Steelers

2010 NFL Preview: Pittsburgh Steelers

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Between now and the September 9th season kick-off, Hank Koebler, IV will be previewing all the NFL teams with new teams being released daily.

2009 Season Breakdown

2009 final record (overall, division): 9-7, 2-4
Division finish: 3rd AFC North
Offensive rank (Points, Total Yards, Passing Yards, Rushing Yards): 12th, 7th, 9th, 19th
Defensive rank (Points, Total Yards, Passing Yards, Rushing Yards): 13th, 5th, 16th, 3rd

2009 Individual Statistical Leaders

Rushing: Rashard Mendenhall, 1,108 yards, 7 TD; Willie Parker, 389 yards, 0 TD
Passing: Ben Roethlisberger, 4,328 yards, 26 TD, 12 INT
Receiving: Santonio Holmes, 1,248 yards, 5 TD; Hines Ward, 1,167 yards, 6 TD; Heath Miller, 789 yards, 6 TD; Mike Wallace, 756 yards, 6 TD
Tackles: William Gay, 70 total tackles; James Farrior, 68 total tackles, Ryan Clark, 68 total tackles
Sacks: LaMarr Woodley, 13.5 sacks, James Harrison, 10 sacks
Interceptions: Troy Polamalu, 3 INT, 0 TD; Ryan Clark, 3 INT, 0 TD; Tyrone Carter, 2 INT, 1 TD; Keyaron Fox, 1 INT, 1 TD

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2010 Season Outlook

Schedule
(* denotes division game)

Key Matchups

September 26 at Tampa Bay: The other three teams the Steelers face in their four-game opening stretch are all legitimate Super Bowl contenders, so Pittsburgh will likely start off 0-4 without Ben Roethlisberger if they lose to the Buccaneers. While at first glimpse, a Tampa Bay victory in this game might seem laughable, it's actually a real possibility. The Steelers' offensive line already wasn't the greatest, but the season-ending injury to Willie Colon makes this line even weaker. Quarterback Byron Leftwich is very immobile in the pocket and has an incredibly slow release, which means the results are disastrous when he plays behind a struggling offensive line as he did in Atlanta in 2007 and Tampa Bay in 2009. With the drafting of rookie defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price, the Buccaneers could establish permanent residence in Pittsburgh's backfield, making a long day for Leftwich.

October 31 at New Orleans: It's possible that this is Roethlisberger's third game back from suspension, but it could even be his first game back, depending on Roger Goodell's discretion. Either way, Roethlisberger cannot show any rust whatsoever against the defending Super Bowl champions. While it might already be too late at this point for Pittsburgh to make a playoff run, a win against the Saints would make a huge statement that the Steelers aren't ready to start playing for draft picks just yet. However, the Steelers' chances of winning this game are one hundred and ten percent dependent on Roethlisberger having a breakout game and making his depleted line and receiving corps look good.

November 21 vs. Oakland: While this sounds like an easy win for the the Steelers, it should be remembered that the Raiders actually won when the two teams squared off in 2009. This offseason, the Raiders got a lot better, while the Steelers got a lot worse with the trade of Santonio Holmes and the season-ending injury to Willie Colon. On paper, this actually gives the Raiders the edge. On the field, the Raiders will have to establish a passing attack led by Jason Campbell to cause the Steelers' defense to back off of the run. If this can happen, the Raiders can beat Pittsburgh, which would be a major blow to the swagger of the 2008 season's Super Bowl champions.

Key Losses

Ben Roethlisberger, QB (4-6 games); Santonio Holmes, WR; Willie Colon, RT (season-ending injury); Willie Parker, RB

Key Returning Players

Dennis Dixon, QB; Troy Polamalu, SS; Casey Hampton, NT; LaMarr Woodley, LB; Hines Ward, WR; Rashard Mendenhall, RB

Key Draft Picks

Maurkice Pouncey, C; Chris Scott, OT; Emmanuel Sanders, WR

Key Free Agent Signings

Antwaan Randle El, WR; Will Allen, FS; Larry Foote, LB

Key Acquisitions via Trade

Byron Leftwich, QB; Bryant McFadden, CB

Offensive Overview

Right tackle Willie Colon's ruptured Achilles tendon might have killed the Steelers' slim playoff hopes for this year. In order to win while quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is suspended, Pittsburgh needed to be able to establish a running game, which is something they haven't been able to do consistently since the retirement of Jerome Bettis. None of the Steelers' linemen blew defenders off the ball in the run game last year, but Colon was definitely the best run-blocker of the group, and was going to be looked to as the most vital player in the Steelers' running game. With his injury, right guard Trai Essex will probably move to right tackle, while rookie Maurkice Pouncey starts at right guard. Justin Hartwig will continue to start at center, but he often gets pushed back into the pocket too easily. Left guard Chris Kemoeatu is a big man lacking both strength and athleticism. Left tackle Max Starks can hold his own in pass protection, but wasn't anything special last year either. After the injury to Willie Colon, the Steelers pursued former Dallas Cowboy Flozell Adams, but Adams's asking price was too high. Instead, they just recently signed Adrian Jones to shore up their line, but he played ten games in 2008 and was out of football in 2009, so his impact will be limited to providing depth.

