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NFL team preview: Pittsburgh Steelers

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INSIDE SLANT

The Steelers were presented with an unwanted and unique experience this summer, having to prepare one quarterback to open the regular season and another to replace him as the starter on Oct. 17.

Coach Mike Tomlin did a good job of preparing Ben Roethlisberger for the fifth game of the season, when he can return from his four-game suspension, but had to do so at the expense of his starter for the first four games, Byron Leftwich.

Roethlisberger took many snaps with the first team in training camp and then started the final three preseason games after not playing in the opener. He looks to be in mid-season form, and the Steelers can only hope he stays that way until he returns.

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Leftwich is the presumed starter -- Tomlin has not officially named one -- but the Steelers also will use some doses of Dennis Dixon at quarterback. How those two play in the first four games could determine whether the Steelers can contend again.

"If I'm the guy, Week 1, I'll be ready," Leftwich said. "Regardless how it goes. I just have to be prepared for anything. The way things have been going we've been getting a lot of reps, everybody."

Another big goal for 2010 was to beef up the ground game, which not only ranked 19th in yards last season but failed to produce when the Steelers needed it, such as in the fourth quarter when they wanted to run out the clock (they lost five fourth-quarter leads in losses) and short yardage. They did little in adding personnel and will count on their new commitment and Rashard Mendenhall, who rushed for 1,108 yards and a 4.6-yard average last season.

The Steelers also had to prepare Mike Wallace to replace the traded Santonio Holmes at split end after Wallace led the NFL with a 19.4-yard average on 39 receptions as a rookie. They believe he will do well in his new role.

"I'm challenging him to be a complete player, and he's embracing that challenge," Tomlin said in late August. "There's no question he can get behind people. He's been doing that all his life. I'm looking for steps in other areas for him in terms of a well-rounded game."

The disappointment last season was the defense, which slipped from No. 1 in 2008 to No. 5, but fell even further in its ability to close out games, allowing fourth-quarter leads to slip away in five losses. They had to play without two of their best defenders, end Aaron Smith and safety Troy Polamalu, for 11 games each.

"I think when we're healthy, we're the No. 1 defense in the NFL," safety Ryan Clark said. "It wasn't like we couldn't stop people, that was the most frustrating part. We stopped people all game and then when it counted most, when it mattered, we couldn't do it."

The big question about that defense is whether it can stay healthy considering its age, with six starters over 30, including all three of the linemen.

COACHING: Mike Tomlin, 4th year, 4th with Steelers (31-17).
REMEMBERING: 2009 record: 9-7 (3rd in AFC North).
PREDICTING: 2010 regular season record: 10-6 (2nd in AFC North); lose in wildcard playoff.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

The Steelers likely are trying to trade Justin Hartwig after the two-year starter at center lost that job to rookie Maurkice Pouncey. Hartwig carries a salary of $2.08 million and teams know he likely will be released.

Among their early cuts was linebacker Andre Frazier, their top backup on the outside last season and a member of both of their recent Super Bowl victories. He has a knee injury and was waived/injured.

PLAYER NOTES

--CB Bryant McFadden will have missed the final two preseason games with a right pectoral muscle injury and his starting job is in jeopardy for the season opener.

--CB Keenan Lewis, trying to challenge Bryant McFadden, fell into disfavor with a complete meltdown in the third preseason game, in which he started. He did not play well, committed two ugly personal fouls and was yanked from the game because of it.

--RB Isaac Redman has added the role of fullback and has been used in a two-back "pony" set. He has been a bright spot for the Steelers this summer.

--DE Ziggy Hood, the team's No. 1 pick in '09, had an outstanding training camp, but that did not translate into games as he did little as the backup on both sides.

--WR Antwaan Randle El, returning to the team he left as a UFA in 2006, has nailed down the No. 3 job against a weak challenge from rookie Emmanuel Sanders.

--LB Lawrence Timmons, entering his second season as a starting inside linebacker, may be the team's best option on the outside if one of the Steelers' two starters is hurt. If that happens, Larry Foote could step into Timmons' job on the inside.

