Pittsburgh Steelers 2008 Preview Report

Parker

By Andy Benoit, www.NFLTouchdown.com

Predicted: 1st

2007 Record: 10-6 (1st AFC North)

Head Coach: Mike Tomlin (2nd year)

Roster Quick View

*rookie

**new veteran

Offense

QB: Ben Roethlisberger Signed the richest contract in franchise history over the offseason. Twenty-six and coming off a 32-touchdown season. He’s in his prime.

RB: Willie Parker Supposedly an undersized slasher, though 658 carries over the past two seasons suggest otherwise. Should be great in a mildly scaled-back role in 2008.

FB: Carey Davis Doesn’t have the power or pop to clear paths like Dan Kreider, but he’s a fairly versatile all-around weapon (for a FB).

WR: Hines Ward Only 32, but his physical style of play could be catching up to him. If he’s healthy, he’s still a preeminent possession receiver.

WR: Santonio Holmes Led the league in yards per catch last season (18.1). Great speed; appears primed for a breakout season.

TE: Heath Miller Excellent short-range receiver who is also adroit as a run-blocker. Steelers love his steady style.

LT: Marvel Smith Back problems truncated his ’07 season. Ninth-year vet in an expiring contract, but still only 30 years old. If he’s right, Big Ben’s blindside is safe.

LG: Chris Kemoeatu Has not significantly progressed during his four years here, but the team has always been intrigued with him. Replacing one of the best in Alan Faneca.

C: Justin Hartwig Somewhat disappointing in Carolina; signed to compete with last year’s disappointing free agent pickup, Sean Mahan.

RG: Kendall Simmons Excellent feet make him viable as a transit run-blocker. Doesn’t have great power, and is not immune to the occasional breakdown, but a solid veteran overall.

RT: Willie Colon Critics think he’d be better at G. Perhaps. But with his raw ability, he’s capable of thriving on the edge. Must continue his stellar development.

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QB: Charlie Batch The consummate backup QB. Storied veteran, respected leader, smart decision-maker and effective caretaker.

RB: Rashard Mendenhall* Should be an excellent “two” behind Willie Parker’s “one-punch.”

WR: Limas Sweed* Wrist injury dropped him from the first round. Steelers hope he can be an outside force as a No. 3 wideout in 2008.

WR: Nate Washington Decent player, but never put a stranglehold on his opportunity to be the team’s slot receiver.

TE: Matt Spaeth Great frame (6’7″, 270). Still a work in progress as a blocker, but should be an excellent No. 2 TE in the long haul. Already a great presence in the red zone.

OL: Max Starks Slapped with the franchise tag, but doesn’t have the fundamentals to maintain a starting job.

Defense

LDE: Aaron Smith Coming off a very quiet season (31 tackles, 2.5 sacks). Thirty-two but can still be effective.

NT: Casey Hampton A monster in the middle and a big reason why this defense ranks near the top year in and year out. Endurance and durability are constant struggles though.

RDE: Brett Keisel Very active player but, like most 3-4 DE’s, nothing special.

LOLB: LaMarr Woodley The second-year pro is the NFL’s leading candidate for a breakout season. Expect 12-15 sacks in 2008.

LILB: James Farrior At 33, he’s lost half a step. Can still get by on intelligence; but isn’t the darting bone-crusher he once was.

RILB: Larry Foote Could lose his job to Lawrence Timmons, though few players can take on blocks as well as he can.

ROLB: James Harrison Led the team with 8.5 sacks last season, but earned Pro Bowl honors because of his excellence in coverage and run defense.

CB: Ike Taylor At 6’1″, 191, a terrific man-to-man defender. Problem is, this defense calls for a lot of zone. Will drop at least four or five interceptions every season.

SS: Troy Polamalu A bum knee slowed him last season. If he’s healthy–and he appears to be–he’s one of the most destructive forces in football.

FS: Ryan Clark Lost his spleen and gallbladder to a blood disorder last November. Still, the Steelers think he’s a safer option than Tyrone Carter or Anthony Smith.

