View Full Version : 2009 Season Preview: Pittsburgh Steelers

07-26-2009, 01:36 PM
2009 Season Preview: Pittsburgh Steelers
Jeff Risdon. 23rd July, 2009 - 10:20 am

2008 record: 12-4, Won Super Bowl

Key Stats: Turnover Ratio: +4, Sack Differential: -2, Point Differential: +124

Coming In: WR Shaun McDonald, CB Keiwan Ratliff

Going Out: CB Bryant McFadden, WR Nate Washington, LB Larry Foote, S Anthony Smith, T Marvel Smith, QB Byron Leftwich, CB Fernando Bryant

Key Rookies: G Kraig Urbik, DT Ziggy Hood, WR/KR Mike Wallace, CB Keenan Lewis


QB: The defending champs attained that status thanks in part to Ben Roethlisberger and his leadership. The big, fearless, plucky Roethlisberger has won two Super Bowls already and is just now entering his athletic prime. Big Ben excels at staying alive under duress and extending plays much longer than the defense can cover downfield. His accuracy will leave the building at times, but he's money when his team needs him to make the big play or the clutch throw. No quarterback takes more of a pounding, but Roethlisberger has shown he can take the licking and keep on ticking. It's not always pretty, but his win/loss record and proven ability to pull rabbits out of seemingly nonexistent hats make Big Ben one of the best in the business.

Pittsburgh has an interesting battle for the backup quarterback spot. Veteran Charlie Batch comes back from a season lost to injury, but he faces stiff competition from young Dennis Dixon. Fully recovered from a devastating knee injury, Dixon fits the mold of a Wildcat package specialist more than a traditional backup quarterback. There is enough talent around them that either guy could pull out a victory or two in short-term relief, but this team does not get far without Big Ben.

RB: As proof that this was not your father's Steelers team, Pittsburgh ranked 23rd in the NFL in rushing, but still won a Super Bowl. Much of that had to do with injuries to Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall, who were supposed to form a lethal 1-2 combo, but were only both active for the opener. Parker never really got going once he came back from knee and shoulder issues, running more like a guy trying not to get hurt than a 1,500-yard speedster. He's called "Fast Willie" for a reason, but he seldom found room to break out his amazing open-field runs. Mendenhall suffered through fumblitis in the preseason, then suffered through Ray Lewis shattering his shoulder early in the season. It will be interesting to see how he handles his second season after the disappointment of his rookie campaign. Perhaps he will learn to run less upright and use more wiggle in his step.

Mewelde Moore followed Coach Mike Tomlin from Minnesota and rewarded his faith by playing very well in relief. Always noted as a good receiver and for being waterbug-quick, Moore showed he could handle 10-15 carries a game effectively. He fills the role of third down back but could push for Mendenhall's spot if the youngster doesn't step up. The Steelers rarely use a fullback anymore, and there is open competition for the thankless job between Carey Davis and Sean McHugh. Frank Summers, a bruising eggplant-shaped rookie from UNLV, will fill the role of short-yardage sledgehammer.

WR/TE: Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes emerged as the dynamic big-play wideout the Steelers envisioned when they made him a first round pick. The growing pains are long gone, and Holmes has developed into an upper echelon #1 wideout. He's not a fantasy stud like Randy Moss or Steve Smith, but that's more a function of the Steelers offense than a lack of skill from Holmes. He pairs with venerable Hines Ward to form the best-blocking wide receiver duo in the league, and that margin is not close. Ward has lost a step but remains one of the best at getting open on broken plays, and his physical style presents problems for many defensive backs.

The rest of the receiving corps is up in the air, but probably in better hands than recent editions. Shaun McDonald comes over from Detroit as a viable intermediate route option, though he slumped badly as 2008 wore on. The Steelers are hoping that a more winning atmosphere snaps him out of it. Limas Sweed got off to a real slow start as a rookie, but by the end of the season he was regularly seeing time and flashed the ability to get open deep (witness his infamous playoff drop). His height and physicality make him a good candidate as a breakout player in 2009. Rookie speedster Mike Wallace projects more as a return specialist, but he consistently got open deep in college and can make the acrobatic catch -- eerily similar to the man Pittsburgh let go, Nate Washington. Dallas Baker has the intensity and size the team likes, but he's got to catch the ball on the first try much better.

Tight end is in fine hands. Heath Miller is a solid all-around option with just enough speed to stretch the seam. He catches anything near him and does a great job of presenting a target. Matt Spaeth is the goal line receiver and primary blocking tight end, and he's more than adequate at both roles. Pittsburgh utilizes two-tight end formations more than most teams and have consistently had a lot of success in doing so.

