WR Shaun McDonald, C Alex Stepanovich, CB Keiwan Ratliff.
DE/DT Evander Hood, G Kraig Urbik, WR Mike Wallace, CB Keenan Lewis, CB Joe Burnett, RB Frank Summers, DE/DT Ra'Shon Harris, C A.Q. Shipley, TE David Johnson.
QB Byron Leftwich, RB Gary Russell, WR Nate Washington, OT Marvel Smith, G Kendall Simmons, DE/DT Orpheus Roye, ILB Larry Foote, CB Bryant McFadden, FS Anthony Smith.
2009 Pittsburgh Steelers Offense:
For his body of work, Ben Roethlisberger could be the most underrated and most unappreciated player in the NFL. When I'm asked to list the top quarterbacks in the NFL and I mention Roethlisberger, people look at me as if I'm crazy.
If I needed to win one game, and I couldn't choose Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, Roethlisberger would be my guy - no questions asked. Not only is he really clutch, he happens to be an incredible leader. If the Steelers win, he credits the offensive line for doing a superb job. If the Steelers lose, he blames himself and tells the media he (and only he) should have made better decisions. Someone like Donovan McNabb, who always throws his teammates under the bus, could really learn from Big Ben.
Roethlisberger threw for 3,154 yards, 32 touchdowns and 11 picks in 2007. His TD-INT ratio was a lot worse last season, as he tossed 17 scores to 15 interceptions. The reason for the decline in production was a nagging shoulder injury that Roethlisberger endured throughout the entire season, so look for his stats to bounce back in 2009.
Though Big Ben's production suffered, Hines Ward actually improved upon his 2007 campaign, catching 81 balls for 1,043 yards - both of which were personal bests since 2003. Ward is 33, however, and doesn't exactly have a short injury history. It's highly unlikely that Ward plays all 16 games again.
Luckily, Roethlisberger also has Santonio Holmes at his disposal. Holmes disappointed during the 2008 regular season, registering 55 receptions for 821 yards and five scores. Holmes did make up for it though by garnering nine receptions for 131 yards and the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl. Hopefully Holmes can carry that over into 2009 and finally become the lethal, No. 1 wideout that we've been waiting on.
Nate Washington did a solid job as Pittsburgh's third receiver last year, but he signed with the Titans this offseason. Second-year Limas Sweed, who dropped a number of key passes in 2008, will get first crack at Washington's old gig. I wouldn't count out rookie Mike Wallace, who's coming out of a pro-style offense.
Meanwhile, I'm a big fan of Heath Miller's this year - he's the TE11 in my 2009 Fantasy Football Rankings. Miller struggled in 2008 and missed some time with an ankle injury. However, he returned in Week 12, and including the playoffs, he averaged 4.2 receptions and 54.1 yards per game in nine contests. He also scored three touchdowns.
It feels weird to say this, but the Steelers need to become more of a run-oriented team. Their ground attack left a lot to be desired last season, as Willie Parker rushed for just 791 yards on 210 carries (3.8 YPC). He'll split carries with Rashard Mendenhall, a first-round pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, who received just 19 rushes before suffering a broken shoulder in Week 4. Parker isn't very durable, while Mendenhall seems to have fumbling issues. Meanwhile, Mewelde Moore, who caught 40 passes out of the backfield in 2008, will continue to be the Steelers' third-down back.
Pittsburgh has to improve its ground attack to take pressure off Roethlisberger; Big Ben was sacked a whopping 49 times in 2008. Of course, upgrading the offensive line would have helped, but the Steelers front office neglected that area for the second consecutive offseason.
One position that wasn't a huge problem was left tackle; Max Starks, who excels in run-blocking, yielded just four sacks in 11 starts. Starks took over for Marvel Smith, who played in just five games because of back problems. Smith signed with the 49ers this offseason. At right tackle, Willie Colon gave up 5.75 sacks just one year after allowing 12.25. Colon would probably be better at right guard, but the Steelers didn't draft or sign anyone who could take over at that position.
Speaking of the guards, Darnell Stapleton is a huge liability on the right side. The Steelers selected Kraig Urbik in the third round of the 2009 NFL Draft, and they'll be hoping that he can take over for Stapleton, who surrendered five sacks in 2008. At left guard, Chris Kemoeatu allowed seven sacks, while Justin Hartwig permitted the most sacks of any center in the league (6.5).
2009 Pittsburgh Steelers Defense:
Pittsburgh's 2008 stop unit was the best defense we've seen in a few years. They ranked first in almost every major category. They were first in points allowed (13.9). They were first in yardage surrendered. They were first against the rush (3.3 YPC). They were first versus the pass (5.5 YPA). And they mustered 51 sacks, good for first in the AFC. Otherwise, the Steelers' defense pretty much sucked.
