Coming off a season in which the Steelers finished 10-6, won their division, and hosted a playoff game, fans of many franchises would consider the season a successful one. Not in Pittsburgh. Even though the franchise had the most turnover it had had in the past 15 years, with a new coach and members of a new staff, the bar was raised ever so slightly.
Tomlin's second off-season began a troublesome one, to say the least. All-World Guard Allan Faneca, verbally sparring with the club throughout the season over a new contract, left via Free Agency. Faneca was the staple of the Offensive Line and the blow of a departed All-Pro on the line for the second straight year definitely hurts (All-Pro Center Jeff Hartings retired the year before), especially on a line which allowed Big Ben to be sacked 47 times, the most of his young career.
Also gone in Free Agency were tenured LOLB Clark Haggans (a former starter) and TE Jerame Tuman (another former starter), both of whom signed with former Steelers OC and 2nd-year Cardinals Head Coach Ken Whizenhunt in Arizona. Haggans was a productive player for his part and a great 5th-round pick, but his time had come and Pittsburgh, which always seems to know when a Linebackers' time has come, released him after a disappointing season in which he tallied only 4 sacks and sometimes disappeared altogether in games. Haggans was also outplayed by rookie LaMarr Woodley, who had as many sacks in severely-limited playing time. Tuman was a role-player in recent years who was barely seeing time as the #2 TE.
Starting FB Dan Kreider was also let go, as age and a versatile Carey Davis fueled his decline. Kreider, undrafted (like more and more productive Steelers now-a-days) out of New Hampshire was one of the great run-blocking FBs in Steeler history and will be missed in the run game as well as the locker room.
KR/PR man Allen Rossum was cut as well; the Steelers traded a 6th-round pick in this years draft to acquire him for the past season. Although Rossum did provide a spark for the return game in Antwaan Randle El's absence, it wasn't a great enough spark to keep around considering Rossum's age.
The Steelers, not known for making big splashes (or splashes at all, for that matter) may have snagged two of the best role-players from this years crop in RB Mewelde Moore and C Justin Hartwig. Moore is a fast, versatile RB who can carry the ball 5-15 times a game, come in on 3rd downs, and contribute in the return game. Even with the Steelers crowded backfield, look for the explosive Moore to have a good year and be one of the steals of the Free Agency period. Hartwig will challenge the turnstile Sean Mahan for the starting Center job. Other signings of any significance include LB Keyaron Fox, who will contribute on Special Teams, and most recently QB Byron Leftwich, who was signed after back-up QB Charlie Batch broke his collarbone in the first Pre-Season game.
The Steelers 2008 Draft didn't go the direction most fans and even experts expected, as the Steelers avoided O-Line help in the early rounds. 1st Round selection Rashard Mendenhall will split carries with Willie Parker. Mendenhall, at 5-11 210, has the speed to get outside and the size to be-hypothetically, anyway-somewhat of a tough, between-the-tackles runner for Pittsburgh. Mendenhall left Illinois a year early, where he showed great speed and power for the Ron Zook-led Illini.
The 2nd Round came and the Steelers passed on more Offensive Linemen, taking Texas Wide Reciever Limas Sweed. The addition of Sweed provides a tall, physical target for Big Ben Roethlisberger to throw to and a solid combination of Holmes/Sweed for the Steelers to build on for the future. Sweed will fight Nate Washington for the 3rd WR spot and will see extended playing time in the redzone as well. Sweed will also take some of the strain off of All-Pro WR Hines Ward, who has been beaten up in recent years due to his physical nature and high play count.
Round 3 brought a new defender to the Steel Curtain's ranks, as 6-3, 237 lb. DE-to-OLB convert Bruce Davis joined the fold. Davis has the crucial 3-S formula the Steelers covet in their Outside Linebackers: Speed, Strength, and Stamina. Davis, a UCLA product, was known throughout the college ranks as having a non-stop motor and a nose for the QB, both greatly appreciated in the Steel City. The addition of Davis also gives the Steelers 2 young, athletic OLBs (Davis and Woodley) who can both play DE in a 4-3 alignment. A sign of things to come, perhaps?
Round 4 brings the Steelers Offensive Tackle help, as former Texas star Tony Hills will be groomed as, presumably, the LT of the future. Hills has great size but is regarded as a project of sorts in the Steelers organization.
Pittsburgh pulled a wildcard in Round 5, as Dennis Dixon, the former Oregon QB, was taken. Although some believed the athletic Dixon would be another Slash/Ward/Randle El-type receiver, he is being trained as a QB-for the time being, at least. Don't rule out some trick-play type situations; Dixon may even be used in a role similar to the Seahawks and back-up QB Seneca Wallace a few years ago-Wallace took some snaps at WR then. Remember, Dixon was running away with the Heisman before he tore his ACL and returned several months ahead of schedule-two stipulations Steeler fans should remember about this young man.
The draft closed out with the Steelers taking two more defenders, Mike Humpal, a Linebacker from Iowa and Ryan Mundy, a former Michigan Wolverine Free Safety who transferred, ironically, to West Virginia. Both should have to fight to make the roster and would contribute mainly to Special Teams.
Overall Grade: B+
Though the OL was not addressed-in quantity or quality-to suit the liking of some fans, the addition of Hartwig should fill the turnstile created by Mahan in 2007, starting LT Marvel Smith returns after successful back surgery, and the entire line heads into year two under OL Coach Larry Zierlein's system. The rest of the offense received a boost, loading more bullets into the chamber for Big Ben, and the defense received some fresh, new faces to bolster the pass-rush. Overall a very good off-season, as the new-look Steelers continue to evolve and strive to succeed towards the ultimate goal: starting on the other hand.
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