As mentioned above in the Tampa Bay matchup description, Byron Leftwich, who is expected to start in lieu of Roethlisberger, is going to get hit a lot, and with his injury history it is likely he won't be able to stay healthy for four games behind the Steelers' offensive line. For this reason, Dennis Dixon will probably be relied on heavily if Leftwich goes down, which could be good or bad. It could be good because Dixon's mobility would completely change the offense, for the better. He is faster than the Titans' Vince Young, and his speed means that defenses have to play one or two men to spy him, thus freeing up room in the passing game. If defenses try to contain Dixon's arm and his legs, then there will be a lot more room left for running back Rashard Mendenhall, who cracked the 1,000-yard mark last year after a disappointing rookie season in 2008. The downside to this is that Dixon's release point is incredibly low, which was the main cause of his costly interception in overtime in his first career start. However, the Steelers' best bet for this season might be to put Dixon in the starting lineup and allow him to develop in action. Given the state of the Steelers' offensive line and receiving corps, this might be the best choice even when Roethlisberger is available to play. He's always had a bad habit of holding on to the ball for far too long in order to extend the play, and while that style led to amazing highlight-reel moments from time to time, it also resulted in an unnecessarily high number of negative plays for the offense. Now that the offensive line has gotten even worse, Roethlisberger's performance is going to suffer quite a bit of a drop when he comes back, and he has a worrisome concussion history that could cause him to miss significant time playing behind the Steelers' line as well.

Whoever plays quarterback is going to be hard-pressed to establish a dominant aerial attack, especially without the help of a run game. Receiver Mike Wallace wowed the league as a rookie last year, leading the NFL in yards per reception with an average of 19.4. His skill set closely mirrors that of former Steeler Santonio Holmes, a deep-threat receiver who can get open downfield but can't really pick up yards after the catch on short passes. However, Wallace benefited greatly from being on the field the same time as Holmes, as very few defenses were equipped to defend both receivers' speed. With Holmes in New York, Wallace will be easier to take out of the game with safety help, and it's unlikely he'll take the steps forward that coaches and fans were hoping he would take after such a promising rookie season.

Lining up opposite of Wallace is the indomitably tough Hines Ward. Ward is a nasty run-blocker, and is excellent at putting his body in position to make passes easier to catch. A pass to Ward is as close to a guaranteed completion as you can get in the NFL, but his game has one hole: he does not have the elite speed to get open downfield, or even to get separation to put himself in position for getting yards after the catch. While he is a great possession receiver, he cannot challenge the defense vertically. Behind Ward and Wallace, former Steeler Antwaan Randle El returns after a four-year stint with the Redskins. A shifty receiver in the mold of New England's Wes Welker, Randle El can turn short passes into medium-sized first downs, but at 5'10” he lacks the height to leap and fight for deep passes. As far as depth goes, this receiving corps in unimpressive, with Limas Sweed and Arnaz Battle as the top two choices if a Pittsburgh receiver gets injured. At tight end, 270-pound Matt Spaeth is used almost exclusively as a run-blocker (he's caught only 27 passes in his three years in the league), and Heath Miller is used primarily in goal-line situations. Miller gives the Steelers a decent option across the middle of the field, but doesn't possess the speed or athleticism to create matchup problems for defenses.

Defensive Overview

Nose tackle Casey Hampton is a monster who eats blockers, and his presence in the middle of the line is a huge boost. Defensive end Aaron Smith is back from a rotator cuff injury that ended his season in October, and he and fellow end Brett Kiesel are both capable of handling double-teams, freeing up the Steelers' linebacking corps to make big plays. The Steelers also seem to be planning on using Evander “Ziggy” Hood, their 2009 first-round pick from Missouri, to move around all over the line to keep the three starters fresh.

