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mesaSteeler 07-29-2009 04:19 PM

Distractions loom in Pittsburgh as Steelers, Big Ben start camp
Distractions loom in Pittsburgh as Steelers, Big Ben start camp
By Nate Davis, USA TODAY

PITTSBURGH Just two weeks ago, there was little reason to worry about the Pittsburgh Steelers heading into the 2009 season.

The Super Bowl XLIII champions lost only two starters in the offseason. No major medical or contractual issues were lingering. Heck, with the Steelers' successfully completed quest to "win one for the other thumb" the club's record sixth Super Bowl ring perhaps its biggest challenge was to come up with a catchy slogan to mark their next title drive.

Maybe "The Extra Point" or "Pittsburgh is Seventh Heaven."

But any pursuit of Lombardi Trophy No. 7 will temporarily take a backseat to Pittsburgh's most famous No. 7, Ben Roethlisberger.

Nevada casino worker Andrea McNulty filed a civil lawsuit against the two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback July 17, accusing him of rape.

Roethlisberger vehemently denied the allegations six days later. He contended that the "false and vicious allegations are an attack on my family and on me" while saying he had never forced himself on any woman.

"I'm gonna fight to protect my family and my reputation," Roethlisberger added in a brief news conference, concluding, "I have an obligation to our fans, to my teammates, to my coaches and everyone in the organization to remain focused on the Pittsburgh Steelers, and I will do that. The allegations against me are reckless and false. I am confident that the truth will prevail."

Though any speculation to the suit's outcome is decidedly premature, the Steelers hope the truth will prevail in Roethlisberger's favor. If not, they could face a predicament similar to their predecessors as AFC champions. The New England Patriots played valiantly in 2008 after a 16-0 regular season in 2007, but they could not manage a playoff return after reigning league MVP Tom Brady went down with a season-ending knee injury in the opener.

At the very least, Roethlisberger will face a lot of questions even though he doesn't plan to discuss his case in the media. But as coach Mike Tomlin presciently acknowledged at the team's final offseason workouts in June, distractions are inevitable.

"If you are going to be good, distractions are a part of it," said Tomlin, heading into Year 3 as coach. "I am more concerned about embracing that and dealing with it and performing in the midst of it as opposed of being resistant to it.

"We have the desire to be a good team, a consistently good team, a world championship-caliber team. You have to acknowledge some attention, some potential distractions come with that."

But if the commissioner or the courtroom takes Roethlisberger off the field in 2009, could backups Charlie Batch or Dennis Dixon do a reasonable impersonation of Matt Cassel? The former Patriots stand-in guided the team to 11 wins if not the tiebreaker New England required for a postseason return.

"I think they're in a good spot if it unfortunately ends up that way," NFL Network analyst Charles Davis says of the Steelers.

Batch has been an able understudy over the years, winning two starts in place of injured Roethlisberger during the team's march to the Super Bowl XL title in the 2005 season. Batch also won the '06 opener as Big Ben worked his way back from an infamous motorcycle crash and an emergency appendectomy.

But Batch is 34 and missed last season with a broken collarbone.

Batch might not have been on the roster if the Steelers had kept Byron Leftwich from signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

But could Dixon, who has thrown one NFL pass, offer more upside and be better able to engineer a run like that of Cassel, who also provided opponents with little NFL game film before he took the reins from Brady?

"If there's one place that understands how to utilize a guy's talents and use him, it's Pittsburgh," says Davis, who compares Dixon to former Steelers Pro Bowl quarterback Kordell Stewart.

"(Dixon's) a quarterback, not a gimmick guy," stresses Davis, who scouted him before the 2008 draft and believes Oregon likely would have won the national championship if Dixon had not hurt his knee late in 2007. "As far as him being a pro quarterback and stepping up in pocket (and) making reads and throws, don't rule him out."

But at this juncture, neither Roger Goodell nor a judge or jury seems to be anywhere near rendering rulings on Roethlisberger's case.

And that's good news for a team that seems otherwise loaded and reloaded.

Inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons, a first-rounder in 2007, replaces Larry Foote on a defense that was tops in the NFL in 2008 and arguably one of the finer units in league annals, some major lapses against Arizona's Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald in the second half of Super Bowl XLIII notwithstanding.

Cornerback William Gay is likely the team's only other new starter, and he and Timmons have the look of upgrades.

The Steelers also get an infusion of first-round talent in the backfield and in the trenches. Their top pick from 2008, tailback Rashard Mendenhall, returns from a broken shoulder blade that limited him to four games as a rookie. He should bring added juice to a running game that atypically ranked 23rd in '08. On the other side of the ball, the Steelers' newest first-rounder, Evander "Ziggy" Hood, who played defensive tackle at Missouri, should bring needed relief inside and out on the team's three-man front.