DRAFT PICKS TO STICK

Rd. 1/18, C Maurkice Pouncey, Florida -- Slated to compete at right guard in his first season, he was so dominant at center that he shoved aside two-year starter Justin Hartwig to claim that job.

Rd. 2/52, LB Jason Worilds, Virginia Tech -- Disappointing start, but Steelers realized it would take at least one year to convert him from college defensive end.

Rd. 3/82, WR Emmanuel Sanders, SMU -- Has speed and ability but not polished enough yet to follow Mike Wallace's shoes and become No. 3 man as a rookie.

Rd. 4/116, OLB Thaddeus Gibson, Ohio State -- Missed all of spring work because Buckeyes' classes were still in session ... and it showed in the preseason.

Rd. 5/164, CB Crezdon Butler, Clemson -- His ability to also learn the safety position has helped him win a roster spot.

Rd. 5/166, LB Stevenson Sylvester, Utah -- Not a lock to make the team even though he had a good summer.

Rd. 6/195, WR Antonio Brown, Central Michigan -- Productive at his position in the preseason and likely No. 1 return man.

UNIT BY UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Ben Roethlisberger. Backups -- Byron Leftwich, Dennis Dixon.

A strength of the team turned into disarray when commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Roethlisberger for the first four games and coach Mike Tomlin did nothing to clarify the position for that duration. Roethlisberger, coming off his best season, looked in mid-season form throughout camp and the preseason. Trouble is, the others did not. Tomlin positioned Leftwich to be his starter since he acquired him in an April trade from Tampa Bay. But the coach took many of Leftwich's snaps in camp and in the preseason and gave them to Roethlisberger. Leftwich is the overwhelming favorite to be the starter Sept. 12 against Atlanta, but Dixon will be used on occasion.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- RB Rashard Mendenhall, RB/FB Frank Summers/Isaac Redman. Backups -- Mewelde Moore, Jonathan Dwyer.

Mendenhall will be the workhorse this season and the likely candidate to handle third downs as well. Moore is the only other player with an NFL carry. The Steelers had expectations for the rookie Dwyer, a productive back at Georgia Tech. He has been a disappointment, although he might make the roster. Redman has been a nice surprise and can play fullback or running back, and the Steelers have experimented with a "pony" backfield this summer, using him and Mendenhall as dual runners. Summers also can play both spots but seems to have taken a back seat to Redman.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Heath Miller. Backups -- Matt Spaeth, David Johnson.

Same three as last season. Miller made his first Pro Bowl long after the Steelers recognized him as the best two-way tight end in the game. He has helped a sub-par offensive line with his blocking and he emerged as a true target with a 76 receptions -- third on the team, most ever by a Steelers tight end -- for 789 yards and a team-tying six touchdown receptions. Spaeth continues to run No. 2 despite his lack of production as a receiver (five catches) and inadequate blocking. Johnson serves as h-back and No. 3 tight end.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Hines Ward, Mike Wallace. Backups -- Antwaan Randle El, Emmanuel Sanders, Arnaz Battle, Antonio Brown.

The loss of Santonio Holmes changes the complexion of what was a good group last season. Wallace pulled a surprise by catching 39 passes and averaging 19.4 yards as the rookie No. 3, and now he must step into Holmes' shoes as the starting split end. He no longer will merely run go routes and seems to have made the adjustment this summer. Ward, 34, has shown little signs of slowing down after leading the team with 95 catches. Sanders is fast but could not move into the No. 3 role, which will go to re-acquired veteran Randle El. Battle makes it on his special teams play, and Brown will be the return man as well as a developmental receiver.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Max Starks, LG Chris Kemoeatu, C Maurkice Pouncey, RG Trai Essex, RT Flozell Adams. Backups -- C/G Doug Legursky, G/T Ramon Foster, T Jonathan Scott, T Tony Hills, C Justin Hartwig.

