Steelers 2011 preview

Posted Aug. 30, 2011 @ 12:08 p.m.
Posted By Mike Wilkening

The Steelers entered 2010 as an afterthought. QB Ben Roethlisberger was suspended for the first four games, and top backup Byron Leftwich suffered a knee injury in the final preseason game, forcing the Steelers to turn to young Dennis Dixon in Week One. Division-rival Baltimore looked like a solid favorite to win the AFC North, considering Pittsburgh's seeming plight.

But the Steelers ground out an overtime win vs. Atlanta in Week One, persevered to win at Tennessee the following week despite losing Dixon and getting little from the offense, then got a game to remember from fourth-string QB Charlie Batch in a romp at Tampa Bay in Week Three. Buoyed by exceptional play from the defense, the Steelers went 3-1 without Roethlisberger, thriving during the toughest part of their schedule.

Roethlisberger returned in Week Six, and the Steelers were on their way to winning the AFC North and capturing the conference title before falling in Super Bowl XLV to Green Bay.

No one will overlook the Steelers this season, and in an offseason disrupted by a work stoppage, their organizational stability could be a major asset. The Steelers are experienced, and they are talented.

For all of Pittsburgh's recent success, however, the franchise has a couple unfortunate and surprising lines on its résumé — playoff misses in 2006 and '09 after reaching the Super Bowl the previous season. Avoiding the same fate is a primary goal for the 2011 Steelers.

 

OFFENSE

The Steelers have one of the NFL's most potent downfield passing attacks. Coordinator Bruce Arians' attack will not be confused with a West Coast scheme, not with QB Ben Roethlisberger standing in the pocket until the last possible moment looking for receivers breaking free. The Steelers still can employ a grind-it-out, run-heavy offense at times, but that is not their preference or their greatest strength. Roethlisberger's passing makes this attack go.

Quarterbacks: Ben Roethlisberger has rare ability for the position, possessing a unique blend of arm strength, mobility, accuracy, toughness and field vision. The Steelers' offense can stretch defenses like few others because of his skill set. Roethlisberger has cut down on the turnovers that sometimes plagued him earlier in his career, a positive sign. He is also said to have matured after a four-game personal-conduct suspension last season. The knocks on Roethlisberger? He takes too many sacks — an alarming 274 in the regular season in just seven years in the league. Though he hasn't missed more than four games in any of his seven seasons, the pounding he has taken could exact its toll at some point. Also, he is one off-field misstep from even more severe league discipline. The QB depth took a hit when Byron Leftwich, slated to be the top backup, suffered a broken left arm in the third preseason game. His season could be over. Dennis Dixon could move into the No. 2 role with Leftwich out. Dixon began 2010 as the starter with Roethlisberger out and showed some potential before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Veteran Charlie Batch filled in admirably for Dixon early last season. He knows the offense and can be trusted to make good decisions but lacks mobility and arm strength.

Running backs: RB Rashard Mendenhall has rushed for more than 1,100 yards in back-to-back seasons. He has proven he can be a workhorse back, thriving as the focal point of the offense with Roethlisberger missing the first four games of the season. Mendenhall had 324 carries and caught 23 passes a season ago and will continue to carry a heavy workload this season, with head coach Mike Tomlin showing no hesitation when it comes to using his featured back. Stout and fast, Mendenhall has the speed to get to the corner and run away from the secondary if he gets to the second level. He is not especially elusive but does boast a nice spin move. One concern with Mendenhall — he has struggled to hold on to the ball at times. Isaac Redman will be the top backup to Mendenhall. He's strong and physical — a solid option in short-yardage — and catches the ball fairly well.  He lacks speed. Second-year RB Jonathan Dwyer, a powerful plodder, has some upside but must mature. He came into camp out of shape but worked himself into condition. Veteran Mewelde Moore provides further depth. TE David Johnson is the blocking back.

