One glaring issue with this season that may throw a rock into the development of Ben Roethlisberger is the fact that the Steelers believe they were a few interceptions short of the Super Bowl last year.
Theoretically, if Roethlisberger starts the season with pass rating under 60, chances are the media and fans will start to ask the most logical question: "When will Tommy Maddox save this team again?"
"The Question" is bound to be asked if the Steelers, as protocol, give a sub-par performance win or lose on Sunday. The Titans are a team ripe for an opening day blowout but, as with most Bill Cowher teams, the Steelers may give Steve McNair a few too many shots at winning the game. If those shots come at the hands of Ben Roethlisberger interceptions or just plain inaccuracy, "The Question" will become the new over-analyzed topic of the year, trumping Hines Ward's negotiations/hold out.
Let us take a closer look at what will most likely happen on Sunday. Willie Parker starts at running back, which means the Steelers will reach the red-zone with the help of his legs at most twice to three times in the game. Parker cannot be counted on to do the Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley grinding grunt work. Then, if the Steelers should wish to reach at least field goal range the rest of the game, they will have to do it through the air, which is a major problem. This is not because Ben Roethlisberger lacks the aptitude to produce a long sustained drive through the air, but because this team is not built for that type of offense.
This team resembles the one that failed to build a strong running game in 2003. Tommy Maddox, whose trigger finger and accuracy far outweighed that of Kordell Stewart, grew impatient in the pocket as the Steelers attempted to use their new-found gunslinger in the Brett Favre role. After two straight playoff seasons, the Steelers went 6 - 10. The moral of the story? Don't try to be what you aren't. And this team and Ben Roethlisberger are not a pass-happy squad.
The wide receivers have a lack of depth and experience after Cedrick Wilson, and can ill-afford any sustained injury. The running backs are all injured except for Willie Parker and Noah Herron. Verron Haynes is perpetually injured so we might as well assume he'll tweak something on Sunday. Parker won't help sustaining long drives, while Herron is too green to be trusted as a long-term solution. How then will the Steelers sustain any drives?
It won't be on the arm of Ben Roethlisberger, that is for sure. When the team was successful last season, they limited Big Ben's exposure to third-down and 5+ yards. This pre-season, Ben was thrown into a majority of third and 8, third and 10, third and 15 situations. This allows defenses to relax into a zone and force Ben to needle the pass into an area, a dynamic that is still missing from his game.
For the team to be successful, the running backs must provide enough run support for Roethlisberger to be faced with 3rd and short, 3rd and 4 situations. These situations are perfect for the Steelers package because they have wily backs who can take a draw for five yards, shift receivers who, when the game counts, will hold onto the ball, and a quarterback who can take off and run if he needs.This season and Roethlisberger's success depends on the third down yardage situation, regardless of who is a quarterback.
1. Philadelphia Eagles at Atlanta Falcons (GOTW) - The Falcons get a chance at a little revenge while Michael Vick tries to put his terrible NFC Championship performance behind him. Anyone think that he's any more accurate this year? Don't bet on it.
2. Indianapolis Colts at Baltimore Ravens - Baltimore may be catching the Colts at the exact right moment. Air Manning and Co. dropped a goose egg in wins this pre-season and the offense looked out of sync and may be forced to use its mulligan in week one against one of the top defenses in the league. Even worse for the Colts is that the Ravens don't play indoors and do play on real grass, which in the past has spelled doom for the high powered Colts offense. But, one has to wonder if Ravens quarterback Kyle Boller, who has looked even worse than his normal self, can muster enough offense to squeak out a win.
3. Dallas Cowboys at San Diego Chargers - I'll be watching this game with Cowboy Matt, who through multiple instant messages has assured me that the Cowboys are ready and raring to go. I'm not sure if anyone will tell Drew Bledsoe that the season has started, but at least he'll have a healthy Julius Jones to hand the ball off too. I'm expecting big things out of Jones, especially since he was my keeper player in my Sportsline.com draft last week.
4. NY Jets at Kansas City Chiefs - RB Derrick Blaylock visits his old team and the Jets, who have looked quite good this off-season, begin a quest for their second Super Bowl title. The Jets defense should be bolstered by John Abraham's return, but the big question for this team is whether RB Curtis Martin has enough left in his legs for one more season. It's no doubt that Martin looked tired late last year and if he had anything left in the tank, would have run all over a dejected Pittsburgh defense late in the 4th quarter of last year's playoff loss. Oh and by the way, QB Chad Pennington is fine, you can all stop asking questions.
5. Oakland Raiders at New England Patriots - The defending champs start their quest for three in a row against Randy Moss and the Raiders. The Randy Raiders look to avenge their second straight losing season since reaching the Super Bowl with the a team older than the average age of Dade County Florida residents. QB Kerry Collins quietly had a superb offensive season last year, sans a number of interceptions, and the Raiders also added RB Lamont Jordan, who has had ample experience against the Patriots. But sadly, the Raiders front office failed once again to bolster a defense that for the second straight year was one of the worst in the league.