Pouncey was expected to compete and possibly win the job at right guard but was so impressive at center he moved right in and replaced two-year starter Justin Hartwig, who may be released. That leaves right guard to Essex, who started there last season. The other new spot at right tackle has been given to newcomer Adams, who struggled early after switching from left tackle with the Cowboys but seems to be settling in. RT Willie Colon's summer surgery to repair an Achilles' tendon wiped out his season. Starks has done OK at left tackle since moving over from the right side after he was displaced by Colon and became a backup for a year. Kemoeatu is a fine run-blocker, not so fine at pass blocking. Hills came on strong this summer to nail down the backup left tackle job.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LE Aaron Smith, RE Brett Keisel, NT Casey Hampton. Backups -- NT Chris Hoke, DE Ziggy Hood, DE Nick Eason, DE Sunny Harris, NT Scott Paxson.

This will be the fifth season the starting three will have been together, give or take some injuries. The Steelers believe they have the best 3-4 defensive line in football, although it faltered with the loss of Smith for 11 games last season with a torn rotator cuff. Hampton is the best nose tackle in the game and returns at 34 after signing a new contract. Keisel has the best movement and while his sacks are never high, his quarterback pressures regularly are near the top of the Steelers' defensive stats. Hood, their first-round pick last year, will back up for the second straight season barring injuries in front of him; he has played every position across the line this summer. Paxson is a long-shot to make the team and the final roster spot will come down to the veteran Eason vs. second-year man Harris.

LINEBACKERS: Starters -- LOLB LaMarr Woodley, LILB James Farrior, RILB Lawrence Timmons, ROLB James Harrison. Backups -- ILB Larry Foote, ILB Keyaron Fox, OLB Jason Worilds, OLB Thaddeus Gibson, OLB Patrick Bailey, ILB Stevenson Sylvester

The Steelers start with two Pro Bowlers on the outside with Woodley (13.5 sacks) and Harrison (10) but things fell off sharply after that in '09. Former Pro Bowler Farrior hit the wall last season and if he does not get any better at 35, he could be quickly replaced by Foote, brought back for that very reason after a one-year stint in Detroit. Timmons had an outstanding summer and could finally become a star in his fourth season. The Steelers drafted two rookies in the higher rounds as future outside linebackers, Worilds in the second round and Gibson in the fourth. Neither did much in the preseason. Fox is a solid inside backup and one of their best special teamers. Harrison is 32 but the Pro Bowl outside linebacker has lost nothing. The final roster spot is Bailey vs. Sylvester.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Bryant McFadden, RCB Ike Taylor, FS Troy Polamalu, SS Ryan Clark. Backups -- CB William Gay, S Will Allen, CB Keenan Lewis, CB Joe Burnett, CB Crezdon Butler, S Ryan Mundy.

With Polamalu out for most of last season and Gay unable to handle a starting job, the secondary performed poorly, one reason the defense ranked 20th in allowing third-down conversions. So the Steelers traded with Arizona to bring McFadden back after he signed as a UFA with the Cardinals in '09. McFadden started for three seasons before he left but did not look good this summer, and Gay ultimately could wind up there again or split time again, as the two did in '08. The secondary desperately needs a healthy Polamalu to regain the status it held in 2008. He does so many things that no replacement can duplicate and thus the defense changes without him. Clark re-signed as a UFA and has been a good free safety. Taylor, in the final year of his contract, has been the team's best corner for years and often covers the opponent's best receiver, but he's never made a Pro Bowl. Allen (UFA) has been excellent as a backup safety.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Starters -- K Jeff Reed, P Daniel Sepulveda, LS Greg Warren, PR/KR Stefan Logan/Antonio Brown.

Reed has been among the NFL's most consistent placekickers, especially when his home stadium and AFC North Division are taken into account. Those are not easy places to kick in the final two months of the season. Reed was good on 27 of 31 tries last season, which is typical. His shortcoming is kicking off, and the Steelers have used Sepulveda there in the preseason and may do so in the regular season. Sepulveda has been largely a disappointment as a punter, missing his second season with an ACL and averaging only 42.7 and 37.1 net last season. Logan, a one-trick pony as a return man, will lose his roster spot if they go with Brown in that capacity.

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