Published August 18, 2011
| Sports Network
It wouldn't be an offseason if the Pittsburgh Steelers didn't make headlines off the field, but it's between the end zones where the Black and Gold may make its loudest statement in 2011.
Last season the Steelers shook off some legal troubles for starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger -- and a resulting four-game suspension for violation of the NFL's personal conduct policy following accusations of sexual assault -- to earn a chance at a seventh Super Bowl win in team history. However, Pittsburgh fell behind early to the Green Bay Packers and Roethlisberger struggled, resulting in a 31-25 loss in the title game and a disappointing end to an otherwise stellar campaign.
A 12-4 regular season means little when you don't bring home a championship.
"It's not fun," said Roethlisberger. "Some people will just completely block [the loss] out and move on to a new year and some people let it just kind of sit there just enough to kind of fuel you a little bit. For me, I know it's there, but it's a new year and we can't dwell on the past. You have to look forward to the future and what's to come."
Many felt the Steelers would be playing from behind with Roethlisberger set to miss the season's first four games, but backups Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch helped the club win its first three outings and Pittsburgh never lost on back- to-back weeks during its march to Super Bowl XLV.
Unfortunately, things didn't stay quiet in the Steel City during the NFL's lockout. Wide receiver Hines Ward was arrested in early July on a DUI charge and linebacker James Harrison made giant headlines when he called commissioner Roger Goodell "a crook and a puppet" in a published magazine article.
The outspoken linebacker became the poster child in the league's attempt to crack down on defenseless hits last year, with Harrison getting docked a total of $100,000 by the league for separate incidents.
Harrison, who also criticized Roethlisberger and running back Rashard Mendenhall in the article, did eventually apologize for his comments, and the Steelers hope that is the last negative publicity the franchise endures in the near future.
The good news is that the recently-married Roethlisberger said there are no lingering emotions from Harrison's comments and head coach Mike Tomlin doesn't think it will impact his team at all.
"That's the locker room," said Tomlin. "We have a unique group of guys who are uniquely close. I would imagine it didn't register as big a blimp on the radar as you guys (the media) might imagine. The guys on the team know and love and respect James, they know how he is. To a degree, some of the things he says they take with a grain of salt, to be quite honest with you."
Added Roethlisberger, "That's the beauty of this team. The lockout stuff and all the issues that go on, this is a veteran team. There's not really too much any of us are going to need or say or do. We just come back and start playing ball again."
Now set to the defend their AFC North and conference crowns, the Steelers saw minimal adjustments to the roster over the offseason. While no room under the salary cap prevented the club from adding any big free agents and also led to the release of some veterans, Pittsburgh returns its entire core from last year, including a defense that dominated against the run and in keeping opponents out of the end zone.
With less time to prepare for the upcoming season thanks to the lockout, that familiarity should give the Steelers a huge advantage.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2011 edition of the Pittsburgh Steelers, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2010 RECORD: 12-4 (1st, AFC North)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2010, lost to Green Bay in Super Bowl XLV
COACH (RECORD): Mike Tomlin (43-21 in four seasons)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Bruce Arians (eight season with Steelers, fifth as OC)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Dick LeBeau (13th season with Steelers, 10th as DC)
OFFENSIVE STAR: Ben Roethlisberger, QB (3200 passing yards, 17 TD, 5 INT)
DEFENSIVE STAR: Troy Polamalu, SS (63 tackles, 1 sack, 7 INT)
2010 OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 14th overall (11th rushing, 14th passing), 12th scoring (23.4 ppg)
2010 DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 2nd overall (1st rushing, 12th passing), 1st scoring (14.5 ppg)
KEY DEPARTURES: TE Matt Spaeth (to Bears), OT Max Starks (released), WR Antwaan Randle El (released), WR Limas Sweed (released), OG Trai Essex (not tendered), OT Flozell Adams (released), DE Nick Eason (to Cardinals), LB Keyaron Fox (to Redskins), CB Anthony Madison (to Lions)
QB: The strong-armed Roethlisberger, who was one of a handful of Steelers to restructure his contract this offseason, returns for his eighth campaign under center and put up impressive numbers despite missing the first four games of 2010. He threw for 3,200 yards, completed 17 touchdown passes and posted a 97.0 quarterback rating, but it was his accuracy that really stood out until the Super Bowl. Roethlisberger was picked off just five times over his 389 regular-season pass attempts, his lowest single-season total since posting nine across 12 games back in 2005, but blamed himself for the Super Bowl loss after getting picked off twice. Dixon (254 passing yards, 1 INT), who started a pair of games in Big Ben's absence, was not a lock to return, but the restricted free agent ultimately signed his one-year tender. He'll compete with Batch (352 passing yards, 3 TD, 3 INT) and Byron Leftwich to back up.
