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|02-13-2011, 07:37 AM||#1|
A Son of Martha
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Analysis: What does the future hold for the Steelers?
Analysis: What does the future hold for the Steelers?
Times Sports Staff Timesonline.com
Already, the Steelers have begun the task of putting together a team capable of getting back to the Super Bowl.
There are serious issues to be resolved in the nasty labor dispute between NFL owners and players. But as those discussions continue, the Steelers try to find the best 53 men for the 2011 season. They’re preparing for the NFL Draft. They’re analyzing their extensive list of potential free agents. They’re studying the free agent pool to see if there’s anyone who could make them better. And they’re looking at their own players still under contract to see if they still fit in. “I feel good about our team,” president Art Rooney II said. “We’ll go into next year feeling like we’ll take another shot at it. We still have a core group of players we can build around and hopefully make another run at it. I don’t think we’ll be sitting there saying we’re going to make a lot of changes. We’ll prepare for the draft and add some players here and there, and be ready to go.”
QB: With Ben Roethlisberger signed through 2015, the only issue for the next few years is who lines up after him on the depth chart. Coach Mike Tomlin is a big fan of Byron Leftwich, who's due to make $1.75 million next season. For as exciting as Dennis Dixon can be with his speed and running ability, he's still a work in progress and doesn't have a contract for 2011. In training camp last August, everyone wrote off Charlie Batch, who turned 36 in December. But he survived due to knee injuries suffered by Leftwich and Dixon. If the Steelers don't re-sign Dixon, they're set with Roethlisberger, Leftwich and Batch. If they're still intrigued by things they may able to do with Dixon, all four QBs may be back in camp.
RB: That fourth-quarter fumble in the Super Bowl loss will haunt Rashard Mendenhall throughout the off-season. At the time of Mendenhall's giveaway, the Steelers had momentum, and if they would have maintained possession and went on to score a go-ahead touchdown, maybe they would have won. That's what Mendenhall has to deal with. Maybe the pain of his fumble will make him better in the long run. Not that he was bad last season. With 1,273 rushing yards, he ranked seventh in the NFL. Certainly with the way Isaac Redman emerged this season, the Steelers should feel encouraged about their running game. Redman isn't the second coming of Jerome Bettis, but he at least gives the Steelers their best power back since Bettis retired after the 2005 Super Bowl season. Redman also showed some flashes as a pass catcher, possibly making Mewelde Moore, the so-called "third-down" back, expendable. The Steelers also want to see what Jonathan Dwyer can do. Dwyer, the former Georgia Tech star who ran for 1,395 yards in his last two years in college, only dressed for one game as a rookie.
FB: Not long after given the reins of the offense in 2007, Bruce Arians all but phased out the fullback. But this season as the Steelers re-emphasized the running game, the fullback came back into play. David Johnson, who's really a tight end, handled the fullback duties and did so reasonably well. Johnson, who also got his share of snaps at tight end (primarily as a blocker), is under contract through the 2011 season.
TE: Although Heath Miller fell short of Roethlisberger's lofty projection, he's still one of the NFL's most complete tight ends. At the start of training camp, Roethlisberger predicted that Miller would have 100 catches. Miller was 58 shy of 100 and only caught two TD passes, his career low. There were valid reasons for Miller's drop in numbers: he missed two games with a concussion, the Steelers ran the ball more this season than last and Miller often stayed in to block on pass plays. Matt Spaeth's contract has expired, but he should be re-signed. He's a serviceable back-up.
WR: The "Young Money" gang of Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown gives the Steelers one of the fastest tandems of wideouts in franchise history. Wallace led the Steelers with 60 catches, 1,257 receiving yards and 10 TDs, and was second in the league in yards per catch. If he can get stronger and break some tackles - he's so easy to bring down - he may develop into one of the league's best receivers. Hines Ward will return for his 14th season. It's hard to project what he still has left. He struggled to get open in playoff games against the Ravens and Jets, but played well in the Super Bowl. As far as the rest of the group, a lot depends on Limas Sweed. If he's fully recovered from an Achilles' tendon tear and if he can get his fragile mental state in order, he might be a factor. The Steelers could use a 6-foot-4, 220-pound target, providing Sweed can develop some confidence and quit dropping passes as he's done in the brief time he's played. It may be hard to justify paying $2 million to Antwaan Randle El, who's a No. 4 or No. 5 receiver and an occasional punt returner. Arnaz Battle may be a solid special teams player. But he didn't catch a pass this season and he's due to make $1.038 million in 2011.