"I like where they are. They have an understanding of how we do business here," Tomlin says of his youngsters. "We held those guys in high regard when we drafted them. That's why we drafted them where we drafted them."

And don't forget the contributions of another former first-rounder not named Roethlisberger, who was the Steelers' No. 1 pick in 2004. Santonio Holmes, the Super Bowl MVP and the Steelers' top selection in 2006, is ready for the big stage entering his fourth season, a stage the team seems equally equipped for.

"If Pittsburgh doesn't have a season that doesn't put them in a contending spot," Davis says, "it'd be a big surprise."

mesaSteeler 07-29-2009 04:19 PM

Re: Distractions loom in Pittsburgh as Steelers, Big Ben start camp

• Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger's numbers dipped after he threw 32 TD passes in '07, his only Pro Bowl season. But with two rings after his latest Super Bowl run, the only question about Big Ben is the legal maelstrom swirling around him. Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon will vie for the backup job, though Dixon's potential in a Wildcat set could give him an edge to be active on game days.

• Running back: Is overuse catching up to Willie Parker? Injuries in '08 led to his worst season since becoming the starter in 2005. The return of Rashard Mendenhall, last year's first-rounder, from a shoulder injury should ease his burden. Mewelde Moore is a factor on third downs.

• Wide receiver: Hines Ward is coming off his first 1,000-yard receiving season since 2004. Ward, 33, also is coming off offseason shoulder surgery. After his MVP performance in Super Bowl XLIII, Santonio Holmes is on the cusp of stardom. The free agent loss of deep threat Nate Washington hurts, unless Limas Sweed or Shaun McDonald steps up to ease the pain.

• Tight end: Heath Miller is a weapon down the field and in the red zone, and he doesn't get enough credit for his blocking. Matt Spaeth also sees the field frequently.

• Offensive line: Often maligned as the vanguard for a 23rd-ranked running game and for allowing 46 sacks of Roethlisberger last year (and 139 since 2006), this quintet nonetheless returns intact. However, right guard Darnell Stapleton might have to battle to keep his job from third-rounder Kraig Urbik.

• Defensive line: Oldies but goodies. Ends Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel and Travis Kirschke and nose tackles Casey Hampton and Chris Hoke are all north of 30 but effectively serve as the front men for Pittsburgh's devastating linebacker corps. But help is on the way in the form of first-round selection Evander "Ziggy" Hood.

• Linebacker: They're akin to four horsemen who often have apocalyptic results for opposing offenses. :tt03::tt03::tt03::tt:

( I like it, Steeler Linebackers, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse! - mesa)

Reigning NFL defensive player of the year James Harrison had a club-record 16 sacks and made history with his 100-yard interception return for a touchdown in the Super Bowl. He and fellow outside backer LaMarr Woodley, an emerging force, combined for 27 sacks, the most ever by a Steelers duo. Steady James Farrior had a Pro Bowl year on the inside, where athletic freak Lawrence Timmons replaces Larry Foote at the other post.

• Secondary: Ubiquitous strong safety Troy Polamalu teams with bone-crushing Ryan Clark on the back line. William Gay takes over for departed corner Bryant McFadden. They all benefit greatly from the play of the front seven.

• Special teams: Jeff Reed might be the NFL's most underrated kicker, and his remarkable accuracy at windy Heinz Field cannot be understated. Punter Daniel Sepulveda and long snapper Greg Warren return after tearing knee ligaments in 2008. Look for rookies to largely assume the return duties from Holmes and Moore. The coverage teams were stellar in 2008.

• Coaching staff: At 36, Mike Tomlin became the youngest coach to win a Super Bowl. He's masterful at connecting with his players, so don't expect him to allow complacency to set in or permit Roethlisberger's situation to negatively distract the team. Defensive guru Dick LeBeau is second to none, crafting the NFL's top-ranked defense three of the past five years.

• Outlook: With 20 of 22 starters back and Mendenhall, Timmons and Hood providing fresh legs on both sides of the ball, there's little reason to believe Pittsburgh isn't primed to keep the Lombardi Trophy ... unless Roethlisberger's problems seep onto the field.

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NJarhead 07-29-2009 04:40 PM

Re: Distractions loom in Pittsburgh as Steelers, Big Ben start camp
I disagree that any distractions will effect Ben or the team.

AllD 07-29-2009 07:06 PM

Re: Distractions loom in Pittsburgh as Steelers, Big Ben start camp
The distraction will probably galvanize BB. He is going to come out pissed off and throwing TDs like he has something to prove. Maybe he even takes out Ed Reed on a bootleg too.

I think the days of, "I'm just happy to be here" are over. He is probably going to be very careful with whom he associates with from now on. Hopefully his anger will make defenses pay. We know he didn't do it and this event has changed him from a maturing college guy to a man. No more playground on the field and partying stupid. He is going to be strictly business from now on.

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