However, there are some very strong reasons why fans should expect an improved record in the upcoming season.
Here are five of those reasons.
Troy Polamalu is one of the most dynamic defensive players in the NFL— a player who can change a game with a timely interception, a devastating hit, or a QB sack at a key moment. He has a nose for the ball and a flair for the dramatic.
Polamalu’s healthy return represents a huge upgrade over Tyrone Carter, his replacement last season.
Polamalu is one of the keys to defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s blitzing schemes, and the defense was notably more conservative in his absence.
Aaron Smith is one of the most underrated players in the NFL.
The defensive end is a key cog in Pittsburgh’s 3-4 defense, and Smith is quietly adept at stuffing the run, pressuring the QB, and freeing up the outside linebackers to pressure the quarterback.
The loss of Smith in Week No. Five, last year, was a blow to the defense.
Perhaps the single biggest defensive weakness last season was the play of cornerback William Gay.
He proved unable to handle the job on a full-time basis after backing up Bryant McFadden quite well the previous year.
McFadden’s return represents another upgrade defensively, while Gay should prove to be a more effective nickel back than last year’s DeShea Townsend.
Finally, Ziggy Hood appears poised to take over the starting defensive end job from Brett Keisel.
While Hood still needs to prove his superiority through the preseason and exhibition games, he is bigger, younger and faster than Keisel.
If Hood gets the nod as starter, then Pittsburgh should be starting Ziggy Hood and Aaron Smith this season, which is a nice upgrade over the tandem of Keisel and Travis Kirschke who manned those spots most of 2009.
If we look at projected starters for 2010 compared to their 2009 counterparts, we are looking at Troy Polamalu, Aaron Smith, Bryant McFadden and Ziggy Hood playing as opposed to Tyrone Carter, Travis Kirschke, William Gay and Brett Keisel.
It is not unreasonable to expect Pittsburgh to be one of the NFL’s dominant defenses in 2010.
One of the knocks on the Steelers in 2009 was that they were too old and didn’t have the depth to cover injuries on the defensive side of the ball.
That is less of an issue in 2010.
Will Allen was brought in as a free agent to be a backup safety.
The addition of McFadden means that Gay becomes the backup at cornerback instead of an old, slow DeShea Townsend.
However, a healthy Keenan Lewis, no longer a rookie, threatens to take Gay’s job as primary backup at corner, which only adds to that depth.
Defensive end looks to be deeper with Brett Keisel backing up Ziggy Hood. The return of Larry Foote adds depth at the inside linebacker spot, while rookie Jason Worilds should prove to be a strong backup at outside linebacker.
On the whole, the defensive depth in Pittsburgh is markedly better than in 2009, and adds to expectations of a return to defensive dominance.
Far and away, the worst element of the 2009 Pittsburgh Steelers was their kick coverage.
Opposing returners frequently torched the Steelers for long runs and back-breaking TD returns.
The kick coverage woes cost coach Bob Ligashesky his job.
New special teams coach Al Everest will have a number of new players to reinforce those units.
The Steelers drafted a number of linebacker prospects who will be expected to contribute primarily in kick coverage this season.
Meanwhile, it appears that the skill positions will be in the same capable hands as last season. Reed, Sepulveda and Stefan Logan had solid seasons in the roles as placekicker, punter and return man, respectively.
The Steelers should be much improved in their special teams coverage in 2010. Honestly, they couldn’t be any worse. Even a return to merely-average would represent a significant improvement.
The offensive line was a much-criticized group last season.
Some of that criticism should rightly lie at the feet of QB Ben Roethlisberger, who tends to hold onto the ball longer than he should.
A number of Roethlisberger’s annual 50+ sacks are his fault, but that is the cost that comes with having a QB like Roethlisberger who occasionally turns those slow-developing plays into something spectacular.
Run-blocking also was a weakness in 2009, as the line often failed to pick up a run-blitz, and couldn’t open holes on short yardage plays.
First-round draft choice Maurkice Pouncey is expected to become a starter this season.
Ultimately destined to become center, Pouncey will probably start at right guard in 2010. He should improve both the pass-blocking and run-blocking this season, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends the year as the team’s best offensive lineman.
Another hint that the offensive line should be improved this season is the fact that O-line coach Larry Zierlein was fired and replaced by Sean Kugler.
The offensive linemen never developed the way that the team had hoped under Zierlein, and that should change with a new man in charge.
This is a unit that has underachieved because it has not developed the necessary agility and subtle techniques under Zierlein. Look for improvement from Colon, Kemoeatu and the rest this year.
Outside of Pouncey, the rest of the O-line returns intact, and we can expect that a full season together will show dividends in 2010 as they mesh as a unit and develop their skills.
Team President Art Rooney, has publicly stated a desire to see the Steelers return to the effective running team that has been their tradition.
Rashard Mendenhall had a successful year in what was honestly his first year on the job.
Mendenhall averaged 4.6 yards a carry, and rushed for over 1,100 yards in only 12 starts after supplanting Fast Willie Parker as the Steelers primary runner last season. At age 22 we can expect big things this season from Mendenhall.
Many Steeler fans are hoping that Jonathan Dwyer proves to be one of the steals of the 2010 draft. Projected to be drafted much earlier, the Steelers obtained the 230-lb. Georgia Tech product in the sixth round.
Dwyer’s power running could complement Mendenhall’s slashing style, particularly if he adds some bulk.
Another reason for optimism in Steeler country is the possibility that the team might have a legitimate fullback on its 53-man roster in 2010.
That fullback could be Dwyer, or one of last year’s pair of Isaac Redman or Frank Summers.
More interesting, perhaps, is the possibility that the team could use converted Virginia Tech defensive lineman Demetrius Taylor as a fullback.
The 270-lb, Taylor could signal a return to a true fullback which has been missing since Dan Kreider departed.
It will be interesting to see if the offense really returns to more of a running attack that we have seen in the Bruce Arians era.
Offensive Coordinator Arians has shown a preference for the pass over the run, and has publicly stated that his offense doesn’t include a fullback.
Perhaps the suspension of starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to begin the season will serve as the impetus to re-focus on the running game.
Last year’s inability to close out games with a running attack exposed the need to re-establish more of a power running game in Pittsburgh.
The same can be said of the team’s poor red-zone performance. Rooney merely said what most of the team’s fans were already thinking when he publicly called for a return to the run this season.
A legitimate threat in Mendenhall, combined with a good run-blocker in the form of Maurkice Pouncey, suggest that the team has the capacity to re-establish the run.
If Rooney’s desire to run wins out over Arians’ reluctance do so, then Steeler fans should see an offense that is better at converting short-yardage plays and eating up the clock.
Improvements in the five areas above will be more than enough to overcome the Roethlisberger suspension and the trade of Santonio Holmes.
In fact, I would argue that those two circumstances herald a return to what I consider to be the hallmarks of “Steeler football” — a strong running attack and suffocating, blitzing defense.
Well, that plus the other hallmark—winning.
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