Patriots 2010 Opponents Offseason Analysis: Pittsburgh Steelers

Note: This story is a continuation of a series I wrote on Greg's former site, PatriotsBlog.net. I reviewed the other three AFC East teams and predicted their order of finish. (Links: Jets, Dolphins, Bills)

I thought I would continue over the next few weeks with the rest of the Patriots opponents in 2010.

PittsburghSteelers

2009 record: 9-7, Did not make playoffs.

2009 record vs. Patriots: N/A

 

Offense:

The Steelers offense took a huge hit in the offseason with Ben Roethlisberger’s suspension and the loss of Santonio Holmes to the Jets. In addition, receiver Limas Sweed is out for the season with an Achilles injury suffered in minicamp. This leaves receivers Hines Ward and Mike Wallace, tight end Heath Miller and running back Rashard Mendenhall to carry the load. Holmes production (79 catches, 1,248 yards, 5 TDs in 2009) will be missed on the field. Deep-threat Wallace will be asked to step up in his place. Miller and Ward remain steady sources of production, and Mendenhall (1,108 rushing yards, 7 TDs) has shown signs of being a reliable feature back. The Steelers have brought back a number of former players, including wide receiver Antwaan Randle El from Washington. Look for a few of those gadget plays they ran in the past with him throwing the ball deep. Former back-up quarterbacks Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch also return to compete for the starting job with Dennis Dixon while Roethlisberger serves his suspension.

I doubt Roethlisberger will be suspended for more than the minimum four games, and those will come against Atlanta, Tennessee, Tampa Bay and Baltimore. The Steelers need to take at least one of those games if they hope to remain competitive in the division. They will likely lean heavily on Mendenhall and use their trademark pound-the-ball style while taking a shot deep every so often to keep defenses honest. When Big Ben returns it will be interesting to see if he still has the same swagger. His presence will allow for a more balanced attack, but Pittsburgh took center Maurkice Pouncey, and a big running back in Jonathan Dwyer in the draft. Their offensive line is one of the largest in the NFL, and they will continue to be a run-first team.

Defense:

The Pittsburgh defense was not the same all-conquering unit last year. The missing link seemed to be feared safety Troy Polamolu, who missed much of the season after injuring his knee on opening day. He will be back, along with defensive end Aaron Smith who was sidelined 11 games with a shoulder injury. Cornerback Bryant McFadden and inside linebacker Larry Foote return after spending a year in Arizona and Detroit respectively. Nose tackle Casey Hampton and safety Ryan Clark were re-signed, and safety Will Allen was brought over from TampaBay.

Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is one of the best in the business. He has a deadly outside linebacker tandem in James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, and Pittsburgh added to their depth at the position with rookies Jason Worlids and Thaddeaus Gibson.

The Steelers will be hoping they can return their defense to the dominant force it was for their Super Bowl-winning campaigns of 2005 and 2008. Their division is one of the toughest in the NFL, but Pittsburgh loves to be underestimated. They have a very experienced group of players who know how to grind out tough wins, and the entire second half of their schedule should be cold weather games. There is a lot riding on those four games without Big Ben, but I see the Steelers defense keeping them in the playoff hunt. They are not a team you want to see on your schedule late in the season.

2010 Schedule: Atlanta, @Tennessee, @Tampa Bay, Baltimore, bye, Cleveland, @Miami, @New Orleans, @Cincinnati, New England, Oakland, @Buffalo, @Baltimore, Cincinnati, New York Jets, Carolina, @Cleveland

 

2010 Record Prediction: 10-6 (second in AFC North)

Patriots Angle: The Patriots don’t come to Pittsburgh until the Sunday night game on November 14th, so they will probably face Roethlisberger. The Steelers will be coming off a tough divisional game in Cincinnati, and the Patriots will have just played at Cleveland. The following week New England hosts the Colts. This game should be a heavyweight slug-fest, and a good opportunity to see if the Patriots have successfully improved their toughness and physicality.

One similarity between the Patriots and Steelers this offseason has been a focus on retaining players and bringing in veterans, some of which are returning after stints elsewhere. It seems both teams are concerned with locker room dynamics, and have parted ways with high profile players who were seen as disruptive. These are two of the best-run franchises in the NFL coming off disappointing seasons. Neither team is considered a clear-cut favorite to win their division, as the AFC North and AFC East have become much more competitive in the last few years. Both the Steelers and the Patriots will be looking to re-establish their trademark identities and playoff dominance in 2010.

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