Before the season kicks off tomorrow, let's take a look at what this year's squad has to offer and various issues with the team.
-The only major departure in my mind is Alan Faneca. Faneca was our best Offensive Lineman until last year when I thought he mailed in the season along with the rest of the O line. If we lost the Faneca of old I would be extremely worried. We lost the Faneca who was pissed at the team all of last year failing to give 100%. I am a little worried about the loss but not as much as a lot of people. More on this in the O line section.
-On the plus side, or as some may call it addition by subtraction, much maligned center, Sean Mahan has been traded back to Tampa Bay for a 7th round draft choice instantly improving the offensive line. Mahan was awful all of last year which is extremely rare for the Steelers at Center.
-Justin Hartwig was brought in to be the savior at center after last year's debacle named Sean Mahan. It was clear from the beginning Hartwig would win the job and I believe it was a competition in name only.
-Rashard Mendenhall was the # 1 draft pick this year instantly exciting Steeler fans everywhere with the prospect of a new "Jerome Betis". He should be a great 1-2 punch with fast Willie. He has shown promise in the preseason although he did fumble twice in a preseason game. He is a rook
-Limas Sweed. Ask and you shall receive. Ben had made some comments requesting a tall receiver. One fell into the Steez lap when Sweed was still there late in the 2nd round. I had high hopes for him when we drafted him but I began to question how good he can be when it was revealed he needed contacts for poor vision and did not even realize it till the coaches discovered it. How can you not realize you can't see? I didn't really see that much out of him in the preseason games but preseason is preseason and I think he will be a nice addition for Ben.
-Mewelde Moore. A few years back he was a late season fantasy stud for the Vikes. Brought in to be the third down back and return kicks. If the Steelers actually commit to throwing to our running backs, I would be extremely excited especially since we have speedsters. I think he will be a solid contributor.
O line issues and front office decisions
-Probably the biggest question mark on the team this year. The loss of Faneca will hurt. The pundits have said that Kemoeatu is not much of a replacement since he hasn't played much in the 4 years since we drafted him. That is because he was Faneca's backup, a perennial all-pro who never missed time. I am predicting he will have a nice season and will be better than Faneca's no-show last year. Most reports say he is tenacious at the point of attack. Let's hope that is the case. Clearly the right side of our O line is the weakest. Simmons is awful. Colon is not much better. 7 million dollar man, Starks can't even crack the starting lineup. Curiously, he was solid as a backup at left tackle last season to Marvel Smith. Maybe the Steelers should keep him at backup to left tackle and groom him to replace Marvel who's contract is quickly expiring. Still paying him $7 million is ludicrous. We could have paid a little bit more and kept Faneca. Now we are paying it to a man who can't even start on the right side of a line that is weak. This has to be one of the most questionable decisions the Steelers front office has made in a while. Ah, except for maybe the Sean Mahan signing.
-Run blocking was not a huge issue last year as Willie was the leading rusher in the league until he broke his leg. Pass blocking was another story. Big Ben has been sacked the most in the league the last two years. That needs to change this year especially with Santonio Holmes turning into one of the best deep threats in the league. I think it definetely will improve this year. Smith is back. Kemo will be good. Hartwig will be an improvement over Mahan. If Simmons can just try not to suck horribly and Colon can improve a little, I won't be too worried. Still worried but not too worried.
-Once again, special teams is an area that needs improvement and an area for concern. Punter Daniel Sepulveda is out for the year with a torn ACL. Mitch Berger beat out Paul Ernster for the job and had a nice average during the preseason. Coverage seemingly improved over the course of the preseason but time will tell on this one. I don't understand why it is so difficult for this team to cover kicks but it is.
-Jeff Reed is quietly becoming a very reliable kicker. He had a great year last year and continued his consitency in the exhibition games this year. His kickoff depth has also been improved, most likely due to his enormous thighs. If he kicked you, you would die.
-The return game is an issue yet again. The Steelers had no less than five return men in camp. Jeremy Bloom, Eddie Drummond, Willie Reid, Mewelde Moore and Santonio Holmes. No one clearly seperated themselves from anyone else, freeing the Steelers to release Drummond, Reid and Bloom. Hopefully someone can provide a spark. Again, I am baffled at how we can't find a serviceable return person. Pacman Jones can catch a punt while holding five other balls and we can't find someone to run straight ahead.
