Previewing The 2007 Steelers - Part One

Steelers Fever Exclusive Editorial

Thursday, September 06, 2007
By Eddie Griffin
Steelers Fever Columnist


The Steelers had a great preseason, winning four out of five contests.

Heath MillerBut that lofty record is irrelevant now, and everyone is at 0-0, as the 'real' action gets underway on Sunday. However, while the preseason record doesn't matter, what does matter is how well the team improved during the preseason and got acclimated to Mike Tomlin, his staff, and the new style.

What did we learn from the preseason? What should we expect this season? Are the Steelers going to contend in the rugged AFC North?

2006 in Review

The post-Super Bowl season got off to a terrible start, as the Steelers fell flat on their faces out of the gate, and stood at 2-6 halfway through the season.

With their playoff hopes all but done already, the Steelers could have packed it in. But Pittsburgh turned it on in the second half, winning six of their final eight games and spoiling the rival Bengals' playoff hopes on the last day of the season.

But that 23-17 overtime win over Cincinnati would be the last of the Bill Cowher era in Pittsburgh, as 'The Chin' retired less than a week later, ending his 15-year tenure roaming the sidelines in Pittsburgh.

To replace him, the Rooneys went the same route they had with the previous two coaches, hiring a relatively young, up-and-coming coach. But they went a different route as well, hiring the first black head coach in franchise history, 34-year-old Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin.

Draft/Offseason Additions/Subtractions

The biggest offseason loss (besides Cowher) was linebacker Joey Porter, who left the team he'd played with for all of his nine NFL seasons to go down, down south to Miami.

But in the draft, the Steelers addressed that position twofold, by drafting Florida State linebacker Lawrence Timmons with their first round pick, and then drafting Michigan defensive end LaMarr Woodley with their second-round pick. Woodley is one of those guys that played end in college, but will play linebacker in the pros.

Preseason Review

The defense was the strongest point in the preseason, giving up only 9.2 points per game. The rush defense held their five preseason opponents to 90.2 yards per game, including holding the Redskins to only 43 yards in the 12-10 win in Landover, MD.

The strongest point of the offense was the run game. The numbers dropped off in the final two preseason games, but in the first three, Pittsburgh's running back rotation averaged over 130 yards per game.

Unfortunately, while moving the ball wasn't an issue for the most part, punching it into the end zone was, as the Steelers had to settle for field goals in the overwhelming majority of their forays into the red zone.

What to Expect

Offense

The Steelers have the potential to have one of the best offenses in the league. That might sound funny, because when you think Steelers, you think defense, but it's true.

Ben Roethlisberger had an up and down 2006. From winning the Super Bowl, to getting into a serious motorcycle accident, and then playing inconsistently through the entire season.

First three games: 0 TDs, 7 INT

Next two games: 5 TDs, 0 INT

Next two games: 2 TDs, 7 INT

Next game: 3 TDs, 0 INT

Final seven games: 8 TDs, 9 INT

But he's had a drama-free offseason, and a solid preseason, so the hope is that he can be more of the 2004 and 2005 Big Ben and not last year's.

The two question marks are whether or not he can stay healthy, most importantly, and what kind of production he'll get from the receivers. He missed four games in '05, and then missed the first game of last season as well. And, when it comes to the receivers, we know what to expect from Hines Ward, and second-year receiver Santonio Holmes is primed for a breakout year. But Cedrick Wilson and Nate Washington need to be consistent, reliable targets for Roethlisberger to optimize his potential. But one good thing is that we'll see the running backs more involved in the passing game, so there won't have to be so much of a reliance on the primary pass-catchers.

And the running game will be as solid as ever, with Willie Parker coming off of consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, including a 1,494-yard, 13-touchdown season in 2006. He's fully recovered from knee problems that bothered him during the offseason, so the workhorse of the backfield will be poised for another huge year.

Defense

Oh, what to expect from the defense?

The main question when it comes to the D is the pass defense.

The run defense should be excellent once again, after finishing third in the league in rush yards allowed per game in 2006 with 88.2.

But the pass defense was 20th in the league, due both in part to the secondary and pass rush being overwhelmingly inconsistent. The Steelers finished well in the top half of the league in both sacks and interceptions, but were 20th in yards allowed per game and completion percentage, and tied for 16th in touchdowns allowed.

Porter's loss is a key one, but James Harrison is chomping at the bit to make his mark as a pass rusher, and Timmons and Woodley will both have a chance to make a significant impact as rookies.

The pass rushers made only one sack in the first two preseason games, but will go into the regular season with a little positive momentum after picking up eight in the last three games.

There've been a couple of position battles in the secondary, as Ryan Clark and Anthony Smith have been battling it out at free safety, while Bryant McFadden and DeShea Townsend have been duking it out at corner. Whatever combinations Tomlin goes with, they need to work. Ike Taylor is the X-factor back there though. If Taylor is much better than he was in '06, that might be a good sign for the rest of the secondary.

But watch out for William Gay. Lost in the position battles is the fact that the fifth-round pick from Louisville had a great preseason, making a game-saving play in wins against the Redskins and Eagles, and has earned his way into a roster spot and regular playing time.

Special Teams

The kicking game will be solid once again, with Jeff Reed maintaining placekicking duties. It would be nice to see him closer to 80 percent or more on his field goals this season, after hitting on 74 percent (20 of 27) last season, but he can be depended on to come through in clutch situations.

Pittsburgh said goodbye to Chris Gardocki in the offseason, but may have made an upgrade with their new punter, even though he's a rookie. Daniel Sepulveda won the Ray Guy Award (given to the nation's best punter) in 2004 and 2006 while at Baylor, and showed off his impressive leg with several booming kicks in the preseason.

The return game got a huge boost over the weekend as the Steelers signed one of the league's top returners, former Atlanta Falcon Alan Rossum, who will likely be the team's primary punt return man and one of the main kickoff returners as well. We may also see Willie Reid back there, as dangerous as he can be with the ball in his hands.

Part two of the season preview will size up the AFC North and the Steelers' chances to win the division title, and look at how things shape up from Week 1 to Week 17.