It all starts with pressure up front, and no one runs chaotic blitz schemes better than Dick LeBeau. The Steelers consequently had two players who accumulated double-digit sacks, Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison (16) and LaMarr Woodley (12). Meanwhile, the two inside backers, Lawrence Timmons and James Farrior, chipped in with a combined nine sacks.
With the Steelers' pass rushers bearing down on opposing quarterbacks, the secondary was able to pick off 20 passes and hold signal-callers to an amazing 5.5 YPA. All-Pro strong safety Troy Polamalu led the squad with seven interceptions. Free safety Ryan Clark is talented, but has missed 12 games the past two seasons. Clark is a free agent after this season, and because Anthony Smith's attempt at a career was a complete failure, Pittsburgh will need to find a replacement for the soon-to-be 30-year-old next spring.
Pittsburgh is thinner at corner than it was in 2008. Ike Taylor is a very talented player, and William Gay played well in relief of Bryant McFadden last season, but McFadden signed with Arizona. The Steelers' top backup at this position is now 34-year-old Deshea Townsend. Rookies Keenan Lewis and Joe Burnett will be in the mix, but there's no telling if they'll be ready to play in 2009.
The Steelers' run defense is so imposing because of 325-pound nose tackle Casey Hampton, and the two stud 3-4 ends, Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel. The three linemen do a great of a job as anyone in terms of taking on blockers and allowing the linebackers to make plays. The concern here is that Hampton, Smith and Keisel are 32, 33 and 31, respectively. First-round rookie Evander Hood will take over for either Smith or Keisel in 2010. The fact that the Steelers can stash someone as talented as Hood on the bench for a year speaks volumes about their defensive depth.
I see no reason why the Steelers' stop unit can't be just as dominant in 2009. In terms of total yardage (not averages), Pittsburgh fell just 54 rushing yards short of being the first team since the 1991 Eagles to rank first in rush, pass and total defense. If everyone stays healthy, that's a feat the team might be able to accomplish this season.
2009 Pittsburgh Steelers Schedule and Intangibles:
Excluding New England, no one in the AFC has a better road record than Pittsburgh since 1996; the Steelers are 56-48 as visitors in that time frame. They're not bad at home either (74-31-1).
Mike Tomlin is one of the better coaches in the NFL. Unlike Eric Mangini, Josh McDaniels, and coaches of that ilk, Tomlin didn't force the Steelers into playing his familiar 4-3. He saw that the personnel he had on the roster was much better equipped for the 3-4, and consequently stuck with that scheme. That's one of the many reasons Tomlin was able to win the Super Bowl in his second year as an NFL head coach. I think it's pretty safe to say that the Steelers would not have won with Mangini; instead, they'd be transitioning into their 4-3 right now.
The Steelers couldn't get anything going in their return game during the regular season - Santonio Holmes and Gary Russell posted mediocre return averages - but Holmes finally stepped up in the playoffs and took a San Diego punt to the house. Pittsburgh didn't surrender any special teams scores of its own after allowing two in 2007.
Pittsburgh is a tough place to kick, so give Jeff Reed tons of credit for nailing 27-of-31 attempts. He was even 8-of-10 from 40-49 and 1-of-2 from 50-plus. One can only imagine how great Reed would be kicking inside a dome.
The Steelers had major punting issues in 2008, but that was because starter Daniel Sepulveda missed the entire season with a torn ACL. A good sign that Sepulveda is healthy is that Pittsburgh recently cut its backup punter.
For a defending champion, the Steelers don't really have a difficult schedule. Sure, they have to battle the likes of Tennessee, San Diego, Chicago, Minnesota and Baltimore, but the Steelers also get to beat up on a few crappy teams, namely the Chiefs, Raiders, Broncos, Lions and Browns (twice). It almost seems unfair.
2009 Pittsburgh Steelers Analysis: It's very difficult to win two Super Bowls in a row, but the Steelers have the clutch quarterback, coaching staff, overall talent, very easy schedule and amazing defense to accomplish that feat. Don't be shocked if Ben Roethlisberger is hoisting the Lombardi Trophy for the third time in his career come February.
It all starts on Draft Day, and as you can see by how talented this class is, there's a reason the Steelers are Super Bowl contenders year in and year out.
Pittsburgh drafted for positions of high value with its first two selections. Evander Hood should be able to take over for Aaron Smith soon, while Kraig Urbik could make a strong push at right guard.