RB: Mendenhall's Super Bowl fumble also drew the ire of Harrison, but it was a small glitch in the 24-year-old's solid second campaign as Pittsburgh's featured back. He played in all 16 games and finished seventh in the league with 1,273 rushing yards while coming in tied for second with 13 touchdowns. The 2008 first-round pick did shoulder quite a load with 324 rushing attempts, one of seven backs to go over the feared 300-carry mark last year, but still has youth on his side and only lost the ball twice in the regular season despite Harrison reference to him as a "fumble machine." Former practice squad resident Isaac Redman (247 rushing yards) had the second-most carries on the club last season with 52, while the Steelers also re-signed veteran Mewelde Moore (99 rushing yards, 26 receptions) to help out in the backfield. David Johnson also returns as the fullback.
WR/TE: Ward (59 receptions, 5 TD) had hoped his victory in the reality television competition "Dancing with the Stars" would be the highlight of his offseason, but instead it was his legal problems that took some of the spotlight. The 14-year vet is still a reliable option on the field, but his 59 receptions were his lowest total in a season since he grabbed just 48 back in 2000. Mike Wallace's emergence as a big-play threat partially had to do with Ward's lower targets after the 25-year-old had a breakout sophomore season with 60 receptions, 1,257 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns while starting all 16 games. The contributions of youngsters Emmanuel Sanders (28 receptions, 2 TD) and Antonio Brown (16 receptions) led to Antwaan Randle El becoming a cap casualty this offseason, and the Steelers added former Jets wideout Jerricho Cotchery (41 catches, 2 TD) in mid-August in the hopes he can shake off recent back issues. Tight end Heath Miller (42 receptions, 2 TD) took a step back from his 2009 numbers of 76 catches and six touchdowns, but is still a solid target.
OL: The lone department to receive an extensive overhaul, the Steelers offensive line will feature at least two new starters following the release of tackles Max Starks and Flozell Adams. Willie Colon should step in for Adams at right tackle after missing all of last year due to a torn Achilles and then signing a new five-year deal in the offseason. Jonathan Scott shared starting time with Starks at left tackle last year and opens as the starter, while second-round pick Marcus Gilbert out of Florida represents the team's future at tackle. The rest of the line returns in guards Chris Kemoeatu and Ramon Foster as well as second-year center Maurkice Pouncey, the team's 2010 first- round pick who missed the Super Bowl due to an ankle injury. Doug Legursky, who started in Pouncey's place for the Big Game, could push Foster for playing time.
DL: There are two ways one can look at the three-man front of the Steelers. Those with a positive outlook will point out that all three expected starters have over 10 years of experience and have been a key part of a defense that is known to give other clubs headaches. On the other hand, injuries and age are starting to take their toll on the group, and it's only a matter of time before new blood is introduced. Nose tackle Casey Hampton (20 tackles, 1 sack) returns for his 11th season after appearing in 15 games a year ago, while right end and 10-year vet Brett Keisel (33 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 INT) logged 11 starts while missing time with a hamstring injury but was still selected to the Pro Bowl. Fellow end Aaron Smith (15 tackles), meanwhile, appeared in just six games because of a torn triceps tendon and will have to hold off youngster Ziggy Hood (20 tackles, 3 sacks) to reclaim his starting role. Thanks to Smith's injury, Hood gained valuable experience, logging nine starts in 2010, and figures to be a part of Pittsburgh's future. He'll one day team with 2011 first-round pick Cameron Heyward, the 31st overall pick of this past year's draft out of Ohio State who is the son of former NFL running back Craig "Ironhead" Heyward. Veteran Chris Hoke was also retained to back up on the line.
