)
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 26 vs. Giants 4:15 p.m. (FOX)
Week 9: Monday, Nov. 3 @ Redskins 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 9 vs. Colts 4:15 p.m. (CBS)
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 16 vs. Chargers 4:15 p.m. (CBS)
Week 12: Thursday, Nov. 20 vs. Bengals 8:15 p.m. (NFL Network)
Week 13: Sunday, Nov. 30 @ Patriots 4:15 p.m. (CBS)
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 7 vs. Cowboys 4:15 p.m. (FOX)
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 14 @ Ravens 1 p.m .(CBS)
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 21 @ Titans 1 p.m. (CBS)
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 28 vs. Browns 1 p.m. (CBS)


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