Pittsburgh Steelers 2010 Season Preview: Waiting on Big Ben
Hey have you heard that Ben Roethlisberger is suspended? And if not, when did you get in from Latvia?
At this point, my 86-year-old grandmother knows the story of Roethlisberger's offseason troubles. And every preview about the Steelers this year is focused on what his suspension means.
What Roethlisberger's indiscretion really did was destroy what had been a very carefully constructed plan. Before Roethlisberger's run-in in Milledgeville,Ga., Pittsburgh had brought back ex-Steelers Larry Foote and Antwaan Randle El, re-signed potential free agents Ryan Clark and Casey Hampton and franchised kicker Jeff Reed. The plan was to bring in enough reinforcements to make at least one more run at the Super Bowl before the core of this team (which has won two Super Bowls in the past five seasons) got too old.
Roethlisberger may not have been charged in that offseason incident, but his six-game suspension (which was reduced to four games) immediately made it much more difficult for Pittsburgh to make the playoffs and ruined much of the Steelers' plans. The Steelers subsequently decided that former Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes (who ended up getting a four-game suspension himself) was too much of a trouble-maker to keep around. Pittsburgh still has playoff hopes, but it's definitely not as good as the team that the front office envisioned at draft time.
Offense: Holmes is now a Jet, Roethlisberger won't be able to show up until at least Week 5 and right tackle Willie Colon is wearing a boot on his ruptured Achilles tendon. But for all the bad news, Pittsburgh has a chance to have a pretty impressive offense. Until Roethlisberger returns, the Steelers will likely try to piece together an offense with a combination of Byron Leftwich's great arm/bad feet and Dennis Dixon's great feet/so-so arm. Whichever one is taking the snap will likely be handing off a lot to Rashard Mendenhall. Unlike most teams that now rely on a tailback platoon, Mendenhall won't be asked to share. With Holmes' gone, Mike Wallace steps up to become a starter. It's not as big a jump as many people expect -- as the No. 3 receiver last year, Wallace primarily faced starting cornerbacks while Hines Ward got to face nickel backs. The biggest offensive question is whether Flozell Adams can replace Colon -- he looked awful in the first two preseason games but much better against the Broncos. Heat Index: 8
Defense: Pittsburgh boasts the oldest defense in the league with seven starters who are 30 years old or older, but it's the health of one of the younger starters that is the real question. Roethlisberger's return is arguably only the second most most important story of the Steelers' 2010 season. If strong safety Troy Polamalu's balky knee causes the same problems it did last year (he missed 10 games in 2009), the Steelers' defense goes from being the league's best (as it was in 2008) to mediocre (as it was when Polamalu was missing). If everyone stays healthy, though, this defense should be quite good. James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley are the best pair of outside linebackers in the league. The Steelers expect this to be the year that inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons joins them in the Pro Bowl. And 2008 first-round pick Ziggy Hood should continue to develop. Heat Index: 9
Special Teams: Special teams were the reason Pittsburgh failed to make the playoffs in 2009. If Pittsburgh had not allowed four kickoff returns for touchdowns, it would have arguably finished 11-5 -- at worst, 10-6. The Steelers drafted three linebackers and signed free-agent wide receiver Arnaz Battle in hopes of fixing the coverage problems. Kicker Jeff Reed is great at kicking field goals and not so solid at kicking off. The Steelers also have not gotten as much production out of punter Daniel Sepulveda as they would have hoped -- he has been adequate but nothing more. In the return game, Stefan Logan was quite good last year, but he may not make the roster this year because rookie Antonio Brown can take his spot and catch passes. Heat Index: 4
Coaching: Mike Tomlin replaced his offensive line and special-teams coaches during the offseason after both units disappointed in 2009. Just as importantly, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is back for his 51st season in the NFL. As long as LeBeau is around, Pittsburgh's defense should be fundamentally sound and be able stuff the run. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians is not nearly as popular with Steelers fans, but it's hard to argue with Pittsburgh's production last season. Heat Index: 8
Intangibles: Between Roethlisberger's suspension, Colon's injury and the unsettled situation at quarterback for the season opener, Pittsburgh has a lot of drama for a team that likes to avoid any negative headlines. If Pittsburgh can get to Roethlisberger's return with a .500 record, it should be in solid shape, but that will be tough. Heat Index: 5
Total Heat Index: 34/50. Talent-wise, Pittsburgh isn't that different from the team that won the Super Bowl two seasons ago. But this team has a lot of games under its belt and a quarterback who can't step foot into the stadium for the first month of the season. All of that makes it hard to see how the Steelers can keep up with a drama-free Ravens squad.