The Steelers made a number of great value picks that filled needs in Day 2, including Mike Wallace (receiver for Hines Ward's eventual departure), Keenan Lewis (corner depth needed), Joe Burnett (more corner depth and return specialist) and Frank Summers (power back). A.Q. Shipley was a steal in Round 7. He could push Justin Hartwig out of the starting center gig.
Grade given on 4/27/09: A+
2009 NFL Draft Picks:
32. Evander Hood, DE/DT, Missouri
Aaron Smith's successor. This is a good spot for Evander Hood, who fills a need. With Alex Mack off the board, this was the right move. (Pick Grade: A)
79. Kraig Urbik, G, Wisconsin
Kraig Urbik is solid value and fills a position of need. Ben Roethlisberger has to love this selection. (Pick Grade: A)
84. Mike Wallace, WR, Ole Miss
The Steelers needed receiving depth. Mike Wallace is a solid talent and presents good value here. Based on these picks, it's no surprise that the Steelers are contenders year in and year out. (Pick Grade: A)
96. Keenan Lewis, CB, Oregon State
Keenan Lewis was a fringe second-round prospect and he fills a need. Another very nice choice by the Steelers. (Pick Grade: A)
168. Joe Burnett, CB, Central Florida
Another corner? Well, it's a need, and Joe Burnett fits this draft range. He can also be a return specialist. (Pick Grade: B)
169. Frank Summers, RB, UNLV
I mocked Frank Summers to the Steelers a round later. He can be the power, goal-line back they've been looking for since Jerome Bettis retired. (Pick Grade: B)
205. Ra'Shon Harris, DE/DT, Oregon
More depth up front is never a bad idea. This is Ra'Shon Harris' draft range. (Pick Grade: B)
226. A.Q. Shipley, C, Penn State
One of the top picks in the entire 2009 NFL Draft in terms of draft and positional value. A.Q. Shipley could have been a third-round pick, and he could be an upgrade over Justin Hartwig. (Pick Grade: A)
241. David Johnson, TE, Arkansas State
Heath Miller's contract is coming up, so David Johnson is a bit of insurance. Johnson provides OK depth here. (Pick Grade: B)
Congratulations to the Steelers for winning Super Bowl XLIII. Though Pittsburgh just had its second parade in three years, the team has a few positions it needs to address if it wants to become the first back-to-back champion since the Patriots in 2003-2004.
Steelers sign C Alex Stepanovich
Steelers re-sign OT Max Starks
Steelers announce retirement of CB Fernando Bryant
Steelers cut P Dirk Johnson
Lions sign ILB Larry Foote
Steelers cut ILB Larry Foote
Steelers sign WR Shaun McDonald
Steelers sign P Dirk Johnson
Steelers sign CB Keiwan Ratliff
Bengals sign RB Gary Russell
Steelers cut RB Gary Russell
Steelers re-sign QB Charlie Batch
Buccaneers sign QB Byron Leftwich
Steelers re-sign ILB Keyaron Fox
49ers sign OT Marvel Smith
Steelers re-sign G/T Trai Essex
Steelers re-sign CB Fernando Bryant
Steelers re-sign DE/OLB Andre Frazier
Cardinals sign CB Bryant McFadden
Packers sign S Anthony Smith
Titans sign WR Nate Washington
Steelers re-sign G Chris Kemoeatu
Steelers cut G Kendall Simmons
Steelers cut ILB Mike Humpal
Steelers tender OT Willie Colon (1st round)
Steelers tender CB Anthony Madison (low)
Steelers tender FB Carey Davis (low)
Steelers franchise OT Max Starks
Two Offensive Tackles: Pittsburgh's top three offensive tackles - Marvel Smith, Max Starks and Willie Colon - are all free agents. Each of them has their glaring flaws. Smith is the best of the bunch, but he's not reliable because he has chronic back problems. Starks and Colon are very mediocre. The Steelers will be praying that a first-round tackle falls to them at No. 32, but they'll probably have to leapfrog the Eagles to land one. Re-signed Max Starks; tendered Willie Colon
Center: Justin Hartwig surrendered more sacks (6.5) than any center in the NFL this season. Luckily, this draft class is laden with talented centers. Drafted A.Q. Shipley
Guard: Chris Kemoeatu struggled in 2008, surrendering 7.5 sacks and getting whistled for six penalties. Meanwhile, Kendall Simmons, 30 in March, suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon in 2008. He could struggle to bounce back, so the Steelers might be shopping for a guard in the first few rounds. Drafted Kraig Urbik; re-signed G Chris Kemoeatu and Trai Essex
Defensive End: Aaron Smith turns 33 in April. A replacement will need to be acquired soon. If Alex Mack and all of the top tackles are gone at No. 32, the Steelers may consider Tyson Jackson. Drafted Evander Hood and Ra'Shon Harris
Cornerback: This will be a need if the Steelers don't re-sign Bryant McFadden. I wouldn't be worried though; they have the cap room to do so. Drafted Keenan Lewis and Joe Burnett; signed Keiwan Ratliff
Free Safety: Ryan Clark is entering his contract year, and it's unlikely the Steelers will re-sign a 30-year-old free safety to a big deal. With that in mind, the team could use a successor because it's apparent that Anthony Smith isn't the answer.