OL: This is the biggest problem spot on the entire team, though it's not as bad as frustrated Steelers fans (I'm looking at my men's volleyball teammates here!) think it is. The two starting tackles, Willie Colon and Max Starks, are very similar: massive, very strong, nasty, slow to move their feet, penalty prone. Starks plays on the left side, and he has been real vulnerable to speed rushers and schemes where multiple defenders come from his side. But he's got just enough of a kick step to buy Big Ben a little time, and he's very good at sealing the edge and opening holes in the running game. Colon is a little more physical and a little quicker, and he does a fine job of nailing targets at the second level. He epitomizes the term "road grater." Trai Essex is a capable reserve at either spot and of the same mold. Essex can also fill in at guard, and could see more time there. Tony Hills is a developmental depth project, which is code for "We didn't draft anybody better than him, so he sticks for another year."

The interior OL has declined recently, but it's still functional for what the Steelers like to do offensively. LG Chris Kemoeatu is another big, nasty mauler with slow feet. When he gets his arms extended, his defender is erased, but he struggled picking up blitzing linebackers and handling stunts and twists. Justin Hartwig assumed the center duties, and while he's no Mike Webster or Dermontii Dawson, he played better than anyone since Jeff Hartings left. Hartwig is the only "small" guy on the line and has issues with bulky nose tackles, but he's very quick and is an excellent chip blocker when he has to help his mates. Perhaps the biggest training camp battle in Latrobe will be for the starting right guard spot. Incumbent Darnell Stapleton was nondescript as a starter, and he will be tested by rookie Kraig Urbik.

Urbik fits the prototype of a Steelers lineman, and he comes from a college (Wisconsin) noted for producing very good NFL guards. Trai Essex could also factor into the equation. Whenever there is a multi-player battle, that means depth is good. Rookie AQ Shipley will spot Hartwig, and the Rimington Award winner is feisty and quick, but has the shortest arms of any athlete I've ever seen, a major detriment for an offensive lineman.

07-26-2009, 01:36 PM

DL: The front three are as good as any trio in the league. Nose tackle Casey Hampton is getting older but remains a stalwart bulwark in the middle. He doesn't make many tackles, but that's by design; he routinely occupies two blockers and still holds his ground, clogging the area between the tackles for opposing runners. Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel start at end, and both are tremendous run defenders. Smith is stouter and more apt to get into the backfield, while Keisel knows all the little tricks and rarely stays blocked for long. Smith often winds up on those "Most Underrated" and "All-Lunchpail" fabrications. Travis Kirschke spells both of them with minimal dropoff; he would start for most teams. Chris Hoke plays more than a handful of snaps when Hampton gets winded, and he too is a worthy starter but accepts his role as part of a great unit. Rookie first rounder Ziggy Hood is quicker than any of their ends and infuses some much-needed youthful depth to the front. Hood could play a bigger role than most Steelers rookies of late, as he seems a natural fit yet presents a divergent skill set that offenses must account for up front.

LB: The two outside backers, James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley, are legit playmakers. Harrison earned his Defensive Player of the Year honor with 16 sacks (a team record), relentless energy, and textbook use of leverage and footwork to stay off blockers. He must be accounted for on every snap, run or pass, and frequently winds up wherever the ball goes. Steelers coaches charted zero missed tackles over a seven-week period, which is just freakish for someone so active. Woodley broke out in his second season as a premier edge rusher, but unlike many outside linebackers he relies as much on strength as speed and quickness. He does a great job of not tipping off his plan of attack and uses great hands to quickly discharge blocks.

Inside there is a change, as Larry Foote left for Detroit. He will be replaced by Lawrence Timmons, which is by design. Timmons started very slowly as a rookie, but has put it together and gradually earned more playing time. As with all Steelers linebackers, Timmons is very quick and times his blitzes perfectly. He's not as stout against the run as Foote and isn't as aggressive at taking on blockers and letting Polamalu get the big hit, so it will change the scheme a bit. They are praying James Farrior can squeeze one more productive year out of his 34-year old body. Easily the best of the linebackers in run defense, Farrior is a master at sifting through traffic and popping the ball carrier. There is not much depth behind any of the backers, but it's especially vital that Timmons and Farrior remain healthy. Andre Frazier is the top reserve, with Keyaron Fox also getting snaps, though Fox is far more valuable on special teams. Bruce Davis and Patrick Bailey are younglings with some potential but scant experience, though Davis nicely fits the mold of converted college defensive end to rush outside linebacker in Dick Lebeau's scheme.

