Opening Statement: So much has happened since the final 2009 season game against Miami and the start of the season must be a welcome sight for the Steelers players and coaches. The preseason was a bit of a blur and was overall a success until quarterback Byron Leftwich went down with a MCL injury in the final game against Carolina. The roster has been paired down to 53 and features 8 rookie draft picks and 17 players 30 years of age or over, 10 of which are defensive players.
The picture heading into the 2010 season is pretty clear for the Steelers as franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will miss the first four games of the season as punishment for violating the NFL personal conduct policy. The debate will go on for a while if the punishment met the crime or in this case, the alleged crime, but it is what it is at this point. The injury to Leftwich means that 3rd year quarterback Dennis Dixon will open the season under center, that center being rookie first-round draft pick Maurkice Pouncey. Pouncey is the the first Steelers offensive lineman to start the season opener of his rookie year since tackle Marvel Smith started at right tackle in 2000. Pouncey also is just the second offensive lineman ever to start as a rookie for the club. He also becomes the sixth rookie to start his first career game since 2000. Dixon is making his second career regular season start with his first being last season against the Baltimore Ravens in Baltimore. On that night, Dixon completed 12 of 26 passes for 145 yards and one touchdown with one interception and rushed for 27 yards on three carries, including a 24-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter that gave the Steelers a brief lead. The interception to defensive end Paul Kruger set up a 29-yard field goal that ultimately gave the Ravens a 20-17 victory.
The Steelers 2010 season basically breaks up into four mini seasons within a season. The first mini season starts with the first four games minus Roethlisberger in which the Steelers play Atlanta, Tennessee, Tampa Bay and division rival Baltimore. The Steelers at worst need to come out of these first four games with a 2-2 record. A record better than that and the Steelers very well could be leading the division or at worst, tied for the lead. A 1-3 or 0-4 start would likely be too large of a hole to climb out of in the tough AFC North, but not impossible mind you. If a 1-3 record is achieved, it would be nice if the lone win came against either Baltimore or Tennessee, both of whom are of course in the AFC, but preferably it would be against the division foe Ravens.
The second mini season begins with the week 5 bye as the Steelers will get Roethlisberger back and have several practices to gear up for their second division game against Cleveland and then play on the road against Miami. I consider this only a 2 game mini season and think the Steelers almost have to go an undefeated 2-0 in theses games, especially if they were under .500 in the first mini four game season. If they happen to escape over .500 in the first mini season, a split in these two games would not kill them as long as the win comes against the Browns. These two games should be enough to get Roethlisberger back into a full rhythm and the offense clicking on all cylinders. The worst the Steelers record can dare be at this point of the season is 3-3 as the meat of the schedule is yet to come.
The third mini season is the eight game stretch starting in New Orleans. The Steelers could make a huge statement on the road and in front of a prime time audience by beating the defending Super Bowl champs in their own house. A win there could be a huge catalyst heading into the second half of the NFL season. It also could be the back breaker game depending on the record coming out of the first six games. The third mini season continues on and features both meetings with the Bengals, a second meeting with Baltimore at their place and closes out with the tough New York Jets at Heinz Field. Also sprinkled in that eight game mini season are the Patriots, Raiders and Bills. The Steelers very easily could come out of this stretch 6-2 or 2-6 as there are some tough games in this portion of the schedule.
Finally the last mini season features only two games against Carolina and Cleveland and it could be two must win games to lock up a playoff spot or just merely playing out the string. Regardless, both of these games should be very winnable looking ahead right now.
Position Breakdown: Before I give my prediction, I will give a brief summary of the team by position heading into the season.
Quarterback: It is sink or swim for Dennis Dixon now. Go 2-2 or better in the first four games and he is the hero of Pittsburgh, go 0-4 and he will be run out of town on a rail. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians needs to use him up, by letting him use his feet. It is only four games and it is not a win-win situation for Dixon. His whole career going forward will likely be decided by how he plays in these potential four starts. Ben Roethlisberger looked sharp in the preseason and looks like he is in the best shape he has been in for quite a while. Maybe it was nerves; maybe he has come to the realization that this can all be gone in an instant. I am not worried about how he will play coming off of the suspension, I just hope the offensive line can protect him better this year. He has the tools around him and hopefully the hole is not dug too deep before he returns. If you see Byron Leftwich in the first four games, it is because Dixon is hurt or not playing well. Leftwich may be asked to beat Tampa and Baltimore to get the Steelers back to .500 before Roethlisberger takes back over. Leftwich is capable, but will now not play if Dixon is healthy and winning as it is has become Dixon or bust since the Leftwich injury. Charlie Batch is fragile, but a great leader on the sideline. Hopefully he stays on the sideline.
