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Old 07-16-2009, 07:39 PM   #1
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Default Steelers ’09 Preview

Steelers ’09 Preview
July 8, 2009 by Andy Benoit

To truly understand the defending Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers is to understand the importance of all the peripheral details. Take, for example, inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons. In the big scope, we see Timmons, a 6′1″, 234-pounder who plays with an upright posture that makes him look 6′4″. Speedy agility and fervid tackling suggest that the 23-year-old could one day be a star.

But look closer; 2009 will be Timmons’s debut as a starter. The significance here is symbolic; Timmons was a first-round draft pick in ’07. By spending his first two seasons as a nickel linebacker, he became Pittsburgh’s only first-round draft pick since 1996 to not regularly start by at least his second season.

Think about this for a moment. The league-wide success rate for first-round draft picks is somewhere around fifty percent. Since ’99, the Steelers have basically batted 1.000.

Timmons is replacing veteran Larry Foote in the lineup. Foote is one of just two starters from last year’s Super Bowl squad not returning. The other is cornerback Bryant McFadden. McFadden, like Foote, was replaced from within (third-year cornerback William Gay will now start).

Timmons will be flanked by third-year stud LaMarr Woodley and reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison, forming the best outside linebacking duo in football. Like Timmons, Woodley and Harrison both began their Steeler careers as backups.

Pittsburgh’s trend of in-house replacements is even more startling along the offensive line. Left tackle Max Starks, once a backup to Marvel Smith, just signed a four-year, $26.3 million contract. Next to Starks is left guard Chris Kemoeatu who, for his first three years, backed up Pro Bowler Alan Faneca. Kemoeatu inherited the starting job last season and played well enough to receive a five-year, $20 million contract. His counterpart, right guard Darnell Stapleton, spent a year on the bench before taking over for injured veteran Kendall Simmons last season. The undrafted Stapleton is heading towards a long-term contract himself in the near future. And should he, for whatever reason, tail off, third-round rookie Kraig Urbik will be primed to start.

Are you seeing the point here? The NFL is all about change. The Steelers, by grooming their own backups into starters, always remain one step ahead of the curve. They don’t endure change––they embrace it. The Patriots and Colts are the same way. This is what wins Super Bowls. Yes, having superstar quarterbacks like Ben Roethlisberger helps. But there are also superstar quarterbacks on teams that fight change instead of welcome it; those quarterbacks become Pro Bowlers, not Champions.

The Steelers have obviously been the Reigning Champs before. Just four years ago, in fact. They defended the Lombardi Trophy with a pathetic 8-8 season in which, by their own admittance, complacency set in. So what will be different this time?

Coaching, for one. Bill Cowher was on his way out in ’06. Mike Tomlin, who, at 36, became the youngest Super Bowl winning coach in history, is only in his third season. Amazingly, all of Tomlin’s original staff is still intact. This includes offensive coordinator Bruce Arians and Hall of Fame-worthy defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.

When the Rooney Family hired Tomlin, a Tampa 2 defensive specialist, NFL pundits assumed it meant the eventual dismissal of LeBeau, the father of the 3-4 zone blitz scheme. But what is known about Tomlin now that wasn’t known at the time is that his unabashed confidence is safely weighted down by a noble sense of humility. While other coaches would have been busy proving themselves and stamping their mark on their new team, Tomlin was busy doing what was needed to win. With a plethora of 3-4 personnel, that meant retaining LeBeau. Last year, under LeBeau’s ingenious direction, Pittsburgh’s defense ranked first in yards and points allowed, first against the pass, first on third down, second against the run, second in sacks per play and first in Super Bowl victories. Give Tomlin credit for being hands-off.

The Steelers are in an unusual spot. Pretty much everyone is back. Most, if not all, of the key contributors are in their prime. Offseason distractions and controversy have been non-existent (thanks in large part to Director of Football Operations Kevin Colbert, who re-signed veterans Hines Ward, James Harrison and most of the offensive line). Perhaps no defending Super Bowl champion in the salary cap era has been in a better position to repeat. And that could be Pittsburgh’s greatest obstacle.


Tomlin’s willingness to let his assistants actually coach has helped cultivate a fantastic working relationship between offensive coordinator Bruce Arians and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Working with Big Ben requires unique patience and flexibility. Roethlisberger is very quick with his first read and maddeningly slow with everything after that. Critics lampoon the 27-year-old for holding the ball too long, and they carp about how if he continues to endure 50 sacks a season, his 6’5”, 241-pound body won’t survive past President Obama’s first term. But Arians recognizes what predecessor Ken Whisenhunt either could not or would not:

Roethlisberger is above the rules of quarterbacking. His sandlot style of play is a double-edged sword––but one that has a proclivity for finding the torso of adversaries in critical situations (just ask the Arizona Cardinals).

