Pittsburgh Steelers – (2006 record = 8-8); Projected record = 11-5
Summary – The case can easily be made that the Pittsburgh Steelers suffered from a Super Bowl hangover from their Febuary 2006 victory. Even ex-starting outside linebacker Joey Porter hinted that some of the passion vanished from the team at the beginning of the 2006 regular season. But this year, with a change at the head coach position and an overhaul of the assistant coaches, I think that the Steelers’ players will be ready for the start of the 2007-08 season after trying to impress the new staff throughout training camp.
New 35-year-old head coach Mike Tomlin (2nd youngest coach in the league to the Raiders’ Lane Kiffen) takes over the reigns of one of the most stable franchises in the league, but will have a tough legacy to follow. Bill Cowher has big shoes to fill, but experienced and talented players will help aide Tomlin’s transition by accelerating in playing smash mouth offense coupled with a ferocious blitzing attack on the defensive side of the ball.
But more important than the hiring of Tomlin will be the play of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger set the tone for the 2006 season many months before opening day when one summer morning he was struck by a car while riding on his motorcycle. A horrific crash – as many motorcycle crashes are – Roethlisberger suffered serious damage to his face, arm, and ligament damage to his knee. And while he recovered to start the 3rd game of the season, Roethlisberger’s play was erratic and filled with mistakes. He will have to play extremely well this season and improve on the 18 - 23 touchdown to interception ratio he threw for last season. But Roethlisberger doesn’t have to do it all himself. Joining him in the backfield is running back Willie Parker, who carried most of the running load last year, and looks to duplicate the extremely successful season he had last year. Blocking for Parker, Roethlisberger, and stud wide receiver Hines Ward is an impressive offensive line headlined by Alan Faneca. The line – like Roethlisberger – also has something to prove because of the loss of OL coach Russ Grimm, who left for Arizona with offensive coordinator Ken Wizenhunt, and I look for them to succeed in the face of adversity.
Star to Watch: The strengths of the Steelers is not on offense, though that is the unit most people discuss. The defense, grouped with Tomlin’s adapted 3-4 scheme, will prove to be what determines the success of the Steelers this season. Although FS Troy Polamalu receives most of the headlines, it is defensive nose tackle Casey Hampton who strikes fear in the hearts of opposing offensive coordinators and offensive lines alike. Hampton, the 6 foot 1 inch 325 pound nose tackle, makes it virtually impossible for opposing running backs to have success against the Steelers rush defense, which frees up Polamalu to roam the field and disrupt the opposing passing attack. Hampton, more than any other player is indispensable to the defense (See: “leader” Joey Porter).
Players to Watch – With the aggressive nature of the Steelers’ defense and their strength against the run, the Pittsburgh secondary will come under great stress with the abundance of man to man situations in which they are faced. The players under the most pressure are the two starting cornerbacks – Ike Taylor and Brian McFadden – along with inexperienced safety Ryan Clark, who will be forced to cover for the gambling Polamalu. Especially considering that the Steelers will face receivers such as Chad Johnson, TJ Houshmanzadeh, Braylon Edwards, Derrick Mason, and Mark Clayton twice this season, the secondary will need to step up to the challenge in order for the Steelers to make the playoffs.
What I expect to see from the Pittsburgh Steelers:
Ben Roethlisberger will be very good, but not great. He does not need to be Peyton Manning. Roethlisberger needs to get back to what he does well, and that is taking safe throws (the key to every quarterbacks success) and maneuver in the pocket to avoid pressure (which he does better than nearly every quarterback not scheduled to be sentenced on December 10th, 2007). If he does those two things, the Steelers will be successful, and I foresee him doing both.
Hines Ward will have a bounce back season with the improvement of Roethlisberger, and Santonio Holmes will be a breakout star in 2007. Also: Heath Miller will prove to be a nice security blanket, and will be very effective in red zone situations both blocking and catching the football.
Middle linebackers Lary Foote and James Farrior will be solid as usual, and OLB Clark Haggins will be in Pro Bowl form in the absence of Joey Porter. Speaking of Porter, the Steelers will be a better defense in the absence of one of the most overrated players of the league.
Finally; Mike Tomlin will not coach as long as Bill Cowher in Pittsburgh, but he will be very effective as head coach, and that effectiveness will begin this year.
How the Pittsburgh Steelers will fare – I see an 11-5 record in their future, securing the fifth seed in the very strong AFC. They could move up if one of the top tier teams falters (Indy, San Diego, Baltimore), but I think for now the safest place to put the Steelers is as the number five seed because of the strength of the teams within their division. But while they’ll have a strong regular season, I don’t see the Steelers making much noise in the postseason when Tomlin will undoubtedly be forced to go through the likes of more experienced head coaches. In the end, the Steelers will miss Bill Cowher patrolling the sidelines, but will be happy in the future that lies ahead in the hands of Tomlin and his staff.