Linebacker will continue to be a unit of strength for this team. LaMarr Woodley's going to become a household name soon if he continues his excellent play, as he has racked up an astonishing 29 sacks in 31 starts. He also tied for the league lead in tackles for a loss last year, with 19. Although he's unhappy with his current contract situation, there have been no indications so far that Woodley plans on any form of holdout, which is good for the Steelers. At the other outside linebacker position is 2008 Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison, whose 2009 performance was considered a disappointment after he produced “only” ten sacks. At inside linebacker, the Steelers will rotate James Farrior, Lawrence Timmons, and Larry Foote as Foote returns to Pittsburgh after a year with the Lions. Although the linebacking corps is excellent at rushing the passer and stopping the run, they don't cover well at all, which is a liability in playing “Prevent” defenses. While these situations aren't too common for the Steelers, this weakness was a major factor in their loss to the Oakland Raiders, when Bruce Gradkowski frequently targeted the linebackers' coverage assignments as he marched the Raiders up the field to score a game-winning touchdown with less than 20 seconds left in the fourth quarter.

At safety, the Steelers are fielding the combination of Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark, and they got better at cornerback by reacquiring Bryant McFadden from the Arizona Cardinals to start alongside Ike Taylor. The defensive backfield's prowess is incredibly difficult to judge because there often aren't four defensive backs in coverage. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's aggressive zone-blitzing schemes are predicated on Troy Polamalu's seemingly superhuman ability to fly to the ball once it gets in the air. LeBeau has no reservations about bringing a corner on a blitz and putting a defensive end or linebacker in coverage to confuse the quarterback. However, this often leaves major gaps in coverage if the opposing quarterback is able to stay upright long enough for the receivers to get open. When LeBeau's blitzing gambles don't pay off in the backfield, Polamalu's ballhawking abilities bailed the defense out and prevented big plays. Polamalu is the glue to this defense, and when he misses games, the Steelers' defensive unit falls apart. As long as Polamalu stays healthy, the defense can be very good, but it could turn really ugly if he misses significant time.

Special Teams Overview

The Steelers' kickoff coverage unit was a disaster last year as they had the lowest average kickoff distance in the league, ranked 25th in average kickoff return yards allowed, and allowed a horrendous four kickoff-return touchdowns. While part of this can be attributed to the short kickoff distances, the high number of touchdowns allowed demonstrates that the actual coverage unit doesn't play well, either. The Steelers ranked 22nd in average punt distance, and 23rd in average yards allowed per punt return.

Stefan Logan handles both kick and punt return duty for the Steelers, averaging 26.7 yards per kick return and 9.3 yards per punt return in 2009. This year, the Steelers will probably rely on him to continue to provide good field position.

Kicker Jeff Reed had a great year last year, nailing 27 of 31 field goal attempts, including 27 of 29 attempts inside the 50-yard line. He has been accurate over his career but hasn't shown the strongest leg, hence the Steelers' low ranking in kickoff distances. While he has successfully made 92.5 of his field goals from inside 30 yards, and 91.2 percent of field goal attempts from 30-39 yards, he has only converted 69.8 percent of his field goal attempts from 40-49 yards. This means that the Steelers have to get farther than most teams do to get in field goal range, putting more pressure on the offense.

Head Coach: Mike Tomlin

After leaving the Minnesota Vikings' defensive coordinator position to become the Steelers' head coach, Tomlin hasn't had a losing season yet, won a Super Bowl in only his second season, and has compiled a regular-season record of 31-17. In the playoffs, he has a 3-1 record, with the wins coming from the Steelers' Super Bowl run. Occasionally, critics will claim that Tomlin's success is due more to inheriting a talented roster than anything special Tomlin has done as a coach. This year will be the most trying of his head-coaching career so far, and how well he handles it will show how much accuracy there is to those statements.

Top 2011 Free Agents

LaMarr Woodley, LB; Ike Taylor, CB; Chris Hoke, DL

Season Prediction

4th AFC North

Realistically, it is nearly impossible to find reasons for optimism towards the Steelers this upcoming season. Not only did they trade away the receiver that provided them with big-play opportunities, they also lost the only dominant blocker on their mediocre offensive line due to a season-ending injury. If that wasn't bad enough, their starting quarterback has been suspended for at least the first quarter of the season. As a whole, the defense is aging and will be in dire trouble if Troy Polamalu misses any games,which he has done 3 of the past 4 years. Every other team in the division has gotten better this offseason, but the Steelers have gotten significantly worse and will be hard-pressed to win even six of the games on their brutal schedule that includes the AFC East and NFC South. - Hank Koebler, IV

Hank is a sports journalist attending the University of Missouri's school of journalism.