LB: Few teams, if any, can match the talent of Pittsburgh's starting four linebackers, a feared unit that is led by Harrison and also features LaMarr Woodley, James Farrior and Lawrence Timmons. If there is one worry for this group it is with Harrison (100 tackles, 10.5 sacks, 2 INT), not due to his mouth, but because of two back surgeries he had this offseason. Still, there is plenty of support around the Pro Bowl starter, including fellow outside partner Woodley (50 tackles, 10 sacks, 2 INT), who signed a giant six-year deal prior to the start of the season. Both players started all 16 games in 2010, as did Farrior (109 tackles, 6 sacks) on the inside. Timmons (135 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 INT) appeared in all 16 games and led the team in tackles, but was not credited with a start in one of those outings. Pittsburgh did lose backup Keyaron Fox to free agency, but still retains veteran Larry Foote (21 tackles) and youngsters Stevenson Sylvester and Jason Worilds.
DB: Even with limited cap room, the Steelers were able to re-sign cornerback Ike Taylor (66 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) to keep him in the fold of a secondary that is led by strong safety and reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Troy Polamalu, the second Steeler to win the award in three seasons (Harrison earned the honor in 2008). The long-locked Polamalu (63 tackles, 1 sack, 7 INT) bounced back from an injury-plagued 2009 season to play in 14 games and tie for second in the league in interceptions, and remains one of the game's best and highest-impact safeties. Fellow safety Ryan Clark (90 tackles, 2 INT) has an intimidating task of playing alongside Polamalu, but does it well. Cornerback Bryant McFadden (81 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT) continues his second tour of duty with the Steelers that began a season ago and should start opposite Taylor, who has started 63 of a possible 64 games over the past four years and should be ready for Week 1 despite a broken left thumb suffered early on in preseason. William Gay (48 tackles, 2 sacks) also re-signed to serve as a backup corner, and the Steelers drafted a pair of defensive backs in Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen. Brown, a third-round choice out of Texas, is the more polished of the two and will likely see some playing time right away. Will Allen returns as a backup at safety.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Long-time Steelers kicker Jeff Reed was jettisoned midway through the 2010 season after missing some key kicks and going 2-for-8 on his attempts from greater than 40 yards. Former Redskin and Cowboy Shaun Suisham took over and hit on all but one of his 15 field goal tries, leading to his re- signing this offseason. Suisham was true on all eight of his attempts on the road and also showed he can also handle the rough environment of Heinz Field by hitting on 6-of-7 there. However, his long at the stadium was just 42 yards. Daniel Sepulveda also seems poised to return as punter despite tearing his ACL last season for the second time. He averaged 45.5 yards per punt before his injury, with Jeremy Kapinos averaging a little less at 41.1 in relief. With Randle El gone, Sanders (25.1 avg.) and Brown (23.4 avg., 1 TD) become the primary kick returners, with Brown set to handle the punts as well.
PROGNOSIS: The Steelers have failed to make the playoffs following each of their last two Super Bowl appearances, but the minimal turnover the club underwent should go a long way towards breaking that trend. Pittsburgh showed last year that its aging defense is still among the best in the league, and Roethlisberger has a host of young weapons to go to in addition to the veteran Ward. Pittsburgh fans will have to cross their fingers that the bodies of Harrison and Polamalu don't betray the defensive stars, as either of those two would be tough to replace. The Steelers did do a good job of adding youth to its important positions -- mainly the defensive line and secondary -- and that should leave them equipped to handle any injury setbacks en route to defending their AFC crown.