-O line will be the weakest link in the offense this year. You are only as strong as your weakest link. How they play will determine alot. However, Ben was sacked almost 50 times last year yet was the 2nd highest rated passer in the league throwing 32 touchdowns and only 11 ints. I agree with coach Tomlin that protection of the QB is an entire team concept and I think Ben holds on to the ball too long sometimes. He needs to get rid of it more often and the team as a whole needs to protect better. Our running game should once again be a force with Fast Willie and Rashard as a formidable one-two punch and with Mewelde coming in on third downs and catching the ball out of the backfield.
-Receivers and TE look to be a strength with Santonio Holmes emerging as a quality deep threat. He led the legue in average yards per catch last season. Heath Miller continues to be a sweet option for Ben over the middle, if only he would use him more. Hines Ward continues to be the heart of the team and a beast on the field. I fully expect him to have another productive season but I look for Santonio to emerge as the # 1 guy with Hines as our go to third down guy. Nate Washington has shown improvement but I hope Sweed moves into the third spot before this year is over. Opposing D's will have to pick their poison once that occurs.
-Playcalling is another worry, especially after some questionable calls in the playoff loss to the Jags. I hope to see a lot of passes to the RB's out of the backfield to neutralize some of the pressure that Ben has faced. I don't expect us to go pass wacky but do expect alot of down field throwing which hopefully will open up the middle for Heath and Hines to roam and also backs coming out of the backfield underneath.
Overall I see our Offense being very productive this season. They are stacked with weapons and opposing D coordinators will have many late nights trying to figure out who to stop. I see them ave. between 26-28 points per game.
-After a collapse at the end of last year, there is concern about that the D is beginning to show its age and is wearing down at the end of the season. The D line depth is one major area of concern. Aarron Smith is probably the most underrated player and one of the most if not the most valuable on the D. Part of the letdown last year can be blamed on his absence due to injury. If the D line can stay healthy they are the best in the league. But age is a factor and there is a considerable drop off in quality with the backups. O. Roye was brought in for a second stint with the Steez to provide some depth. Kirschke and Hoke are both better the average backups. Casey Hampton is always rock solid at the nose and will be blowing up plays all over the place again this season. Keisel had a ton of pressures but needs to be more consistent and get more sacks. If this D doesn't get pressure and sacks we get killed.
-Nice to see Lawrence Timmons making large strides and pushing Larry Foote for the starting spot. I love Foote and he is one of our best run stoppers. Whoever is in there will be great. Farrior seems to be ageless and is primed for another great season. We really need Lamarr Woodley to step it up and provide some serious pressure on opposing QB's to be effective defensively this season. James Harrison is crazy and will have another crazy season.
-Another surprise was the letdown the absebce of safety Ryan Clark caused. Anthony Smith was a disaster back there and Clark's return has been welcome. I never thought I would have missed him but we did and his return should help restore order to the defensive backfield. Once again, the health of Troy is making everyone anxious. Can he play a full season? Probably not. Mostly because he can't tackle correctly and just flings his entire body at whoever has the ball which takes a toll on him. Hopefully he can play most of the season. I would love to see him stay back a little more this year and play like a safety should and not around the line of scrimmage so much.
-Another constant battle has been between Bryant McFadden and Deshea Townsend. Seemingly every year is the year McFadden will beat out Deshea for the starting job, yet he never does. I really believe Deshea is too slow to be a starting corner and gives way too much cushion. I think McFadden deserves his shot to start and thought he looked good in the preseason games. I think we will see him alot more this year. Ike Taylor should have another solid year. If he could catch he would be amazing. He drops more ints than anyone ever.
I think the D will be solid. Sack totals need to go up and I think they will. I see turnovers created increasing as well and another stellar year for the D. They will have to be with the schedule we face.
-the schedule seems to be the toughest in the league but that remains to be seen. You never know how it will actually play out. The good news is that the rest of the AFC North plays a very similar schedule. The good news is that come the end of the season and the post-season we will be very battle tested and prepared for the next round of competition like no other team in the NFL.
-I really think we have a strong squad this year. With the schedule I can see us being anywhere from 8 wins to 11 wins. I think we win the division no doubt. 8 wins could win our division this year. Once into the playoffs, our schedule will have prepared us for what is to come. I wouldn't count us out for a Championship game appearance and who knows what could happen after that.
Prediction 10-6 AFC North Champs.