Making The Grade

Jim Wexell has an optimistic outlook for the Steelers this season. Read his positional breakdown below.

Over the last two seasons -- counting last season's playoff game -- Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked 99 times. The offensive line has taken the brunt of the criticism, and that line lost its best player, Alan Faneca, last March, and added only Justin Hartwig, a street free-agent. But for several reasons, the Steelers expect the sacks to decrease.

The defense is said to be getting older and slower, but the emergence of Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley, and the return to health of Troy Polamalu, just might make this one of Dick LeBeau's best units since the Blitzburgh days of the mid 1990s.

The Steelers have a brutal schedule, and, because of the populist opinions listed above, are being viewed in a negative light by the national media. But they could surprise, considering their offensive playmakers and defensive speed. In fact, it's a team that could contend for another title this season.

QUARTERBACK – Charlie Batch was injured in training camp and replaced by Byron Leftwich, who's in the best shape of his professional career and claims to be free of the ankle problems that plagued his time in Jacksonville and Atlanta. Ben Roethlisberger, of course, is continuing his upward climb. Fantasy players who believe his 32-touchdown season last year was a fluke will be in for a surprise this season – again. Third-teamer Dennis Dixon is flashing the speed he had before tearing his ACL at Oregon, and the Steelers believe the fifth-rounder is a bona fide draft steal. He's looked like one this preseason. If active on game day, Dixon could run an occasional spread package for coordinator Bruce Arians. Grade: A+.

RUNNING BACK – Willie Parker has recovered from his broken fibula and the speedy one will receive help as the lead back this season from first-round pick Rashard Mendenhall. Mendenhall has displayed power, speed and explosiveness in the open field. The third-down back will be free-agent acquisition Mewelde Moore, and the short-yardage back – if active on game day – will be Gary Russell. Fullback Carey Davis has playmaking skills, but more importantly has improved his lead blocking over the last year. Grade: A-.

WIDE RECEIVER – Hines Ward remains the savvy vet possession man with run-after-catch ability and lethal blocking skills. Santonio Holmes enters his third season in the best shape of his life, with skills honed by Jerry Rice. Holmes' routes are precise and he's flashed deep speed in preseason games. The No. 3 receiver is Nate Washington, another deep threat who's been inconsistent the last two years while remaining a favorite of Roethlisberger's. Depth could be a problem, since No. 4 receiver Limas Sweed won't blossom for another year or two. The No. 5 spot was still being contested at press time. A big asset for this group will be all the work put into the "hot reads" since spring workouts. They should help cut down on the number of sacks. At tight end Heath Miller remains a middle-of-the-field weapon with sneaky deep speed, and 6-foot-7 Matt Spaeth is developing into another effective release valve and goal-line weapon for Roethlisberger. Grade: B+.

OFFENSIVE LINE – There's optimism among the coaching staff that the line will exceed popular expectations. Strong-man Chris Kemoeatu replaces Alan Faneca at left guard and Hartwig replaces Sean Mahan at center. Right tackle Willie Colon enters his third season expecting to improve, and left tackle Marvel Smith had his back and neck problems straightened out to the point where he's actually smiling on and off the field these days. The right guard is Kendall Simmons, an experienced vet. The depth is surprisingly solid. The Steelers have Max Starks and veteran Trai Essex ready as backup tackles. Essex can also play guard, and Mahan is a reserve center-guard, as is second-year man Darnell Stapleton. Rookie tackle Tony Hills was on the cut list early in camp, but has made strides of late. Grade: C+.

DEFENSIVE LINE – Aaron Smith's biceps injury may have been the team's death knell last season. The Steelers allowed nearly five yards per carry without the league's best 3-4 defensive end. Smith is back and healthy, and the team hopes nose tackle Casey Hampton is motivated by a summer conditioning tiff with the coaching staff. Brett Keisel at the other end adds pass-rushing speed not usually found in 3-4 ends. Depth is a problem. At press time, the front office was still scrambling to add players due to the failure of recent fourth-round picks Orien Harris and Ryan McBean to develop. Grade: B.

LINEBACKERS – James Harrison was supposed to be a stop-gap in the team's attempt to turn over a corps which had aged rapidly. Clark Haggans and Larry Foote were a step slow and James Farrior turned 33. Well, Captain Farrior hasn't lost a step; Haggans has been replaced by power-rusher Woodley; Foote is on the verge of being replaced by camp phenom Timmons; and Harrison has become more Greg Lloyd than stop-gap. This corps has once again become the backbone of what could be another great Steelers defense. Grade: A-.

SECONDARY – Knowing that Deshea Towsend will turn 33 in a month, and that Bryant McFadden is entering the final year of his contract, the Steelers still opted to keep Townsend as the starting right cornerback. The move – or lack of one – means the team is willing to say goodbye to the young McFadden after this season. He's still the nickel back with Ike Taylor manning left cornerback. William Gay is the fourth corner and can also play safety. Polamalu brings 10 extra pounds back to strong safety after an intense summer conditioning program. Ryan Clark for the first time is not being rotated with Anthony Smith at free safety, and it's turned Clark into a legitimate team leader. Smith is being taught the strong safety position in order to become a more valuable backup. Grade: B.

SPECIAL TEAMS – Placekicker Jeff Reed last season missed only a 65-yard attempt in Denver and a 44-yard attempt in the Monday night "Muck Bowl" against Miami. Reed has a feel for the playing surface and conditions of Heinz Field that gives the team another edge every home game. Talented punter Dan Sepulveda is out for the year with an ACL injury and the Steelers responded by bringing in veterans instead of strong-legged youngsters. Mitch Berger was leading Paul Ernster in the punting duel at press time. The return game remains a mess. Eddie Drummond is this year's Allan Rossum, but Tomlin hopes to use Holmes as a punt returner to electrify the crowd at critical junctures. Linebacker Keyaron Fox was the only significant upgrade to the coverage units. Grade: C+.

AFC North

1. Pittsburgh Steelers – Underrated and written off for no good reason. Roethlisberger has the weapons.

2. Cleveland Browns – Questions remain at QB and coach, since underdog tag no longer applies.

3. Cincinnati Bengals – Leadership at skill positions, but not enough help added to defense.

4. Baltimore Ravens – Losses of McGahee, Ogden, McNair will be felt, but it was time to turn it over anyhow.

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