2009 NFL Free Agent Signings:
Shaun McDonald, WR, Lions. Age: 28. Signed with Steelers
Any team that hires Mike Martz should go after Shaun McDonald, who caught 79 passes for 943 yards in 2007. Then again, any team that hires Martz should just e-mail its fans and apologize for next season's losing record.
Keiwan Ratliff, CB, Colts. Age: 28. - Signed with Steelers
Alex Stepanovich, C, Falcons. Age: 27. - Signed with Steelers
Pittsburgh Steelers Free Agents:
Salary Cap (As of Feb. 17): $19 million
Bryant McFadden, CB. Age: 27. Signed with Cardinals (2 years, $10 million; $5 million guaranteed)
Bryant McFadden broke his arm in the middle of the season, but when he played, he was outstanding in coverage.
Larry Foote, Steelers. Age: 29. Signed with Lions (1 year)
Larry Foote is still a very solid inside linebacker who was let go by the Steelers for cap reason. He can still be an effective starter for a few years.
Nate Washington, WR. Age: 26. Signed with Titans (6 years, $27 million; $9 million guaranteed)
A potent deep threat for the Steelers, Nate Washington caught 40 passes for 631 yards and three touchdowns in 2008.
Max Starks, OT. Age: 27. Re-signed with Steelers (4 years, $26.3 million)
A run-of-the-mill left tackle who allowed four sacks in 10 games. He'll be overpaid because the market value is very tackle-friendly right now.
Chris Kemoeatu, G. Age: 26. Re-signed with Steelers (5 years, $20 million)
Despite receiving praise this offseason from several coaches, Chris Kemoeatu struggled in 2008, surrendering 7.5 sacks and getting whistled for six penalties.
Another pedestrian player the Steelers have on their front. Willie Colon will likely be retained with a tender.
Marvel Smith, OT. Age: 31. Signed with 49ers (2 years, $10.5 million)
Very unreliable. Marvel Smith has chronic back problems, and has consequently missed 15 games in the past two seasons and 29 games since 2003.
Byron Leftwich, QB. Age: 29. Signed with Buccaneers
Byron Sandwich saved his career by playing well in relief of Ben Roethlisberger against the Redskins. He'll be sought after as a solid backup, but nothing more.
Charlie Batch, QB. Age: 34. Re-signed with Steelers (1 year, $895,000)
Charlie Batch, despite his age, can still be a valuable backup in the NFL.
Anthony Smith (RFA), S. Age: 25. Signed with Packers
You may remember Anthony Smith as the guy who predicted that the Steelers would knock off the undefeated Patriots back in 2007. For an encore, Smith has projected himself to be offered a $125 million contract. Good luck with that.
Kendall Simmons, G. Age: 30.
Not a promising free agent; Kendall Simmons, 30, is coming off a torn Achilles' tendon.
Gary Russell, RB. Age: 22. - Signed with Bengals
Trai Essex, G/T. Age: 26. - Re-signed with Steelers (2 years, $2 million)
Carey Davis, FB. Age: 28. - Tendered by Steelers (low)
Keyaron Fox, ILB. Age: 27. - Re-signed with Steelers (2 years, $1.8 million)
Andre Frazier, DE/OLB. Age: 27. - Re-signed with Steelers
Orpheus Roye, DE. Age: 36.
Anthony Madison (RFA), CB. Age: 27. - Tendered by Steelers (low)
Mike Humpal, ILB. Age: 24.
Fernando Bryant, CB. Age: 32. - Announced retirement
Dirk Johnson, P. Age: 34. - Signed with Buccaneers
Divisional Rival History: Baltimore Ravens: The host dominates this rivalry, winning 12 of the previous 14 matchups. Pittsburgh won all three battles in 2008, though they were helped by Walt Coleman in Baltimore. Cincinnati Bengals: The road team has mysteriously claimed six of the past eight meetings. Go figure. Cleveland Browns: Will Cleveland ever beat the Steelers again? Pittsburgh has won 17 of the last 18 battles.
Features to be Posted This Offseason:
2009 NFL Draft Grades (Pick-by-Pick NFL Draft Grades as well - Live on Draft Day!)