CB: Deshea Townsend Eleventh-year veteran who could be the steadiest inconsistent player in NFL history. You try to figure him out.

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DL: Travis Kirschke Used as a multifaceted joker near the line of scrimmage, but he’s no Adalius Thomas.

LB: Lawrence Timmons Classic OLB who is being moved inside in hopes of injecting more speed up the gut. Saw very limited action as a first-round rookie in ’07.

NB: Bryant McFadden Needs to step up in his fourth season. Should have captured a starting job two years ago.

Key Players Acquired

LB Keyaron Fox (KC)

C Justin Hartwig (Car)

RB Mewelde Moore (Min)

Key Players Lost

G Alan Faneca (NYJ)

LB Clark Haggans (Ari)

RS Allen Rossum (SF)

QB Brian St. Pierre (Ari)

TE Jerame Tuman (Ari)

WR Cedrick Wilson

It is arrogant of the Steelers to think that they can simply lose a player as great as Faneca and not pay a heavy price. Their offensive line was already starting to sputter–Hartwig isn’t going to save the day. Haggans was expendable because second-year player LaMarr Woodley is scheduled for a coming-out party in ’08. They didn’t need Tuman after Matt Spaeth arrived. Wilson was released one day after punching his girlfriend in the face. He was on the bubble before that anyway. Fox will improve their special teams; Moore gives them depth at RB and in the return game.

2008 – Pittsburgh Steelers

Rd

Sel #

Player

Position

School

1

23

Rashard Mendenhall

RB

Illinois

2

53

Limas Sweed

WR

Texas

3

88

Bruce Davis

DE

UCLA

4

130

Tony Hills

T

Texas

5

156

Dennis Dixon

QB

Oregon

6

188

Mike Humpal

OLB

Iowa

6

194

Ryan Mundy

FS

West Virginia

Given Willie Parker’s presence, nabbing Mendenhall in the first round surprised a lot of people. However, it’s one of those moves that can quickly be deemed “brilliant.” Pittsburgh is already a great running team–imagine what they’ll do with a strong one-two punch. Sweed gives them the size they haven’t had at WR since Plaxico Burress. Ben Roethlisberger is thrilled to have him. Davis will be converted to a pass-rushing OLB. Three of the four veteran OT’s are in the last year of their contract, which means Hills may see the field in 2009. They’d love for Dixon to develop into a long-term backup.

Pittsburgh Steelers 2008 Preview Report

Chris Kemoeatu? The new starting guard? You’re telling me that the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2008 season rides on him? You’re crazier than Scientology.

It’s true (the part about Kemoeatu, that is). The fate of the ’08 Steelers rests somewhere within the 6’3″, 344-pound left guard. Don’t believe it?

Take a few steps back. Keep going until you see the bigger picture–the biggest picture, even. Okay, good. From here, you notice that football is far too complex for one single factor–be it a person, place, time, whatever–to dictate the season-long outcome of an entire team, right? Excellent. Now, for the sake of this report, take a few steps in. Keep converging until you’re where you can see the current Steelers organization–recent history and all. Got it? Perfect. Now let’s examine things from this view.

You see Kemoeatu? Keep him in mind–he’s where we’ll end up. I want you to follow along here. We’re going to scan this team and look for weaknesses. Before we get too far along, look at Pittsburgh‘s leadership coterie. There’s the venerable Dan Rooney–owner of this proud franchise and son of one of pro football’s greatest pioneers (Art Rooney). Many believe Rooney is the best owner in the business. He’s certainly one of the most grounded.

You see Rooney’s most recent head coach? That’s Mike Tomlin–the guy who just arrived last year. Tomlin is only the third head coach in this team’s history. He had the unenviable job of replacing the legendary Bill Cowher, who won a Super Bowl in his 14th season with the club. A lot of people were floored when Tomlin was hired. Even a lot of the Steeler players were caught off-guard. It was thought that Rooney and director of football operations Kevin Colbert would hire from within and promote either offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt or offensive line coach Russ Grimm. But no, they went with the, at the time, 34-year-old Tomlin. He is one of those apples from the Tony Dungy tree–a Cover 2 apostle. Cover 2 is almost the antithesis of the 3-4 scheme that defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has made famous here.

