Don't be fooled by Pittsburgh's inactivity in free agency. The defending champs will be adding a blue-chip running back prospect and promising young punter in 2009. And they didn't have to lift a finger to do it. As the 2008 Steelers made their title run, running back Rashard Mendenhall and punter Daniel Sepulveda were sitting on injured reserve. Sepulveda tore his ACL in training camp and Pittsburgh used journeyman Mitch Berger for most of the season, declining in every key punting category from Sepulveda's rookie season in 2007. Mendenhall, a 2008 first-round draft pick from Illinois, was expected to share playing time with starter Willie Parker. Mendenhall rushed 19 times for 58 yards in the first four games before suffering a broken shoulder blade against Baltimore. With Parker also battling injuries and the offensive line struggling, the Steelers were forced to rely more upon quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's passing. Here are some other guys who missed at least
Honorable mention: Ex-Dallas SS Roy Williams
The five-time Pro Bowl selection insists he is still one of the league's top strong safeties. NFL teams clearly disagree since Williams remains unsigned after being released last month by Dallas. So far, Cincinnati is believed the only team to entertain Williams on a free-agent visit. Williams missed 13 games last season because of forearm injuries.
Minnesota MLB E.J. Henderson
A division-winning defense would have been even sounder had Henderson not been lost for the season in Week 4 after dislocating two toes. Henderson was the only linebacker entrusted to playing in both nickel and dime packages. His absence caused Minnesota to juggle those responsibilities. When healthy, Henderson, Chad Greenway (weak-side) and Ben Leber (strong-side) comprise one of the NFL's top linebacker trios among teams running the 4-3.
Dallas LG Kyle Kosier
Lost amid all the drama in Dallas last season was how much Kosier's absence hurt the offensive line. Kosier could never fully recover from a foot injury that limited him to three starts. It's no coincidence that Dallas was 3-0 when he did play.
Buffalo DE Aaron Schobel
Schobel's career is at a crossroads. He notched 54 sacks between 2002 and 2006, but slumped to 6.5 sacks in 2007. Schobel, who turns 32 in September, then missed the final 11 games last season with a sprained foot. His roster spot beyond this season isn't guaranteed.
Green Bay DE Cullen Jenkins
The Packers need a healthy Jenkins to accelerate the defense's transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4 scheme. The Packers could never generate the same kind of pass rush after Jenkins was lost in the fourth game to a torn pectoral muscle. At the time, he had 2.5 sacks and was proving a nice complement to fellow end Aaron Kampman. The Packers believe Jenkins can also thrive as a 3-4 end whose main responsibility is tying up offensive linemen so linebackers can make tackles.
Baltimore S Dawan Landry
The Ravens are hoping Landry develops the same on-field chemistry with Pro Bowl free safety Ed Reed that free-agent loss Jim Leonhard (New York Jets) did in 2008. Landry, the older brother of Washington safety LaRon Landry, suffered a spinal-cord concussion in the season's second game. That created the opportunity for Leonhard to enter the starting lineup.
Cincinnati QB Carson Palmer
An already bad season got worse when Palmer was sidelined after the fifth game by a sore elbow. Palmer already is back throwing and expected to make a full recovery, which gives the lowly Bengals at least a glimmer of hope heading into 2009.
Tie: Jacksonville Gs Vince Manuwai and Maurice Williams
At the recent NFL owners meeting in Southern California, Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio lamented the loss of both players to injuries in the 2008 season-opener against Tennessee. "That wasn't a good way to start the year," Del Rio quipped. This is especially true for a run-heavy team that had its per-game production drop an average of almost 40 yards from 2007. Even with iconic running back Fred Taylor now with New England, the Jags feel confident that Maurice Jones-Drew and converted fullback Greg Jones can thrive with Manuwai (knee) and Williams (biceps) back in the lineup.
New York Giants DE Osi Umenyiora
Losing both Umenyiora (knee) and fellow end Michael Strahan (retirement) was a blow the defending Super Bowl champions could never recover from. Replacements Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka wore down with injuries as the season unfolded. That could be as big a reason for New York's late-season fade as the loss of wide receiver Plaxico Burress. Umenyiora is returning to a replenished front that now features free-agent additions Chris Canty (Dallas) and Rocky Bernard (Seattle).
San Diego OLB Shawne Merriman
I still maintain Merriman's absence was a bigger blow to San Diego than Brady's loss to New England. Merriman was his defense's quarterback -- a vocal, emotional leader who excelled at stopping the run and crushing quarterbacks. The Chargers could never find anyone close to a comparable replacement once Merriman bowed out with a knee injury after the season-opener. Merriman recently told the San Diego Union-Tribune "I feel great and look amazing." If he's telling the truth, San Diego should be considered an under-the-radar Super Bowl contender.
New England QB Tom Brady
Terrell Owens won't be completely hogging the spotlight during Buffalo's prime-time opener against New England. The game will mark Brady's return from a knee injury that sidelined the NFL's 2007 MVP for all but 1-1/2 quarters of last season. The Pats were confident enough in Brady's recovery that promising 2008 replacement Matt Cassel was traded to Kansas City in February. Brady, though, will be returning to an offense that hasn't named its offensive coordinator or revealed who will be calling plays. "That part of the process we'll work our way through," Belichick told FOXSports.com last month in a telephone interview. "We have a lot of very experienced coaches on the offensive side of the ball. As the head coach, I have input into each phase of game like I've always had ... The way the (offensive coaching) starts may morph into something different as the season goes on."