Receivers: WR Mike Wallace is a deep threat capable of outrunning coverages designed to take away the big play. Moreover, he has improved his all-around game, too, becoming a better target on shorter routes. But speed is Wallace's game, and he is at his best when he is sprinting downfield. He is good at tracking and catching the deep ball, a skill that will serve him well even when he starts to lose a step to age. The Steelers' other starting wideout, Hines Ward, is masterful working the middle of the field. Ward's production picked up when Roethlisberger returned to the lineup, and he caught seven passes in the Super Bowl. However, he will be 36 next March, and his catches declined significantly last season. Second-year WR Emmanuel Sanders is quick and was a big part of the offense in the second half of the season. However, he had surgery on both feet in the offseason and missed the beginning of camp because of a left foot injury. Antonio Brown is an improving player; he made the most of his opportunities a season ago and had a strong summer. He's a player to watch and could be tough to keep off the field. Ex-Jet Jerricho Cotchery adds more quality depth. Arnaz Battle will vie to stick as the sixth wideout. TE Heath Miller is one of the AFC's better all-around tight ends, a solid pass catcher and blocker whose numbers don't always tell the story about his contribution. David Johnson could replace the departed Matt Spaeth in some two-TE sets. Undrafted rookie TE Wesyle Saunders has some talent but needs to mature. Veteran John Gilmore is another option at tight end.

Offensive linemen: C Maurkice Pouncey had a major impact on the Steelers' offense as a rookie, starting all 16 games and proving to be a force in the middle of the line. Pouncey possesses a special blend of movement skills, size and power. Already the Steelers' top lineman and a Pro Bowler, he has a very bright future. Pouncey aggravated an ankle injury in the third preseason game, but head coach Mike Tomlin indicated it was not serious. OLG Chris Kemoeatu's play can be hit-and-miss. He can be a mauler in the run game; he's powerful and pulls well. However, he has struggled somewhat in pass protection. There was an open competition at right guard during the summer, with Tony Hills, Ramon Foster and Doug Legursky shaping up as the primary contenders at the position. Hills has good athleticism, but Foster has the experience edge at the position. Legursky, who started for the injured Pouncey in the AFC title game and Super Bowl, has shown steady improvement throughout his career.The Steelers ran well off right guard last season, but as a daily team observer noted, that also might have been a function of Kemoeatu being so strong pulling to his right. ORT Willie Colon was the Steelers' best lineman in 2009 but missed last season with an Achilles injury. He's tough and a solid run blocker but has problems in pass protection at times. Jonathan Scott will replace Max Starks at left tackle. Scott didn't fare especially well in pass protection at times filling in for Starks but improved somewhat as the season went on. Rookie OG Keith Williams has intriguing size and athleticism but needs to improve his work habits. Veteran Trai Essex looks likely to be the top backup left tackle. Rookie OT Marcus Gilbert has excellent size and length but must be tougher. Physical Chris Scott got a look at right guard but likely will be a reserve if he makes the club.

 

DEFENSE

Dick LeBeau's zone blitzes have thrown offenses for a loop in his more than 20 seasons as an NFL defensive coordinator. Pittsburgh employs a 3-4 front and long has drafted successfully to fill the scheme. This is a stout, sound, experienced, tough defense that doesn't give up much ground in the running game and gets after the quarterback on passing downs. The defense's ability to combat spread offenses is a concern, however.

Defensive linemen: The majority of the Steelers' key defensive linemen will be 33 or older by September, but the unit remains a strength all the same. NT Casey Hampton is a force in the middle, one of the major reasons it is so difficult to run up the middle on Pittsburgh. His top backup, Chris Hoke, is stout in his own right and a valuable member of the D-line rotation. DRE Brett Keisel made the Pro Bowl for the first time in 2010. He is athletic and strong at the point of attack. Durability is a concern with DLE Aaron Smith, who missed most of last season with a triceps injury. Ziggy Hood stepped into his place in the lineup, and the defense didn't miss a beat. Hood is a better player vs. the pass than vs. the run, according to a daily division observer. Smith could remain the starter if healthy, but Hood, who showed marked improvement in his second NFL season, is likely to play regularly. Rookie Cameron Heyward will see time at end. Heyward is strong and should fit the scheme well but lacks athleticism, instincts and pass-rush ability. Steve McLendon will compete for a reserve role along the line.

