Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Team Preview: Pittsburgh Steelers Offense

2007 Record: 10-6

Offensive Preview


Ben Roethlisberger put together one of the best seasons a Steelers quarterback has ever had last year. In spite of the fact that the team fell apart towards the end of the year and the offense looked very predictable, I think we can honestly say that Roethlisberger had a better season than anyone could have hoped for, especially after his struggles in 2006. Yes he had a dreadful first quarter in the playoff game against Jacksonville, but he responded with one of the best halves of football I've ever seen from a quarterback. Roethlisberger is the rock of the offense. He deserved the huge contract he got in the offseason. As Ben goes, so goes the rest of the team. He proved last season that he is among the top quarterbacks in the league, worthy of being placed in a category with Brady and Manning. With the weapons in this offense, Ben could be on the verge of having a record-breaking season, bringing him even closer to some of Bradshaw's marks.

If something were to happen to Ben, Byron Leftwich has proven to be a perfectly capable backup. With Homestead Charlie out at least until October, Leftwich will make the team and has proven in the preseason that he can make plays and run the offense. The Steelers released Mike Potts, meaning that Dennis the Menace Dixon will make the team as the #3 quarterback. Dixon showed enough talent and playmaking skill thus far that he'll be a capable #3, who will learn the offense and become a weapon in future years.

Running Backs

In a single moment in April, the Steelers running attack went from one that ranked 3rd in the league last season to a 2-headed monster that could challenge Minnesota and Jacksonville for the top spot. Fast Willie Parker, coupled with the bruising power of Rashard Mendenhall is going to prove formidable for any team to play against. Before breaking his leg in St Louis last season, Parker was on his way to the Pro Bowl and challenging Ladanian Tomlinson and Adrian Peterson for the league's rushing crown. Despite not playing the last game of the season and getting only 1 touch in Week 16, Parker still finished 4th in the league in rushing behind LT, AP and Brian Westbrook.

Mendenhall brings an almost perfect compliment to Parker to the team. He has great hands, which makes him a weapon out of the backfield. He also has good footwork, along the lines of Jerome Bettis, which will enable him to find his way through holes and make those "something out of nothing" runs that have been missing from the Steelers offense. Mendenhall also brings a bruising runner that can wear a team down between the tackles. But he also possesses the vision and extra gear to be able to bounce it to the outside and turn a 2-yard gain into a 15-yarder.

The rest of the Steelers backfield will feature Mewelde Moore, who the Steelers brought in from Minnesota, as a third down back. Moore has shown flashes of Verron Haynes-esque play, being able to take draw plays and short passes and turn them into the 7-yard gains needed on those third-and-medium situations. Gary Russell will likely make the team as a power back, but it is doubtful that he will be used in short-yardage situations once Mendenhall hits his stride. Carey Davis will also see use as a full back, but Bruce Arians has all but eliminated the full back, much to my dismay, from the Steelers offense this season. Billy Latsko, who has the build of Tim Lester and Dan Kreider, has an outside shot at making the team, but may end up on the practice squad. It would be great to keep Latsko around the team so that we have someone who could throw a big block out of a power-I on the goal line.

Wide Receivers

Two years removed from playing a game where Tunch Ilkin said the Steelers took the field with the worst receiving corps in NFL History, the Steelers might have one of the best top-to-bottom units in the AFC. In Tunch's defense, the Steelers top 2 receivers (Ward and Wilson) were out with injuries, leaving an unproven Nate Washington and an injury-hampered rookie Santonio Holmes to carry the team. Coming into this season, Holmes is set to have a break-out season as the deep threat in the Steelers offense. Hines Ward is as solid as ever, and will be the anchor of the offense once again. I haven't gotten my hands on a media guide yet this year, so I'm not sure if there are any receiving records for Hines to break. I know he needs 11 more games to pass John Stallworth for the most games played by a Steelers receiver. Regardless, Ward is an institution at receiver who can be counted upon in the biggest games at the biggest times.

Nate Washington has proven that he can make plays (see: Ravens game last year). However, Nate hasn't always been able to make the clutch catches, especially around the goal line, that a big time receiver like Ward has made. However, Washington provides a different dynamic that Arians has shown he can utilize Washington in his offensive plan. The addition of Limas Sweed, who towers over the other receivers in the unit, will be very helpful for the Steelers once Sweed is able to calm his nerves and not try to play outside himself.

Tight Ends

If the Steelers had an offensive coordinator who would actually throw to the tight end on a consistent basis, rather than just throwing them token passes at the beginning of games, Heath Miller would set receiving records for Steelers Tight Ends that might never be broken. I have no problem saying that Heath Miller is the best tight end to ever play for the Steelers. Yes, he's better than Eric Green. Miller arguably has the second best hands on the team, behind Hines Ward. He catches almost everything thrown his way. So why not throw to him more? That's a mystery to me. Ever since we drafted him, we've been wanting to see more of him, but no matter who the coordinator is, they never seem comfortable throwing to a tight end when the game is on the line. Using Heath more in the offense will add a new dynamic as he will force safeties to stay at home to guard him over the middle, freeing up Ward and Holmes from double-teams. Matt Spaeth is a good second tight end who provides a massive target in the red zone and has proven to be a solid blocker. Hopefully Miller and Spaeth see an increased role in the offense this year, making the Steelers even more dangerous.

Offensive Line

This is where it all begins and ends for this Steelers team. If Justin Hartwig is able to anchor the center spot that Sean Mahan played so poorly at and Chris Kemoeatu can come in and blow people up the same way A-Fan did, then this team is on it's way to great things. On the other hand, if the line falters, then there will be no cut-back lanes for the running backs and Ben will be under constant heat in the pocket. Marvel Smith and Willie Colon seem to be set in stone as the starting tackles, even though Max Starks is being paid a huge salary. Starks played excellent in reserve for Smith last season, and his attitude is phenomenal going into this season, saying he'll do whatever he can to help the team. Colon has shown some things at right tackle and his toughness and tenacity are definitely key for an offensive lineman. However, he lacks the reach that Starks possesses and has a tendency to get beat to the outside by quick pass rushers. At guard Kendall Simmons has remained a steady force on the line, surviving a challenge last year from Chris Kemoeatu to keep his starting job. This year, Simmons and Kemoeatu must couple with newcomer Justin Hartwig to recreate the magic of Alan Faneca and Jeff Hartings on the interior of the line. In the era of Faneca and Hartings, not only was there minimal pressure on the quarterback up the middle, but running backs also had cut-back lanes to spring through to turn short gains into longer pickups.

Trai Essex was moved to guard in the preseason where he has done some stellar work with the second team. If any of the interior linemen go down to injury, look to see Essex's name in the mix for a starting spot. Sean Mahan stays with the team and will likely be on the roster as a back-up center, but more than likely will be plugged in at guard if the need presents itself. The Steelers lack depth on the offensive line and the unit will likely see a complete overhaul after this season when Starks, Colon and Smith all become free agents. The unit needs to come together in the last week, as they'll have a tough task ahead of them in the opening week matchup against Houston.

All in all, the Steelers offense should be one of the best in the league this year, as long as the offensive line is able to keep defenses at bay, something they haven't done a great job of in the preseason. Due to the Steelers strength of schedule, expect them to be involved in a lot of close games, giving Roethlisberger plenty of opportunities to prove his merit in the league and continue his ascent to being the best quarterback in Steelers history.

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