Running Back: Rashard Mendenhall will be leaned on quite a bit early on as the Steelers will want to run and run often in the early portion of the season. Ball security is the only concern with Mendy going forward as he has the talent to be a 20 plus carry a game back in the NFL. He must know the details and help be a leader on and off the field. 1500 yards is not out of the question for Mendenhall, but 1300 is more realistic. Mewelde Moore is a third down back and a contributor on special teams. At this point in his career, I do not consider him a change of pace back or a back to spell Mendenhall for a series. Moore is a hard nosed player, but his role is about touching the football perhaps just 3 times a game. If Mendenhall goes down injured, Isaac Redman should be the main ball carrier with Moore getting most of his work on 3rd and longs. Redman will get plenty of initial opportunities early on for the short yardage and goal line work along with looks as the lead blocker in the pony backfield formation. Do not be surprised to see 500 yards and 8 touchdowns at the end of the year as he has excelled in bettering every area of his game. Rookie Jonathan Dwyer is red shirted this year. Baring injury, expect to see him on 16 straight game day inactive list as he learns the other part of being a NFL running back besides carrying the football.
Wide Receiver: Papa Smurf Hines Ward has quite a few little smurfs in tow this year. Mike Wallace had a great rookie year, but now must run the routes ran last year by Santonio Holmes. We know Mikey can go long on the plays drawn in the sand; it is his route running in the intimidate area that will be most scrutinized this season. Hines Ward is Hines Ward. He is the possession guy and must be the leader on the field and keep Dixon and company settled. He really will be counted on being Papa Smurf for sure in 2010 on and off the field. Look for another 70 catch season for Hines. Antwaan Randle El must do what he did in his first go around with the Steelers. A solid 35 catches, especially on key downs will be more than enough. He is a veteran of the game now and must help Hines get the other kids up to speed. Arnaz Battle is mostly a special teams guy who needs to make his contributions in that way on the field. Barring injury to other receivers, he will get an occasional snap or three in four wide receiver sets. Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders are rookies. Do not expect the same type of numbers from them that Mike Wallace put up last year as a rookie. Brown will have his hands full in the return game and needs to worry about that first. He too will get looks in four wide receiver sets when active. Sanders will likely be the odd man out on game days early in the season, but will be up in a minute should an injury happen. He could easily bypass Battle or El as well as the season progresses. Look for most of his play to come later in the year.
Offensive Line: I mentioned Pouncey early in the article. He will make rookie mistakes, but is clearly an upgrade over Justin Hartwig at center. The Dermontti Dawson comparisons are real. This kid has all the tools and should only get better. The more he has to run block early on, the better. Max Starks and Chris Kemoeatu are not “all world” left side lineman, but they are very capable, especially as run blockers. They both seem energized under new offensive line coach Sean Kugler. Penalties and pass blocking are the biggest concerns with these two, but I think you will see improvement by both this year. Flozell Adams has made steady improvement as he attempts to switch from left tackle to right tackle. False starts and edge pass blocking are his weak suits, but the more snaps he gets into the season, the more adjusted to the right he should get. What do you want me to say about Trai Essex? He is the weakest link in the line, but every line has one. Hopefully he holds his own this year. Doug Legursky is the swing man inside and can play both guard spots and of course back up Pouncey at center. He very well could start on other teams if given the chance. Tony Hills looks to finally have the light come on, but I am not too sure he is an every down left tackle. Jonathan Scott and Ramon Foster are both backup guys, with Foster offering a bit more position flexibility than Scott. Essex and Adams hold the key to the line success this year. Pouncey should make quite a few highlight reels this year with pancake blocks. Hopefully the line gets lots of run block opportunities early in the season.
Tight Ends: Heath Miller is one of the best in the game. He could very easily total 90 catches this year if things go right. He could just as easily tally half that number if things go bad. Miller does everything and is the most underrated player on offense. Say what you will about Matt Spaeth and David Johnson, but they bring their lunch boxes to work. It showed tremendously in preseason. Both contribute heavily on special teams as well. They do the dirty work most do not see and hopefully their strong preseason play carries over into the regular season. Johnson will get most of the traditional fullback looks, if any.