Anyway, we don’t need to spend too much time on Tomlin. The guy arrived last year, made it immediately clear that he didn’t care what people thought and, through his own methods, guided this team to a division title. It looks like the Rooney family is 3/3 on head coaches.

Look at Tomlin’s quarterback. Ben Roethlisberger is in his fifth season out of Miami (Ohio). He just signed an eight-year, $102 million deal ($33.2 million guaranteed), making him the richest player in franchise history. Yes, this gives him a lot to live up to, but really, are there many doubts about this guy? Roethlisberger is coming off a season in which he tossed 32 touchdowns and just 11 interceptions. His only downfall was that he took too many sacks (47–second most ever by a Steeler). But we’ll talk about this more when we get back to Kemoeatu.

Roethlisberger will have some great outlets to throw to this season. You probably recognize Number 86. That’s Hines Ward, MVP of Super Bowl XL. He’s 32 and coming off a down year. But if healthy, he’s still one of the finest contributors in the game. See the guys around Ward? The smaller one is Santonio Holmes, Pittsburgh‘s third-year stud who is on the cusp of exploding. The bigger guy is second-round pick Limas Sweed, a player Roethlisberger wanted in the worst of ways (Big Ben’s been clamoring for a tall wideout ever since Plaxico Burress left after 2004). You can even see both of the Steelers’ tight ends (Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth). They’re only getting better.

Can you spot Pittsburgh‘s running backs? As you know, this organization is renowned for running the ball. Smash-mouth football lives here. The Steelers had 511 rushing attempts last season–third most in the NFL. Willie Parker finished the year on the sideline with a broken fibula, but before that, he was dominant, rushing for 1,316 yards. You can tell that Parker is healthy now, and he has a new partner in crime: first-round rookie Rashard Mendenhall. Mendenhall is a versatile inside runner who is dynamic enough to go the distance. He only had one great season at Illinois, but the Steelers love his potential. He should be a fine compliment to the 209-pound Parker. Last time Pittsburgh had this kind of duo, they won a Super Bowl behind Parker and a guy they called The Bus.

We’ll pass through the defense quickly. Not a lot to dwell on here. Dick LeBeau’s unit continues to flourish in its patented 3-4. Last season the Steelers led the league in fewest yards allowed, and they gave up the second fewest points. They did fade down the stretch just a bit, but are you really worried about that? From this perspective, you can obviously see that the Steelers D is rock-solid virtually every year. With Troy Polamalu healthy, and the new starting linebacker–there he is, right there, Number 56. LaMarr Woodley; see him? He’ll be a beast this season–joining 10 returning veterans, there’s little to worry about here.

Are you starting to appreciate the big picture now? Is this Steeler club not sturdy as a Redwood?

Let’s go back to Kemoeatu. What do you know about him? Okay, that’s fine–you’re not unlike most people. After all, it’s hard to know a guy who has barely played his first three years. Kemoeatu saw some playing time last season but did not register a start. He was active for only three games in the two years prior to that.

Kemoeatu grew up in the Tonga and is the younger brother of Panthers defensive tackle Ma’ake Kemoeatu. The Steelers drafted him late in the sixth round out of Utah. It’s unknown whether they brought him in with the intent to one day have him start. It’s unlikely they foresaw him taking over for Alan Faneca.

How do you replace a six-time Pro Bowler? Better yet, how do the Steelers put themselves in a position to even need a replacement for the star guard? Faneca and the front office had an acrimonious relationship the last few years. Basically, Faneca wanted to be paid like the top-flight offensive lineman that he is, but the Steelers didn’t want to pony up the dough. That’s often how this celebrated organization operates. Generally, their frugalness pays off.