DB: This is a solid group made exceptional by safety Troy Polamalu. The hirsute tornado flies all over the field making plays. Blessed with exceptional timing and instincts, Polamalu belongs in the argument for most important defensive player in the league. He drastically improved his attention to deep coverage, but did so without sacrificing his tremendous impact inside the box in run support. The other safety spot belongs to Ryan Clark, though there will be competition from Tyrone Carter, who has played reasonably well in limited time. Clark split time with Anthony Smith and was generally regarded as the lesser of two evils, but it's hard to look good when Polamalu does so much. Second year man Ryan Mundy adds size and depth and is a pet project of Dick Lebeau.

Replacing Bryant McFadden as the #1 cornerback could be tougher than most people think. Ike Taylor gets first crack, and he plays remarkably similar to McFadden (though not quite as fast or big). They'll miss McFadden's run support more than they will in coverage, as William Gay proved able to help against intermediate routes and faster wideouts. Gay is a decent candidate for a breakout season. For years the Steeler faithful have been pushing Deshea Townsend out the door, but he's fought off the dogs for over a decade for a reason. While he's not a shutdown corner, he rarely makes big mistakes and handles physical wideouts better than most. He will remain the nickel for another year, but will also play a lot in two-cornerback sets. As a trio they are more than capable of handling business, particularly in a division without dynamic passing attacks. Keiwan Ratliff never panned out in Cincinnati but should be adequate as the dime back in Pittsburgh. Rookie Keenan Lewis could play his way into the rotation, and Coach Tomlin will give him every opportunity to do so. He comes in with a rep for being a playmaker, and he's bigger than every other defensive back except Taylor (that includes the safeties!).

Special Teams: A major problem is solved with the healthy return of punter Daniel Sepulveda. Pittsburgh never found an adequate fill-in for the big-legged Sepulveda, and the fans really missed his hyper-aggressive (for a punter) effort and hitting in coverage. There is still the ongoing issue of long snapping, where Greg Warren and Mark Estermyer will battle for the job. This has been an ongoing bugaboo and the team sorely needs a stable, long-term solution.

Kicker Jeff Reed is one of the best on kickoffs, and his field goal prowess in the tricky winds of Heinz Field is very underappreciated. You get to play in some funky winds and bitter cold in the AFC North, and Reed has proven master of his domain. The coverage units are solid, led by Keyaron Fox, but the return units need some help. The coaches are hopeful that Mike Wallace or fellow rookie Joe Burnett can fill the void at return specialist left when Antwan Randle El left several years ago. They also want to stop risking Santonio Holmes as the primary punt returner, even though he's a pretty good one. If you're watching Steelers preseason games, expect lots of intensity from the return men as they fight for the job.

3 Keys To The Season:

1. Can Big Ben survive another season of pounding behind a sub-par offensive line? While some of it is by design, he simply cannot keep taking so many big hits while making the big plays.

2. Most of the core team has already won two Super Bowls. Can Mike Tomlin keep the fires stoked while facing a significantly lesser schedule than last year?

3. Much of the defensive front seven is getting up there in age, and there is very little proven depth behind them. Can they stay healthy and effective once again?


Last year most everyone looked at their brutal schedule and said, "They'll be lucky to win nine games, but should still win the division." Guess what -- they went 12-4 against that monster schedule and parlayed that into a Super Bowl title. This year, lowly Kansas City, Oakland, and Detroit replace Philly, Indianapolis, and the Giants on the schedule. With essentially the same team back for another go around, it's real hard to see them winning any less than 12 games. But funny things often happen to apparent juggernauts, and if too many butterflies flap incorrectly it could all come crashing down quickly. The forecast is for 11-5, another AFC North title, and a fair chance for a return trip to the Super Bowl.

- Jeff Risdon is RealGM's senior football writer. He may be reached at Jeff.Risdon@RealGM.com

Galax Steeler
07-27-2009, 03:39 AM
I hope Hood finds some playing time this year because it won't be long before he will be the starter with Kiesels contract running out next year. He may be in his last year with the Steelers.

07-27-2009, 09:36 AM
I just hope that our guys can stay focused and the 2nd year guys step up as well as the O-line play!!!!

Fire Haley
07-27-2009, 11:50 AM
Timmons: He's not as stout against the run as Foote and isn't as aggressive at taking on blockers and letting Polamalu get the big hit, so it will change the scheme a bit.

Like, how? Playing soft against the run? Say it ain't so.

"They are praying James Farrior can squeeze one more productive year out of his 34-year old body. Easily the best of the linebackers in run defense, Farrior is a master at sifting through traffic and popping the ball carrier. There is not much depth behind any of the backers, but it's especially vital that Timmons and Farrior remain healthy."

Say what you want about Foote - but he never missed a game because of injury in 5 years.