AROUND THE FIELD IN PITTSBURGH
• 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.
( 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 27½ 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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