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Old 07-30-2005, 11:49 PM   #1
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Default Five questions facing Steelers heading into training camp

Five questions facing Steelers heading into training camp
By Joe Bendel
Sunday, July 31, 2005

Can quarterback Ben Roethlisberger avoid the sophomore jinx?

This is a tricky one, because Roethlisberger went on a never-before-seen tear by a quarterback last season, leading the Steelers to 13 consecutive wins and setting rookie records for completion percentage and passer rating. Even Johnny Unitas would have had a difficult time coming up with an encore.

History tells us that some, but not all, quarterbacks struggle from Year 1 to Year 2. A concern for Roethlisberger and the Steelers is that opposing defensive coordinators now have a year of tape to evaluate, and they'll have a better understanding of the young singal-caller, who came out of nowhere in '04.

Late in the season, Roethlisberger was less effective and threw five interceptions in two playoff games. In the AFC Championship, New England dropped eight defenders into pass coverage and challenged Roethlisberger to read and react instead of allowing him to freelance and escape from the pocket, which was his trademark throughout the year.

More teams will use the ploy this season. However, Roethlisberger is a year older and a year wiser. He looked refreshed during offseason workouts and has some nice targets to throw to in Hines Ward, Antwaan Randle El, Cedrick Wilson and first-round draft pick Heath Miller.

Is the offensive line deep enough?

The Steelers lost Oliver Ross and Keydrick Vincent to free agency and did not sign any veterans to fill those roles.

The good news is that right guard Kendall Simmons, a former No. 1 draft pick, should make the departure of Vincent palatable, considering Simmons was the starter before sustaining a season-ending knee injury in '04. The bad news is that second-year right tackle Max Starks moves into Ross' role, despite never starting an NFL game.

All eyes will be on Starks, who could potentially upgrade the position given time. However, even if Starks develops quickly and Simmons returns to form, the back-up situation could be shaky. The Steelers feature a number of young and untested linemen (i.e. rookie draft picks Trai Essex and Chris Kemoeatu), and, should injuries befall a starter or two, it remains to be seen if the back-ups can get the job done.

Remember, it was only two seasons ago that the line took a nosedive when left tackle Marvel Smith was hampered by injuries. The Steelers feature Essex, journeyman Barrett Brooks and a bevy of undrafted free agents backing up the tackle spots entering camp. Clearly, the line is a serious area of interest.

Is the linebacking corps deep enough?

No. If it was, the Steelers would not have shopped, albeit less-than-aggressively, for the likes of free agents Chad Brown and Peter Boulware this offseason.

The core of Joey Porter, Clark Haggans, James Farrior and Larry Foote helped the Steelers produce the top defense in the NFL last season -- and that's a good thing. But the only proven backup among the reserves is James Harrison, who can pretty much fill in at the three of the four spots. Veteran Clint Kriewaldt is also reliable, if not spectacular, but questions abound about underachieving Alonzo Jackson, fifth-round draft pick Rian Wallace and 2004 practice squad member Dedrick Roper.

Will Steelers fans expect too much out of this outfit in '05?

Yes. Yes. Yes. And who can blame them, really? The Nation got spoiled during last season's 15-1 march through the regular season, which featured the arrival of Roethlisberger and the revival of Jerome Bettis. The core of that team remains pretty much intact, sans the key free-agent departures of Plaxico Burress, Oliver Ross, Keydrick Vincent and Kendrell Bell, and there is reason to believe that the Steelers can put together another strong season. But 15-1? That's asking a lot, as only four teams have done it in NFL history. A more realistic year would feature an 11-5 or 10-6 record, which surely will cause disappointment by a faction of the Nation.

Will the Steelers win the Super Bowl?

Maybe. But the road will be tough, particularly against an upgraded AFC North Division that features a Ravens team that made several key free agent pick-ups (WR Derrick Mason and CB Samari Rolle) and a Bengals team that features QB Carson Palmer and a coach in Marvin Lewis who preaches defense, defense, defense.

Unlike last year when they were coming off a 6-10 mark, the Steelers won't surprise anybody this fall. In fact, they'll have an industrial-sized bull's eyes painted squarely between their shoulder pads. And one more thing: Even though the Patriots lost both coordinators to head coaching jobs, they're still the bullies of the NFL -- and the team everybody needs to beat, including the Steelers.

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