Big Ben will be the first to say that Pittsburgh became a Super Bowl quality club when its makeshift front five gelled. A line once-contrived of a sluggish left tackle (Max Starks), an untested and underpowered left guard (Chris Kemoeatu), a weak-legged journeyman center (Justin Hartwig), an undrafted right guard with inconsistent power (Darnell Stapleton) and a short-armed right tackle that couldn’t recognize a blitz to save his life (Willie Colon) has, remarkably, meshed into one of the most cohesive and cerebral units in the game. Give a world of credit to O-line coach Harold Goodwin.

All five of the line’s starters return in 2009, plus there’s 324-pound swing tackle Trai Essex and lauded third-round guard/tackle Kraig Urbik. The aforementioned limitations of each starter have been ameliorated but not nullified. Roethlisberger’s familiarity with the group, however, masks a lot of the pass-blocking deficiencies.

Assuming Charlie Batch––who’s likely to fend off second-year scrambling quarterback Dennis Dixon for backup duties––isn’t filling in for an injured Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh’s wide receivers will enjoy the big-play opportunities put forth by their captain’s improvisational brilliance. No receiver has benefitted from Big Ben’s style more than Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes. A first-round pick in ’06, Holmes has steadily progressed as a crisp, deceptive route runner with enough speed to beat defenders over the top. Hines Ward’s reliability in the short game makes him Roethlisberger’s first option, but Holmes is clearly the best option.

Stretching the field may not be as easy without slot receiver Nate Washington. The hope is that last year’s second-round pick, Limas Sweed, can fill this void. Sweed showed little promise in catching only six passes as a rookie. He’ll be given an opportunity to succeed, but the Steelers aren’t about to wait patiently for him to mature and toughen up. Former Lion Shaun McDonald, a dangerous speedster in the slot, was signed, and Mississippi return ace Mike Wallace, also a receiver, was drafted in Round Three. Tight end Matt Spaeth, in his long 6’7” frame, was drafted in ’07 to stretch the seams. Spaeth, however, hasn’t emerged past being an extra run-blocker. Soft-handed starting tight end Heath Miller is tremendous in every facet, but he doesn’t have the raging athleticism of an elite player.

It may sound like heresy, but the Steelers don’t really need a punishing run game in order to succeed. After all, they ranked 23rd on the ground last season, with leading rusher Willie Parker gaining just 791 yards on a 3.8 yards per carry average. Of course, life is much easier when your offense is multidimensional, which is why there’s giddy anticipation for the return of last year’s first-round pick, Rashard Mendenhall. The expectation is for Mendenhall, who broke his shoulder in Week 4, to vie for half of Parker’s carries. The better Mendenhall plays, the more touches he’ll get. Parker needs this. Though 28 and having only about five years of tread on his tires (remember, he didn’t play much at North Carolina), Parker runs with potent acceleration only when healthy and fresh.

Fullback Carey Davis (225 pounds) may not have enough power to keep his job from fifth-round rookie Frank Summers (242). Last year, H-back Sean McHugh filled in as a lead-blocker at times, while Davis served as the short-yardage back. However, Summers––or even the 224-pound Mendenhall––can probably move the pile in goal-line sets. Thus, the Steelers may have to cut ties with Davis––especially if they want to keep valuable multipurpose back Mewelde Moore.
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Old 07-16-2009, 07:40 PM   #2
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Want to know why strong safety Troy Polamalu is so good? Because, besides being a world-class athlete with preternatural instincts, Polamalu gets to play rover in a defense where all 10 others guys execute their assignments to perfection. Most NFL safeties are tasked with covering for their teammates’ mistakes. Polamalu rarely has to do that. Instead, he has the freedom to go make plays.

Give credit to Dick LeBeau. His zone-blitzing 3-4 system has virtually no soft spots. The system’s only rigid requirement is having two first-class outside linebackers. Thirty-one-year old James Harrison and 24-year-old LaMarr Woodley meet this requirement. In LeBeau’s scheme, Harrison and Woodley must, first and foremost, be ferocious pass-rushers.

This means having the speed to force running backs to stay in and protect, and having the strength to bully pass-blocking tackles into relying on tight end help. (Harrison, the NFL’s 2008 Defensive Player of the Year, had a franchise-record 16 sacks last season; Woodley had 11.5, plus six more in Pittsburgh’s three playoff games.) But the duties of the outside linebackers go beyond pass-rushing. Both must be formidable anchors against the run (Harrison, by the way, is better in this sense than every NFL outside linebacker not named Terrell Suggs) and both must have the flexibility to drop into coverage. If either of the outside linebackers fail in any of these departments, LeBeau’s scheme doesn’t work.

With the outside linebackers serving as lynchpins, the defense essentially boils down to the front stopping the run and the back four stopping the pass. Firm-tackling inside linebackers James Farrior and Lawrence Timmons will draw the most credit for Pittsburgh’s run defense, but in fact, it’s the three-man line that controls the action. Defensive ends Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel employ aggressive stunts and shifts to plug the gaps along the line. Backups Travis Kirschke and first-round rookie Ziggy Hood can do the same. With agility being as important as strength, Hood is the only one of the bunch who weighs 300. He’s also the only one under 30.

