Training Camp Opens Soon. Five Questions Facing the Pittsburgh Steelers
It’s that time of year again when Pittsburgh faithful are allowed to avert their eyes from the mess that is the Pittsburgh Pirates (looks like what I wrote just a few days ago was overly optimistic — again) and gaze just beyond PNC Park to Heinz field, toward the six-time Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers. With the Steelers reporting to training camp in Latrobe on Friday, I have five questions. They’re not burning questions, more like room temperature questions, but they are questions nonetheless:
1. What a friend we have in Jesus, a/k/a Troy Polamalu. In 2008, the Steelers had the No. 1 ranked defense in the entire league, allowing just 13.9 points per game and 237.2 total yards from scrimmage per game. They had the second most sacks in the league with 51. In 2009, most of the players returned from that amazing run. But it wasn’t so super. They dropped from first to 12th in points allowed, and gave up 300 yards per game. It was, well, it was depressing. How did it happen? One name. Polamalu. He missed 11 games due to injury and the team lost six of those, which is to say, they are one defense with him, and without him, they are the guys who lost to Kansas City, Oakland and Cleveland. If he’s healthy, the Steelers have a decent shot at returning within orbiting distance at least of past glories. If he’s out nursing injuries, they can start thinking about the 2011 draft.
2. Clusterbomb at Quarterback. Coach Tomlin is dealing with a lot of crap here, just at one position. First, he has to get ready for the start of the season, which means getting either Byron Leftwich or Dennis Dixon ready. Both, I believe are capable, competent quarterbacks. Leftwich did a great job subbing for Ben Roethlisberger in 2008; last year, all Dennis Dixon had to do was make his first NFL start in a prime time game in Baltimore, of all places, and the kid played great. The Steelers lost the game in OT, but it was in no way due to Dixon. The challenge for Tomlin is how to split practice time at camp? He cannot cede the first four games through underpreparation of Leftwich/Dixon, but still, like it or not, the starter of the Steelers is Ben Roethlisberger and he, likewise, has to be ready in week five. It’ll be interesting to see how Tomlin balances it all.
3. Offensive Line. I probably could have started with this because whoever lines up under center – Leftwich, Dixon or Roethlisberger, may get killed before the midway part of the season. The line was not great last year. Hell, it wasn’t even great during the Super Bowl run of 2008. (I would posit that it was perhaps the worst O Line on a Super Bowl winning team.) But this year, that already suspect line lost its starting right tackle for the season and they still have a sub-par center, unless first round pick Maurkice Pouncey, can step in. But rookie centers almost never happen. So the line that allowed 50 sacks last year is already worse before the first day of training camp. Of course, both Leftwich and Dixon get rid of the ball faster than Roethlisberger, so his suspension may be a strange gift to this unit. But quick release or not and quick timing patterns or no, this unit is the most suspect on the team.
4. Mendenhall, Mendenhall, Mendenhall. The 2008 first round draft pick enters his third year and this is the make or break season for him. Rashard doesn’t have Willie Parker to share the load with him and will be backed up by third down specialist Mewelde Moore and a bunch of jabeeps. No offense fellas, but it all falls to Mendenhall. His first year was pretty disappointing. He played in only three games before Ray Lewis broke his shoulder. Seriously. His shoulder. Which prompted one of my friends to ask, who the hell breaks a shoulder? What is this guy, made of styrofoam? Last year, he was much better and didn’t break his shoulder, or any other broken bones, so that was an accomplishment in and of itself. Plus, despite occasional outbreaks of mad fumblitis, he showed real power and explosive speed, but it was like OC Bruce Arians didn’t trust the guy or something. He had 20 or more carries only six times. It seems to me, if you draft a running back with your first pick, the assumption is that he’s the feature back and a feature back does not get 11 or 12 carries per game; he gets 22, 24 and 25 carries per game. So the question regarding Mendenhall is twofold: Can he carry the load being the feature back? And will Bruce Arians patiently feed him the ball enough so that he can be the man?
5. Enthusiasm. This is a question for the fans, not the players. The 2009 campaign was not just disappointing, but repulsive. Despite losses to the Bengals and the Bears early in the season, the team rebounded and ripped off five nice wins, three against good teams (Chargers, Vikings and Broncos.) Things were looking good around here. What went wrong, went wrong fast. They dropped a game to the Bengals, ceding control in the division to Cincy. Then they inexplicably dropped games to the Chiefs, the Ravens, the Raiders and the Browns. An entire region threw up on itself in disgust. That’s pretty hard to watch, losing to teams of the caliber of the 2009 Chiefs, Raiders and Browns, all of which is to say that the team has to go a ways to earn back the trust and respect of any sane fans around here (not that there are many of those.)
Then, there is the 241 pound cleat-shod elephant in the room. Fans are in an untenable position. Can they root for the team and not root for Roethlisberger? How do you straddle that? Some people don’t care about Roethlisberger’s off-season transgressions, the allegations of rape, sexual assault and just general entitled, drunken assholery, but most people hold him personally in contempt. At least most people I’ve talked to. But, time has gone on since the story broke in Milledgeville, Georgia and as time as passed, people’s outrage has dampened, if just a wee bit. The fact that the elephant in question has kept a low profile all summer certainly helps. But I wonder how he’ll be greeted when he takes the field on October 17th versus the Browns? Is it possible to boo the quarterback while cheering the rest of the defense? Can you root for the franchise, but not the man leading it?