But is letting a 31-year-old Faneca leave with no strings attached maybe a little too rigid? After the departure of center Jeff Hartings, Pittsburgh‘s offensive line struggled late last season even with Faneca. It takes a certain level of arrogance to think the front five can function just fine in ’08 without its best component. The Steelers’ unwavering commitment to their parsimonious business model is admirable, but if every de rigueur were honored to a T, Thomas Jefferson would have never completed the unconstitutional Louisiana Purchase, Lincoln would have never kept Maryland from joining the Confederacy and no U.S. airline would be in business today.

Kemoeatu will be a reflection of Pittsburgh‘s storied order of rule. If the first-time starter adequately replaces Faneca, the Steelers organization will maintain its reputation of being a well-oiled machine. Should Kemoeatu struggled, the Steelers image won’t instantly blemish, but the franchise’s traditional method of operations will have unequivocally backfired.

The left guard position lends symbolism, my friend. And important ingredients to the offensive game plan.

Offense

Needless to say, Ben Roethlisberger is a crucial piece to the puzzle in 2008. Unlike with Chris Kemoeatu, there’s no hint of a metaphor behind Roethlisberger’s significance; if the quarterback doesn’t play well, this team won’t go far (see 2006). Big Ben should continue down his path of superstardom this season. At 6’5″, 241 pounds, he remains one of the most athletic quarterbacks in the league. He has a great rapport with coordinator Bruce Arians and has expanded from caretaker to playmaker. Roethlisberger is a first-class sandlot player, which is why he’s great on third down (Pittsburgh’s offense ranked 17th in yards last season but was third in third-down efficiency).

Roethlisberger’s style of play inherently demands great pass protection. He holds the ball an unusually long time, which is his greatest strength and weakness. Big Ben can’t afford to take 47 sacks again this season–this many hits derail the flow of the offense and also increase the likelihood of backup Charlie Batch having to take over. While his receivers must do a better job of getting open, the onus will be on Roethlisberger to get rid of the ball sooner. A lot of responsibility also rests with the offensive line.

Kemoeatu won’t have an easy go of it. His inside partner will be newcomer Justin Hartwig, a strong, well-sized (6’4″, 312) center. Hartwig fights in a phone booth, but he hasn’t been a dynamic interior presence since he left the Titans after the ’05 season. He is mediocre in pass protection, which is partly why he was released after just two seasons in Carolina (one of which was lost to a groin injury). Last year’s starting center, Sean Mahan, is still on the roster but working as a utility backup to Kemoeatu and Hartwig.

Right guard Kendall Simmons is reliable. Simmons offers good mobility in the run game, though it’s unlikely that the Steelers will have too many options for movement with the heavy-footed Kemoeatu and Hartwig inside.

Pittsburgh’s offensive tackle situation is stable or shaky, depending on which way you look at it. The stability is in the fact that there are four well-sized, mostly qualified players to fill two starting positions: Marvel Smith, Max Starks, Trai Essex and Willie Colon. The shakiness is in the fact that all four players come with caveats, and all but Colon are in the final year of their contract.

Marvel Smith is an outstanding left tackle when healthy. However, he had back problems late last season. Back injuries can be chronic and mysterious. Of course, they can also be fleeting. The Steelers have their fingers crossed here.

Starks is earning $7.7 million this season after being hit with the transition player tag. In no way is he anywhere close to being a top-five offensive tackle, like his salary suggests, but the Steeler brass didn’t feel comfortable letting the 6’8″, 337-pounder simply walk away (it’s not like Starks is Alan Faneca or something). Starks held a starting job in his second and third seasons as a pro, but last year he was beat out by the green but promising Willie Colon.

Colon is a short-armed player who many feel should be working at guard. He’d likely thrive on the inside, though the Steelers see enough raw talent in the Hofstra product to develop on the outside. Thanks to improved technique, Colon has become more consistent in the way he engulfs defenders on contact. If he elevates his awareness and continues to be an immovable foundation in pass protection, he could possibly turn into a left tackle.