Linebackers: Very experienced bunch with some youth now sprinkled in. Left to right it is LaMarr Woodley, James Farrior, Lawrence Timmons and James Harrison. This is a nasty, nasty group. Timmons looks ready to make a huge jump in 2010 and Larry Foote was brought back to help spell Farrior inside and occasionally Timmons. Keyaron Fox mostly contributes on special teams, but is also capable of covering sideline to sideline. Three rookies will be eased in mostly on special teams in the form of second rounder Jason Worilds, fourth rounder Thaddeus Gibson and fifth rounder Stevenson Sylvester. All three will likely compete weekly for a game day hat with Sylvester being the most useful on special teams thus far in preseason. This is the best linebacking group in the league if you ask me and the strongest part of the defense.
Defensive Line: Nose tackle Casey Hampton seems reinvigorated by his new deal and in great shape. At ends, both Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel are just asked to hold the edges and push on passing downs. Neither players are going to tally big sack numbers. They both know their role in the Dick LeBeau defense and only battle father time as a main opponent. Second year man Ziggy Hood will get a heavy increase of playing time this year and will spell Smith the most on the left end. He needs to make a huge jump and prove his worth as a first rounder this year. He flashed in training camp, but not so much in preseason games this year as hoped. Nick Eason looks like a different player following his near death medical problems this offseason. He will be asked to rotate in for Keisel without a drop off in play. One word describes him, capable. Chris Hoke will spell the Big Snack a couple series a game at nose tackle. Except for Hood, this line has some age on it, but looked above the line in preseason. Hopefully the rotation will keep them fresher and healthy all season.
Defensive Backs: Troy Polamalu is back. Need I say more? He looked a bit rusty in preseason, but showed he still has burst. His ability and freedom to freelance is what makes him deadly. Offenses always have to account for him and he is a play maker and catalyst on defense. He must stay healthy this year as there is just no replacement for his style of play. With Polamalu back, it makes free safety Ryan Clark even better as Clark has less area to cover. He remains a heavy hitter on defense and adequate in pass coverage and reading defenses. They are perhaps the best safety combo in the NFL. Behind them are Will Allen and Ryan Mundy. Allen is an upgrade over Tyrone Carter from last year and Mundy has another full camp under his belt. At right corner it is a contract year for Ike Taylor and he will be auditioning for a final payday in 2011. He still has the skills, but does take a play off every now and again. He is still one of the better corners in the league though. Bryant McFadden is back on the left side after a rocky year in Arizona in which the defense did not match his skill set. McFadden will be pushed by the improving, yet inconsistent second year Keenan Lewis. It looked like Lewis was primed to unseat McFadden in the preseason, but he melted down in his preseason start in Denver and must start over earning his way back. William Gay goes back to his nickel job, where he is better suited as his time at left corner in 2009 was a disaster. Anthony Madison and rookie Crezdon Butler round out the defensive backs with Madison returning more for his special teams play than anything else. It will not be surprising to see Butler crack the lineup sooner than later. He has the complete skill set and may unseat Gay for the nickel job should he stumble out of the blocks. Butler looks to also be the heir apparent to Taylor at right corner and also got some work in camp at safety.
Special Teams: Punter Daniel Sepulveda got a chance to unseat Jeff Reed as the kickoff guy, but could not do it. Sepulveda can boom punts fine and Reed is deadly from 43 yards and in, so nothing really changes there. Both players are in their final years of their contracts this season and Greg Warren returns as the long snapper as long as his knees hold up. Arnaz Battle and Will Allen were brought in to help on special teams and Anthony Madison returns in his role as well. Rookie Antonio Brown gets first crack at the return job and one hopes the addition of new special teams coach Al Everest can help map out better coverages. A few rookies will be mixed in as well, so this could go either way as far as kick coverage goes. If Reed could nut up and kick out of the endzone, it sure would help things. It would also get him a big payday in free agency.
Prediction: OK, I bleed black and gold and have done so since the age of 4. I am also good at seeing things clearly by taking off my Steeler Nation glasses. The 2010 Steelers are a talented bunch; they will be handicapped by not having Big Ben the first four games. I do think that 2-2 is not out of the question until he returns for the 5th game versus the Browns. I think two straight wins is doable following the bye and will have the Steelers at 4-2 entering the key eight game stretch. 4-4 or better in that stretch is certainly attainable with season splits against both Baltimore and Cincinnati. After 14 games the Steelers would be 8-6 and looking at two relatively easier games to end the season on. I think they close out winning both and end the season at 10-6 and an AFC Wild Card spot. As we all know, anything can happen in the playoffs. I am not bold enough to say it is a Super Bowl year, but if the team is healthy come playoff time, you have to like their chances. If indeed it plays out this way, head coach Mike Tomlin certainly deserves Coach of the Year consideration.
Here is to a run for a 7th Lombardi. Let the season begin!
Here We Go Steelers, Here We Go!