Making it all work is Casey Hampton, a squatty 325-pound nose tackle who moves like a manatee but absolutely owns the interior trenches. Hampton’s durability can be an issue at times, though fortunately for Pittsburgh, backup veteran Chris Hoke can fill in and keep the engine running for long stretches. Hoke plays with fantastic leverage and can also get penetration.

In the secondary, the burden of creating big plays falls to Troy Polamalu. (The five-time Pro Bowler did well in ’08, intercepting seven passes and breaking up 17 more.) The other three men are tasked with preventing big plays. Free safety Ryan Clark is a quick, sound tackler, but his greatest achievement is staying off your television screen. Receivers simply don’t get behind Clark.

Pittsburgh cornerbacks predominantly play zone, though all must be apt in man coverage. This in mind, Ike Taylor is the ideal Steeler corner. The seventh-year veteran is long (6’2”, 191), fundamentally sound and, as of recently, consistent. Taylor will draw criticism for dropping easy picks, but his butterfingers are a small tradeoff for his penchant for destroying passing lanes. Opposite Taylor will be solid third-year pro William Gay, who split time last season with starter Bryant McFadden. McFadden is now in Arizona, though third-round rookie Keenan Lewis or 12th-year man-cover ace Deshea Townsend will make his absence unnoticed.

Special Teams

There’s not a coach in this league who wouldn’t feel confident sending Jeff Reed onto the field with a two-point deficit in the closing seconds of a big game. Reed’s powerful leg is a plus on kickoffs and field goals (especially when playing away from kicker’s hell, Heinz Field). Punter Daniel Sepulveda missed his rookie season with a torn ACL. Healthy now, the fourth-round pick has the luxury of a punt coverage unit that ranked fourth a year ago.

Pittsburgh’s search for a return ace continued again this past offseason. They drafted receiver Mike Wallace in Round Three and cornerback Joe Burnett in Round Five. (By the way, how many teams are deep enough to draft two return specialists in the middle rounds?) If neither works out, then a veteran like Mewelde Moore or Santonio Holmes (who can be lethal as a punt returner) will continue to handle these duties.

Bottom Line

On paper, the Steelers are better than a year ago. Ben Roethlisberger is that much more comfortable with Bruce Arians’s offense. A healthy Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall give Pittsburgh a dynamic backfield. The front five is already cohesive. Defensively, nine starters are back, and the replacements––Lawrence Timmons and William Gay––are both upgrades anyway. The coaching staff is completely intact for a third straight year, and the Steeler fan base remains arguably the best in football. The only thing that gives anyone pause about predicting a Super Bowl repeat is that this whole situation feels almost too good to be true.

Predicted: 1st AFC North
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Old 07-17-2009, 03:34 AM   #3
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Default Re: Steelers ’09 Preview

I just can't wait to see what Harrison, Woodley and Timmons will do this year. They should reak havok on opposing quarterbacks.

Our receiving core should be great this year we know Holmes and Ward will be the go to guys but with Sweed, McDonald and Wallace we should have no troubled finding a no. 3 receiver. Is the season here yet.
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Old 07-17-2009, 03:48 AM   #4
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Default Re: Steelers ’09 Preview

Another good find, Mesa.

It seems the Steelers might have learned a lesson from all the post Super Bowl XL hype. Don't rest or reflect for too long. Maybe by taking a better outlook into 2009, they can repeat.
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Old 07-17-2009, 08:14 AM   #5
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15-1 this year and call us the Dynasty of the century!!!
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Old 07-17-2009, 10:46 AM   #6
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Best article i've read in a while. But i had to laugh when the guy said Kemoeatu was underpowered and our O-line was one of the most cerebral and cohesive in football
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Old 07-17-2009, 11:58 AM   #7
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Originally Posted by Psyychoward86 View Post
Best article i've read in a while. But i had to laugh when the guy said Kemoeatu was underpowered and our O-line was one of the most cerebral and cohesive in football
Yeah, that part made me laugh a little bit too. For most of the season, they reacted to blitzes with the same coordination and teamwork you'd expect from a bunch of drunks who just got woken up by a fire alarm. And if Stapleton seems headed for a long-term contract, it's news to me unless it's with another team.

Anyway ... other than that, I thought it was a pretty solid breakdown. And if that's the worst of our problems, I'd take that over any team in football.
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Old 07-17-2009, 12:36 PM   #8
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Good read - hope everything he refers to comes true for 2009 Men of Steel.
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Old 07-21-2009, 03:13 PM   #9
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A very rosy pictured read. Nevertheless, barring serious injuries and our O-getting worse (possible?) most of it is true. REPEAT.
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Old 07-21-2009, 03:15 PM   #10
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We are primed to repeat this season provided james Harrison doesn't have sex with any waitresses.
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