OL: There are two big priorities: determining who will play right tackle and stabilizing the right guard position. At right tackle, much will depend on Flozell Adams. Will he return for a 14th season at the age of 36? And are the Steelers willing to pay him the $5 million he's due to make this year? Then there's Willie Colon, the starting right tackle from 2007-09 who missed this past season with a torn Achilles' tendon. If Adams returns, do the Steelers re-sign Colon as a back-up tackle or do they move him to right guard? Last summer before Colon was hurt during an off-season conditioning program, his agent, Freedom native Joe Linta, didn't feel confident that the Steelers wanted to sign Colon to a long-term deal. The Steelers are set at center with Maurkice Pouncey. Left guard Chris Kemoeatu is under contract through 2013. Max Starks says he's recovered nicely from a neck injury that ended his season in November, and he should be back at left tackle. Four role players don't have contracts for next season: Doug Legursky, Trai Essex, Jonathan Scott and Tony Hills.
DE: Aaron Smith says he'll be back for his 13th season at the age of 35. But it's hard to imagine him getting back his starting job at left defensive end. Ziggy Hood, the Steelers' first-round pick in 2009, is there to stay. Hood played well after taking over for Smith and has the potential to be a star. Things are set at nose tackle with Casey Hampton and right defensive end with Brett Keisel. Even though they're in their mid-30s - Hampton will be 34 next season and Keisel 33 - both played well this season. Keisel was named to the Pro Bowl for the first time. The Steelers must decide if they want to bring back two of their veteran back-ups: nose tackle Chris Hoke, who'll be 35, and Nick Eason.
LB: Perhaps the most pressing off-season matter is locking up right outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley. He was an unfortunate victim of the NFL system this past season when he was paid only $550,000. The Steelers hope Woodley stays in Pittsburgh for years. The first step in keeping him here, however, is putting the franchise tag on him for 2011 and then negotiating a long-term deal. If Woodley is tagged, he would get a one-year deal worth $10.2 million. Inside linebacker James Farrior will be back for his 15th season at the age of 36. But there are no guarantees that Larry Foote will be kept as a backup. Foote was paid $3.3 million this season and is due to make $2.4 million next year. It will also be interesting to see what the Steelers do with Keyaron Fox, the only linebacker on the roster who doesn't have a contract for 2011. Fox was voted special teams captain before the 2010 season but had that foolish personal-foul penalty late in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl that backed up the offense on the final, ill-fated possession. The Steelers are high on Stevenson Sylvester, an inside linebacker who played in every game this season on special teams.
CB: As important as locking up Woodley is the re-signing of cornerback Ike Taylor. Even though he'll be 31 next season, Taylor is clearly the team's best cover corner. He's not in the same class of elite CBs like Darrelle Revis and Nnamdi Asomugha, but he's not far behind. Bryant McFadden certainly didn't play up to expectations this season. William Gay, whose contract is up, had his moments. But he was burnt to a crisp in the Super Bowl. Because spread offenses have had success against the Steelers - i.e. New Orleans, New England and Green Bay - the Steelers must improve their secondary play, especially at cornerback. Other DBs without contracts are safety Ryan Mundy and corner Anthony Madison, who excels on special teams but is a liability when he has to take the field in nickel or dime situations. The Steelers are set at safety with Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark. They just hope that Polamalu, the 2010 Defensive Player of the Year, fully recovers from Achilles' tendon injury that hampered his play during the playoffs.
SPEC: Jeremy Kapinos' brief stint as punter is likely over. Even though Daniel Sepulveda is unsigned, it's hard to imagine the Steelers not bringing him back. Sepulveda missed the past two Super Bowls with knee injuries, but the Steelers thought enough of him to take him in the fourth round in 2007. He was tied for seventh in the league in yards per punt (45.5) before getting hurt in early December. There's no reason to believe that the Steelers wouldn't bring back kicker Shaun Suisham despite how poorly he missed that 52-yard field goal try in the Super Bowl. He was 14 of 15 during the regular season. Long snapper Greg Warren could be in trouble if money is an issue. He made $700,000 this past season and the Steelers could probably find someone much cheaper.
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