1. Sitting back and looking at the Pittsburgh Steelers season of 2004, I still shake my head in disbelief as to how close this team was to playing in the Super Bowl. Led by a rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (it can be noted this rookie also led the charge in keeping them out of the Super Bowl), the Steelers were a mere second victory of the season away from dethroning the New England Patriots.
Heading into the 2005 training camp season, the Steelers remain the highly confident outfit which grew by leaps and bounds last season. But, there are reasons of concern for the Steelers with the season weeks away. The holdout by starting wide receiver Hines Ward will become a distraction, he is by far the Steelers best offensive weapon, and one which Roethlisberger is comfortable with (though Plaxico Burress was Big Ben's main man). Not to knock Cedrick Wilson, Antwaan Randle El, Lee Mays, or rookie Fred Gibson, all serve a purpose, but none of the above compare with Ward at this pint in their careers.
In Pittsburgh, Roethlisberger wants to throw the ball, head coach Bill Cowher prefers the safe approach of pounding away at the opposition. The Steelers have the horses to run the football and will, but Cowher will open the door a bit further for his talented quarterback. If the 2004 season and off-season workouts have any impact, the second-year signal-caller expects much more.
A question regarding the feasibility of the one-two punch of Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis remains an interesting aspect of this solid team. Can either be seriously content in their respective role, Staley as the oft-injured starter, while Bettis is the go-to guy in goal-line situations and a viable substitute to provide Staley a breather. While all involved are saying the right thing, lets see what transpires if Staley doesn't play to the level he had prior to going down last season.
Also, will either stay healthy? Don't mortgage the house on it. And, look for the Pittsburgh defensive front seven to improve with the return of nose tackle Casey Hampton, while sporting what may be the best coached group of linebackers in the National Football League.
If this team falters, and they will stumble somewhat in the 2005 season, it will be due to the defensive secondary and what may be this team's most troubling facet, the play and attitude at the starting quarterback position.
2. Will the real San Diego Chargers please stand-up? Old friend Marty Schottenheimer once again has resurrected a football program, as well as his own career in what was one of the most surprising occurrences of the 2004 season. The Chargers winning the AFC West division and playing a competitive game against the New York Jets in the playoffs (The Chargers blew the game).
At every stop (Cleveland, Kansas City, Washington, and San Diego) Schottenheimer has been a winner. What has eluded the veteran head coach throughout his career has been the opportunity to take his team to the big-game, the Super Bowl. While the Chargers are coming off a strong 2004 campaign, it is far too early to look at this team as a Super Bowl contender, though Schottenheimer will have this team ready to take the next step in their progression.
Can quarterback Drew Brees and tight-end Antonio Gates duplicate their spectacular success story? Not likely, and the Chargers will need veteran wide receiver Keenan McCardell, along with Eric Parker and Reche Caldwell to supply this offensive with additional targets for Brees. The Chargers are not going to surprise anyone in the 2005 season.
The running game gets no better than one led by LaDainian Tomlinson.
Now, the real meat of the 2005 San Diego Chargers season will depend on the defense. Rookie Shawne Merriman has been added to supply a pass rush from the outside linebacker / standup defensive end position (a deficiency of the Chargers). The addition of Merriman should take some pressure of star defensive tackle Jamal Williams and the fast-rising Igor Olshansky.
Led by veteran Donnie Edwards, the San Diego linebackers flow to the point of attack with precision and should improve as a unit. The defensive backfield took many hits throughout the 2004 season, but the trio of Quentin Jammer, Drayton Florence, and Sammy Davis should improve with a season under their belt in coordinator Wade Phillips defense.
While the cornerback position appears capable, the Chargers have to be concerned with the corps at the safety positions. Starting safeties Terrence Kiel is set at one spot but Jerry Wilson is questionable at best. Bhawoh Jue comes over from Green Bay to play safety after starting his career at corner and Clinton Hart was castoff from Philadelphia. The San Diego pass defense was ineffective mainly due to the lack of a pass rush and inconsistent play last season. The pass rush issue has been addressed, but the quality at the safety position leaves this team treading the tight-rope.