The last we saw from the Steelers was a poor third down-and-8 call compounded by poor tackling and a holding call that never came.
Jacksonville twice stole the show in the Steel City while Pittsburgh lost four of its final five games. Head coach Mike Tomlin's debut leaves Steelers fans cautiously optimistic. The 2008 black and gold bunch have the tools necessary, but do they have the tool box to protect them?
There has only been one issue that has been more publicized than the Steelers' offensive line woes last season, and that's the Rooney family's battle to keep control of the franchise.
The Steelers "hogs" up front were scorched for 31 sacks in the second half of last season. That was with perennial all-pro left guard Alan Faneca in the lineup. The Steelers opted to draft for potential in the first two rounds of this year's draft. Running back Rashard Mendenhall and wide receiver Limas Sweed look to add to what is already a talented group of skill players.
The only player they gobbled up in free agency was center Justin Hartwig of Carolina. He will replace Sean Mahan and has been OK at best in his preseason debut. Fourth-year guard Chris Kemoeatu will replace Faneca while left tackle Marvel Smith hopefully has seen the last of his back problems.
The right side sees Kendall Simmons and Willie Colon hoping to gain cohesion and stability. This unit is clearly under the gun and needs to protect quarterback Ben Roethlisberger light years better than a year ago.
The cliche is "defense wins championships."
This has always rung true in Pittsburgh. The 2007 version of "Blitzburg" was a solid unit for much of the season but fizzled late. The Jaguars showed the rest of the league how to "draw" the black and gold defenders in during both of their late-season meetings. The Steelers' defensive ends are solid with Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel, but where is the depth? The Steelers brought back 35-year-old Orpheus Roye to join Nick Eason as backups. This should be a position of emphasis in the 2009 draft.
The secondary will be bolstered by the return of free safety Ryan Clark. No more will we have to see Anthony Smith allow receivers get behind him. Nor will we have to endure another Tyrone Carter missed tackle. Clark is solid in the middle of the field and allows all-pro Troy Polamalu to do his thing at strong safety. The talk of the preseason has been about second-year outside linebacker Lamar Woodley. I feel the tandem of Woodley and James Harrison will wreck havoc on opposing QBs, reminiscent of the mid-90s with Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene. Look for the sack total to return to normal in '08.
2008 marked the first time Roethlisberger has been named a team captain. This is just another in a line of accomplishments this Pro Bowler has earned, and he will continue to improve after signing a $102 million contract in March.
Ben has a group of receivers that can make plays. Hines Ward is the consummate pro and will again lead the wide receivers by example. Third-year man Santonio Holmes is ready to have a breakout season. Look for him to challenge for the Pro Bowl and become a superstar. Nate Washington, Sweed and Dallas Baker provide depth. Willie Parker returns from a late-season broken leg to join Mendenhall at running back. This tandem will have no problems producing yards and touchdowns, barring a meltdown by the boys up front.
Tomlin looks to avoid the "sophomore jinx" and return this team to the playoffs. He showed in '07 that he has what it takes to lead his team to a division title. The players seemed more in tune with Tomlin's demeanor as they exited Latrobe a few weeks ago. Look for all to be on the same page today as the Houston Texans provide the opposition. QB hunter Mario Williams and company should give the offensive line a stiff test, but Big Ben will once again shine with three TD passes as the Steelers get out of the gates with a victory.
Prediction: Steelers 28, Texans 16
Season record: 10-6 (division winners)
Craig Andros is a frequent contributor to Voice of the Fan, often commenting on the Steelers.