View Full Version : Steelers' future solid as Cards ponder host of potential changes

02-02-2009, 07:55 PM
Steelers' future solid as Cards ponder host of potential changes

Don Banks
Inside the NFL

TAMPA -- Fresh off a win that featured, at the very least, the most compelling fourth quarter in Super Bowl history, and earned them an NFL-record sixth Vince Lombardi Trophy, the Pittsburgh Steelers find themselves in pretty solid position to keep the good times rolling.

The Steelers just became the second team to win multiple rings this decade, joining the three-time winning Patriots, and with 2009 remaining, they've got a shot to match New England's hardware collection and fully thrust themselves into the team of the decade discussion.

The reasons for all the black-and-gold optimism are obvious: quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, at 26, already owns two rings in his first five NFL seasons, a feat topped only by Tom Brady's three Super Bowl wins in his opening five years. Mike Tomlin, 36, became the youngest Super Bowl-winning head coach in history and looks headed for one of those typically long coaching tenures in Pittsburgh. And the Steelers just might have discovered a potential No. 1 receiver to replace Hines Ward someday soon in Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes, who's just 24 and a veteran of three NFL seasons.

Throw in the likes of 27-year-old safety Troy Polamalu, 24-year-old linebacker LaMarr Woodley, and fifth-year veteran linebacker James Harrison, who's only 30, and Pittsburgh's top-ranked defense has foundational rocks that should keep it among the league's elite for the foreseeable future.

As for the surprising Arizona Cardinals, whose Super Bowl trip was as stunning a development as anyone could recall, they hold the distinction of being the eighth different NFC champion in the past eight years, so feel free to predict their future bearing that remarkable statistic in mind.

With the long NFL season over, the offseason has officially begun for all 32 teams. Here's a snapshot look at how the two Super Bowl teams stand as they head into the personnel acquisition phase of the NFL's calendar:


Salary cap

Pittsburgh is estimated to have about $19 million to work with under the projected $123 million cap (which is up another $7 million from last year's $116 million). That ranks the Steelers smack in the middle of the league in terms of cap space, at No. 16. Pittsburgh isn't traditionally much of a free-agent shopper, and that won't change. But the Steelers do have a decent number of their own free agents to re-sign, and their preferred way of doing business is to aggressively pursue their priorities on that list before the free agent market cranks to life on Feb. 27.
Free agency

The Steelers usually spend their money wisely, and the first chunk of it this offseason is probably going to be offered to potential free-agent cornerback Bryant McFadden, whom the club has no interest in seeing get away. Again, look for Pittsburgh to move on McFadden before there are other bidders allowed. The allure of staying with a Super Bowl-winning organization can count for a lot.

If there was an obvious weak link on the roster again in '08, it was at offensive line, and that's where Pittsburgh has real decisions to make. Offensive tackles Marvel Smith, Max Starks, Trai Essex and starting guard Chris Kemoeatu are all unrestricted, in addition to tackle Willie Colon entering restricted free agency.

All things being equal, Smith would be the clear-cut top priority, but the nine-year veteran has had two back surgeries in the past two years, and that's always a red flag to proceed with some caution. Opinion on Starks seems somewhat divided within the organization, but the front office will probably deem him a player it has invested too much into to see walk away. That might not be the prevailing wisdom in the case of Kemoeatu, who has not developed into the dependable talent the Steelers had hoped. Essex is a very versatile backup who can play almost anywhere, and he'll likely be targeted for re-signing unless someone throws big money at him on the market.

No. 3 receiver Nate Washington had a very nice year for Pittsburgh and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians considers him a valuable piece of the puzzle. But the Steelers aren't likely to overvalue him, and if another team comes after him with sizable dollars, Pittsburgh will probably be prepared to thank him for his service and bid him adieu.

As for the Steelers' backup quarterback situation, Byron Leftwich really enjoyed his year in Pittsburgh and the feeling was mutual. But he has made it clear that he wants to compete somewhere for a starting job, and that's not happening with Roethlisberger around. So look for Leftwich to go elsewhere, and veteran Charlie Batch to return to his No. 2 slot in '09.

Coaching staff

Super Bowl victories have a way of re-shaping a team's coaching staff, but the Steelers have a chance to be the exception to the rule and stay intact for '09. Offensive coordinator Arians no doubt has raised his profile league-wide, but his name has never gained much traction in terms of a head coaching candidacy, and with only the Kansas City and Oakland jobs remaining open, nothing about that is expected to change this year.

Tomlin lauded his coaching staff on Monday morning, pinpointing its team-first working environment, lack of egos and willingness to do whatever it takes to get the players ready. It certainly doesn't sound like he's unhappy with any particular segment of his staff, although last year at this time there was speculation that special teams coach Bob Ligashesky was in jeopardy of being replaced.


The Super Bowl champs earned the traditional 32nd and final slot in the first round of the April 25-26 draft, and their top needs figure to be at cornerback, where Ike Taylor is an oft-picked on target, defensive line, which has some age issues, and offensive tackle, where free agency could lead to the most significant losses on the roster. With both a running back (Rashard Mendenhall) and a receiver (Limas Sweed) taken on the first day last year, the skill positions aren't likely to get first or second-round attention.

2009 schedule

No matter what the new season brings, the Steelers can't possibly have a tougher road than they did in '08. Pittsburgh began the season with a schedule that included a dozen games against teams that were .500 or better in '07, and their opponents' .598 winning percentage was the highest in the league. Pittsburgh went 15-4 overall this season, including a 10-4 record against teams that finished 8-8 or better.

In '09, the Steelers have six games against teams that made the '08 playoffs, but fortunately four of those opponents come to Heinz Field: Baltimore, San Diego, Tennessee and Minnesota. Only trips to Miami and Baltimore appear difficult from this long-range view. Pittsburgh draws a pair of relatively weak divisions in playing both the AFC West and the NFC North, so at least someone's trying to make it up to the Steelers for a brutal '08. All told, Pittsburgh has eight games against teams that were at least .500 this season, but just five games against teams with winning records.

(Rest of the article is about the Cardnials. Check URL at top if you want to read it. - mesa)