Essex handled the left side duties in Smith’s absence down the stretch last year. He gave a novel performance but showed too many flaws in his technique.

Tight ends Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth are a big part of the blocking efforts. Miller is a sound tactician who creates great angles when he makes an effective first move (when he makes a poor first move, he tends to ruin the play). Miller is also a soft-handed receiver, though he’s used only in the short game.

Spaeth stands 6’7″, which alone makes him an advantaged blocker. Bruce Arians will look to expand Spaeth’s pass-catching role outside of the red zone this year, but finding touches for the tight end could be tough with the arrival of second-round rookie Limas Sweed. The former Texas Longhorn projects as a starter down the road (likely as Hines Ward’s replacement) but will, in the meantime, look to capture a No. 3 role (Sweed is likely to beat out decent-but-not-dominant Nate Washington).

When Sweed enters the game, split end Santonio Holmes will slide into the slot. Holmes has the type of speed to excel anywhere on the field. He made a quantum leap during his second season last year, catching 52 passes for 942 yards and eight touchdowns. At the rate he’s going, Holmes will become the go-to option in this offense by Thanksgiving. He just needs to improve his incredibly predictable route running.

The Steelers will spread the field and air it out, though don’t think this means they’re getting away from their bread and butter on the ground. Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall have a chance to be one of the finest running back tandems in the league. Just alleviating some of the load on the 209-pound Parker is a huge plus. If Mendenhall can prove himself as a blocker, he’ll see a lot of action on third downs. If not, he’ll fill in the blanks between Parker and veteran third-down option Mewelde Moore.

Carey Davis has officially supplanted Dan Kreider at fullback (Kreider is no longer with the team). Davis does not offer his predecessor’s ability to pave new paths, but he’s effective enough to at least keep existing ones cleared.

Defense

It’s always about the linebackers, right? This past offseason, Clark Haggans became the latest Steeler linebacker to be kicked to the curb. He joined other thirtysomething-year-olds Hardy Nickerson, Kevin Greene, Greg Lloyd, Jason Gildon and Joey Porter. Haggans’s exit will be forgotten once Football America sees that his replacement, second-year pro LaMarr Woodley, is a star. Woodley is a remarkably fluid 265-pound demon. He can swivel and change directions when closing at the point of attack, which is an athletic trait too rare to label in traditional scouting parlance.

Woodley played just 80 snaps as a second-round pick last season (by the way, he recorded four sacks on those downs–a rate that would generate somewhere around 40 sacks should he keep it up in a starting role). Not surprisingly, he is immature when it comes to diagnosing plays and taking angles to the ball. The Steelers will keep Woodley in a simplified pass-rushing role early on and leave the more complex responsibilities in the hands of fifth-year pro James Harrison (who’s 30). Harrison earned a trip to the Pro Bowl in his first season as a starter in 2007.

Inside linebackers James Farrior and Larry Foote are both slowing down, though they’re still tough as granite when playing north-south against the run. Farrior will wear the new defensive radio this season, which means coordinator Dick LeBeau intends on keeping the 12th-year vet on the field for all three (or four) downs. Foote, on the other hand, will see a lot of his playing time go to second-year pro Lawrence Timmons. Pittsburgh would like to infuse more speed inside, something that Timmons–an ex-outside linebacker, and first-round pick -can certainly do.

Had Troy Polamalu been around when the Steelers’ 3-4 legacy commenced back in the early 90’s, the defense’s reputation would have actually been staked out on the strong safety position (rather than the linebackers). Undoubtedly, the 27-year-old Polamalu is the keystone figure in this scheme. More destructive than any linebacker against the run, and lethally instinctive against the pass, Pittsburgh’s itinerant safety is one of the seven or eight most valuable defensive players in the game.