Linebackers: With LaMarr Woodley rushing off left end and James Harrison providing one of the game's most intimidating presences off the right side, this is the NFL's top four-man LB corps. Woodley is tough and strong and is an outstanding pass rusher and run defender. He has been excellent in postseason games throughout his career, too. Harrison is exceptionally powerful and is one of the best pass rushers playing outside linebacker. He is so strong and sudden and plays with such good leverage that he can be an absolute nightmare for taller, slower-of-foot tackles. Like Woodley, he's stout vs. the run, too. Tough and smart, LILB James Farrior continues to play at a high level. He's an effective blitzer. RILB Lawrence Timmons comes off the best season of his career. He was much better vs. the run. Timmons is strong and athletic  and has developed nicely in four seasons in the defense. Second-year pro Jason Worilds and rookie Chris Carter are among the reserve OLB options. Strong and fast, Worilds showed some pass-rush ability in limited action last season. Carter is athletic and was a very effective pass rusher at Fresno State but must get stronger and is transitioning from defensive end. He suffered a hamstring injury in the third preseason game. Larry Foote, a former starter, provides experienced depth inside. Second-year pro Stevenson Sylvester backs up inside and provides special-teams value. 

Defensive backs: SS Troy Polamalu could be the most valuable defensive player in football. When Polamalu is in the lineup and on top of his game, the Steelers' defense is formidable on every level. Polamalu is outstanding near the line of scrimmage and an exceptional playmaker in coverage, possessing excellent ball skills and a knack for being in the right place at the right time. When he is out of the lineup or compromised by injury, the defense isn't the same. Polamalu missed a pair of games last season with an Achilles injury, and though he returned for the final regular-season game and postseason, he didn't make nearly the impact he did earlier in the season. Durability is the big concern with Polamalu. FS Ryan Clark is instinctive and hard-hitting, a nice complement to Polamalu and a good fit in the defense. RCB Ike Taylor is coming off one of his best seasons. Taylor's height, length, physicality and speed allow him to match up well with bigger receivers. He suffered a broken thumb in the preseason opener but was expected to be ready for Week One. LCB Bryant McFadden is athletic and physical, a solid scheme fit, but teams will be more apt to test him than Taylor. CB William Gay, whom the Steelers re-signed, played better as the nickel cornerback than as a starter and appears best-suited for that role. He has struggled when he has been pressed into the lineup. Rookies Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen were added to bolster the CB depth. Brown is athletic but needs to improve his strength. Allen is big and fast but raw. Reserve Keenan Lewis fits the mold of a Steelers corner with his good size but has underwhelmed in two seasons. He suffered a knee injury in the third preseason game. Second-year pro Crezdon Butler, who has good size and athleticism, is also vying to make the roster as a reserve cornerback. Will Allen and Ryan Mundy are the top backup safeties and special-teams contributors.

 

SPECIAL TEAMS

PK Shaun Suisham connected on 14-of-15 regular-season field-goal attempts after replacing Jeff Reed and stabilized the position. However, two of Suisham's three misses (counting playoffs) were at Heinz Field, and he does not have an exceptionally strong leg. Daniel Sepulveda and Jeremy Kapinos are the top candidates at punter. Sepulveda is very talented but has suffered three serious knee injuries, including one last season. Swift Antonio Brown will return both kickoffs and punts. The kickoff coverage was better in 2010 than it was in '09, when it was an utter weakness.

 

SUMMARY

With one of the game's elite quarterbacks and a stellar defense, the Steelers rank among the AFC's top contenders and are deserving division favorites. That said, they have failed to make the postseason after their last two trips to the Super Bowl, losing their way in both of those disappointing seasons. If they keep their best form, however, look out — they will be tough again in the playoffs.

 

To order the digital edition of Pro Football Weekly's 2011 NFL Preview magazine, visit the PFW Store. The publication contains scouting reports on all 32 teams, rosters, depth charts, positional grades and 2010 week-by-week stats. Also, the magazine includes PFW's exclusive player rankings feature, ranking the top players in the league by position and overall.