Camp countdown: Steelers must repair secondary, cover for Roethlisberger

Gerry Dulac, Sporting News correspondent
Wednesday, Jun. 16, 2010

How the team handles games without QB Ben Roethlisberger will determine the Steelers' postseason fate.

For the second time in four seasons, Pittsburgh missed the playoffs a year after it won the Super Bowl, this time because its once-stingy defense gave up lots of points and failed to protect leads in the fourth quarter. Of course, it didn't help that the Steelers played most of the season without two of their best players—Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu and defensive end Aaron Smith, the key to their run defense.

"That was us, that's the story of the National Football League," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "It's one of the reasons I love it, man. You either do or you don't. We didn't."

But even though there remain plenty of questions about the advancing age of the defense, the biggest concern might be on offense, where offseason legal issues dogged quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the second year in a row and prompted the trade of wide receiver Santonio Holmes, the Super Bowl 43 MVP.

Roethlisberger didn't let a civil lawsuit for sexual assault bother him last season—he passed for a club-record 4,328 yards and 26 touchdowns—but the departure of Holmes will impact the offense because he commanded so much attention from opposing defenses.

It means Mike Wallace, the team's fastest receiver, will have to be even better than he was during his outstanding rookie season.

What's new

Offense: Team president Art Rooney II says the team must run the ball more, meaning he doesn't want the team to be so pass-oriented in 2010. But this offense is built around Roethlisberger to do just that. And that's what Pittsburgh does best.

Roethlisberger will begin the season serving a four- to six-game suspension, and how the Steelers get through that period will determine what kind of season they can expect. The Steelers re-acquired veteran Byron Leftwich to lead the team in Roethlisberger's absence. Should Leftwich struggle, third-year man Dennis Dixon will get a shot. No matter the QB the first month or so of the season, the Steelers no doubt will rely on the running of Rashard Mendenhall, Jonathan Dwyer and Mewelde Moore.

Defense: Coordinator Dick LeBeau goes into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this summer, but Pittsburgh's defensive performance was something of a bust last season, even though the unit finished fifth overall in the NFL. The Steelers' failure to protect leads combined with constantly giving up fourth-quarter points cost them a playoff spot in 2009. In particular, the secondary gave up a ton of big pass plays, a violation of LeBeau's No. 1 golden rule.

There is little question that the loss of Polamalu, who missed 11 games with a knee injury, had a dramatic impact on the performance of the secondary. And it really affected free safety Ryan Clark, who was beaten for several long pass plays that cost the team during its five-game losing streak. Without Polamalu, Clark tried to make plays to compensate and it sometimes resulted in him getting out of position.

Breakout player

Lawrence Timmons, LB
Timmons was bothered by ankle injuries in his first season as a starter, depriving him of the explosiveness that made him a '07 first-round pick. If he stays healthy, Timmons can blow up plays in the backfield and has the closing speed to make plays in coverage.

"He's going to make a lot of plays for us. He's explosive, like Kendrell (Bell) was, but he can cover and do all those things, too. He's a big play waiting to happen every time he's out there." — Nose tackle Casey Hampton.

"One thing that has always held true about the Steelers—from Chuck Noll to Bill Cowher to Mike Tomlin—is that they are always well-prepared. They might beat themselves, but it's not going to happen too many times. If you look in the past couple years, they are in every game and rarely get blown out. And that's because of the way they play. They play to the strengths, and with them it starts with their defense. ...

"Dick LeBeau does an outstanding job of trying to make you one-dimensional, usually by taking away your running game. And they do that because they play so disciplined. You don't see guys running all over the place—OK, maybe Polamalu. They stay in their gaps, and all 11 guys run to the ball. Sometimes, because they are so aggressive, they are vulnerable to cutback runs but that doesn't happen often.

"The reason the defense is so effective is because they find players to fit the way they play—Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, James Farrior. And then they make sure they have outside linebackers who can make plays. Go right down through the years—Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Jason Gildon, Joey Porter, James Harrison, now LaMarr Woodley—they were all playmakers, guys you have to game plan for when you play them. .. .

"You combine that with a quarterback who can make plays, a guy who's not afraid to run around and keep the play alive, and you understand why they are never out of any game."

Bottom line

One thing always is true: The combination of a good defense and Roethlisberger means the Steelers are never out of any game or any season. But if they cannot correct some of the problems that plagued them on defense last season — particularly in the secondary — it will be another struggle.

Pittsburgh also must overcome the suspension of Roethlisberger, as Leftwich and/or Dixon must step up to lead the team. How the Steelers fare in the first month will go a long way in determining postseason hopes in '10.

Depth Chart

QB: Bryon Leftwich, Dennis Dixon
FB: Frank Summers, David Johnson
RB: Rashard Mendenhall, Mewelde Moore
WR: Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders
WR: Hines Ward, Antwaan Randle El
TE: Heath Miller, Matt Spaeth
LT: Max Starks, Tony Hills
LG: Chris Kemoeatu, Ramon Foster
C: Justin Hartwig, Maurkice Pouncey
RG: Trai Essex, Maurkice Pouncey
RT: Willie Colon, Jonathan Scott

LE: Aaron Smith, Nick Eason
NT: Casey Hampton, Chris Hoke
RE: Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood
OLB: LaMarr Woodley, Thaddeus Gibson
ILB: James Farrior, Keyaron Fox
ILB: Lawrence Timmons, Larry Foote
OLB: James Harrison, Jason Worilds
CB: Ike Taylor, Keenan Lewis
CB: Bryant McFadden, William Gay
SS: Troy Polamalu, Ryan Mundy
FS: Ryan Clark, Will Allen

K: Jeff Reed
P: Daniel Sepulveda
KR: Stefan Logan
PR: Stefan Logan
LS: Greg Warren