After injuries hampered him all last year, Polamalu spent his offseason working with his own trainer back in his home state California (he had lived in Pittsburgh year-round before that). The Steelers need Polamalu on the field; his backup is the garrulous but sub-par Anthony Smith. Free safety is also a soft spot in the D. The guy manning it will be either Ryan Clark (a blood disorder crashed his ’07 season) or the feisty but ill-assorted Tyrone Carter.

Cornerbacks Ike Taylor and Deshea Townsend are both wildly inconsistent. At their best, they’re elite cover corners. But at their worst, they’re alarmingly vulnerable. Because Bryant McFadden is the same way, but with a lower ceiling, Taylor and Townsend have both kept their jobs over the years. McFadden will compete with second-year pro William Gay for nickel duties in 2008.

The Steelers employ a classic three-man line, which means they feature a slew of solid but unspectacular veterans. Nose tackle Casey Hampton is considered the team’s most valuable front seven defender simply because of the double and sometimes triple-teams that he demands. Hampton weighs 325 but stands only 6’1″, which gives him unstoppable leverage. Injuries and weight problems have been an issue though. (The ninth-year veteran reportedly–though unlikely–spent part of his offseason on a fat farm.) Backup nose tackle Chris Hoke does not have the strength to wreak havoc up the gut, but his lateral quickness makes him viable against the run.

Ends Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel are both on the wrong side of 30. And, though their primary job is to occupy blockers, both need to elevate their production in 2008. Smith–who is coming off a torn biceps from last December–had only 2.5 sacks and 30 tackles last season. His career highs are eight sacks (2004) and 60 tackles (2006). Keisel has never been ultra-productive on paper, though with the energy he plays with, he should be notching better numbers than the 39 tackles and two sacks he had a year ago.

Backup ends Travis Kirschke and Nick Eason see meaningful snaps. Kirschke is a player that the Steelers try to move around, while Eason plays to the whistle and does a decent job holding his ground.

Special Teams

Jeff Reed is one of the few kickers who excels at Heinz Field. Reed missed just one field goal at home last season, and that came in the Monday night mud-fest against Miami. Punter Daniel Sepulveda lived up to his fourth-round billing as a rookie. Sepulveda left 28 punts inside the 20-yard-line and let only two balls cross the goal-line.

Santonio Holmes had his request to return punts denied by Tomlin last season, though the coach appears ready to lift that ban. Holmes can be electric as long as he doesn’t fumble. He’ll have to beat out return specialist Jeremy Bloom, which shouldn’t be too hard.

Rashard Mendenhall will get a crack at running back kicks. If he doesn’t succeed, Willie Reid–a reserve receiver drafted in the third round back in ’06–could get a shot. Or, the Steelers could refer to Mewelde Moore (who is a good punt and kick returner).

Bottom Line

The Browns–not the Steelers–are everybody’s darling in the AFC North, in part because Pittsburgh got out-muscled at home by Jacksonville in the playoffs last year. But if you look at Pittsburgh’s roster, the only real question marks are on the offensive line. If those issues can be handled, this team is every bit as strong as Cleveland. The only difference between the two clubs is that this one is familiar with winning.

Myth Buster

Willie Parker is not a workhorse.

The 209-pound Parker probably shouldn’t be a workhorse, but the statistics suggest he’s exactly that. Parker has carried the ball 658 times over the past two seasons, more than every player in the NFL other than LaDainian Tomlinson (663) and Edgerrin James (661 carries).

It was wise for the Steelers to draft Rashard Mendenhall, though it’s not like Parker wasn’t handling the load. He was sixth in the league in rushing in 2006 with 1,494 yards. Last season, he was fourth with 1,316 yards. Critics will say that Parker wore down and finished the year injured. But an injury like his (broken fibula) is not the result of wear and tear.

Open Thought

If one Steeler player wore a helmet that had a logo on both sides, how long do you think it would take people to notice? Obviously, the position that guy plays would be a factor. Certain players show up on television more than others. But I think anyone other than Roethlisberger, Ward, Parker and Polamalu could get away with it for a few weeks (not counting any discoveries by someone from within the organization).


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