6. Seattle Seahawks at Jacksonville Jaguars - This intriguing match-up pits one of the league's physically toughest teams hosting one of the least physically tough. The Seahawks got pushed all over the field last season by AFC foes and the St. Louis Rams. When a Mike Martz coached team out-muscles you, you'd think that some major changes would be in order at the top. Sadly for all Seahawk fans, Mike Holmgren, the league's most overrated coach, is still manning the helm. Team Prisco on the other hand will get its last look at a healthy Fred Taylor, who will most likely pull some leg muscle by the 4th quater.
Apple Pie Fearful Playoff Predictions
Wild Card Round
NY Jets over Indianapolis
Pittsburgh over Cincinnati
Green Bay over Seattle
Philadelphia over St. Louis
NY Jets over New England
Denver over Pittsburgh
Minnesota over Philadelphia
Carolina over Green Bay
NY Jets over Denver
Carolina over Minnesota
Carolina over NY Jets
Apple Pie Power Rankings1. New England Patriots - Three-peat?
2. Philadelphia Eagles - T.O. as influential as last season?
3. Pittsburgh Steelers - Big Ben slump? Or Offensive Line slump?
4. Indianapolis Colts - Will Peyton ever win in Foxboro?
5. Carolina Panthers - Injuries or "super" year?
6. NY Jets - Will the Jets ever win in Foxboro?
7. San Diego Chargers - Will Marty-ball pay off?
8. Minnesota Vikings - No Randy Moss. No problem?
9. Baltimore Ravens - Kyle Boller? Is he just average or absolutely pathetic?
10. Green Bay Packers - Favre's last stand?
11. Denver Broncos - Plummer more consistent?
12. Atlanta Falcons - Michael Vick more accurate?
From the gut of Super-Fan Pappy Fried Chicken:
NFL predictions are funny. No one really cares about them and if forced, anyone can make one. I was presented the opportunity to lay down my picks right here in the space you currently are reading and as a result was forced to re-evaluate my ability to prognosticate.
I got nothin'!
The only way I personally could give a proper analysis would be to devote as much time to every other team as a I do to the Steelers. Don't get me wrong, I follow and remain knowledgable of goings on in the league, but I don't care about the battle for the 49ers' long-snapping duties. I also do not feel that overwhelming myself with a deluge of stats is going to help either. I don't have the time for it and I can barely remember my phone number nowadays. It would be a good life if I could devote all my energies to the afore-mentioned, but until CBS calls me with that NFL Today desk job I am going to stick with what has worked for me best. My gut.
Forgetting the sheer size and scope of "White Lightnin" (how my gut is affectionately known) it has been my greatest tool for which way the winds will blow for the Steelers. On game days when I wake up the picture becomes clearer to me and I can sense what kind of day it will be, regardless of the prior nights consumption, with some accuracy, but that is only on the day of. I know this is a believe it or not proposition, but it is also a take it or leave it one.
That being said and as we are waking up on the morning of the season, "White Lightnin'" speaks:
The NFC will be better this season. Still not as good as the AFC, but not as abysmal as last season. Philly is still uncontested as tops in the conference, but the Vikings are gonna push them and I actually feel Carolina is going to ruin the all Pennsylvania Super Bowl we would all like to see.
The Steelers are finally going to get over the hump this year and the poor pre-season offensive showing this is only fueling "White Lightnin'" to believe the end of the season will be better than the beginning with a later peak than last year. The Patriots are poised for another run, but an early exit at the hands of the Chargers or a wildcard team, possibly the Bengals (yes, those Bengals), will put New England on the golf course. The Colt's have the most potent offense once again, but in this salary capped world we live in they will never be able to afford a defense with all those high priced point scorers and as we all know. Say it with me now. . . Defense wins championships. Which is what still makes the Steelers marginally better and why "White Lightnin'" says SuperBowl XL belongs to Pittsburgh.
The season starts off with a visit from the once-feared Titans whose success this season hinges largely on the diminished ability of Steve McNair. This will be a better Tennessee team than last year, but if the Steelers' defense can not beat themselves by leaving the middle of the field open all day and if the offense sticks to the run there should be no trouble disposing of the once mighty Titans.
Mock Apple PieDCFB vs. 69th Street Ruperts (Sportsline.com)
Gemini vs. Charmed Life (In-house)
Woodside Avenue Cyber Gemini vs. Gangsta A$$ Bitches (Team Cowboy Matt) (AOL.com)
Woodside Avenue Apple Pickers vs. NYC vegassteel58 (ESPN.com)