Steelers unit-by-unit analysis

A high-level look at the Pittsburgh Steelers' 2009 roster as the start of training camp approaches:

QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Ben Roethlisberger. Backups - Charlie Batch, Dennis Dixon.

Roethlisberger has worked his way into the NFL elite at his position with two Super Bowl rings, and what is now Pittsburgh's own version of The Drive that beat Arizona in February. What they worry about is his continued health because he has been sacked 139 times in the past three regular seasons. Batch returns after missing last season with a broken right collarbone in the preseason. However, Dixon will give him a run for No. 2 in his second seasons with the Steelers. There also could be this scenario: Dixon is really No. 3 but No. 2 on game days so they can use him in the Wildcat offense or in other situations.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters - RB Willie Parker, FB Sean McHugh. Backups - RB Rashard Mendenhall, RB Mewelde Moore, RB Frank Summers, FB Carey Davis.

Parker holds No. 1 entering camp and the rest is up to him and Mendenhall, whose rookie season ended with a broken shoulder in the fourth game. They will determine how many carries each gets as the season goes on. McHugh is listed as the No. 3 tight end but he's their top lead blocker, although they do not use that formation often. Moore will be their third-down receiver and, as he showed last season, can produce 100 yards on a moment's injury notice. Summers could become their short-yardage man. Davis may have trouble sticking.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Heath Miller. Backups - Matt Spaeth, Sean McHugh.

Miller is everything the Steelers want in a tight end. He's a good receiver and a good blocker. That's a tough combination and he could be a better receiver in an offense that featured the tight end more often. Because of the below-average line play, though, Miller is required to stay in and block. Spaeth is strictly a receiver, not much of a blocker. McHugh is a blocker and considered more of an h-back.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes. Backups - Limas Sweed, Mike Wallace, Shaun McDonald, Dallas Baker.

This could be a problem if Ward and/or Holmes miss time with injuries. It might be a problem anyway. The loss of Nate Washington in free agency left a void that Sweed will get a chance to fill. Wallace cannot be counted on for much production as a rookie. McDonald actually could be the many who steps up; he's done it in Detroit, and the Lions did not have Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback. Baker has hung around the past two seasons, mostly on their practice squad, and will get his chance again.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Max Starks, LG Chris Kemoeatu, C Justin Hartwig, RG Darnell Stapleton, RT Willie Colon. Backups - G/T Trai Essex, G Kraig Urbik, C A.Q. Shipley, T Tony Hills, T Jason Capizzi, G Jeremy Parquet.

Four of the five starters were in their first seasons at the positions in 2008, including Starks, who started two years at RT before Colon beat him out. The Steelers hope another year playing together will solidify this unit. Stapleton is the most susceptible to competition and that would include rookie Urbik and veteran backup Essex. While the line was not as bad as many painted it to be in 2008, it has been among the worst in recent Steelers history. A particular sore spot is their collective inability to drive defenders off the ball in short-yardage snaps.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LDE Aaron Smith, RDE Brett Keisel, NT Casey Hampton. Backups - NT Chris Hoke, DE Ziggy Hood, DE Travis Kirschke, DE Nick Eason.

After ignoring the position for many years, the Steelers finally drafted Hood in the first round. The line was ignored in the draft because it was so well stocked. Their starting three are excellent and backups Hoke and Kirschke played well in 2008. However, their top five defensive linemen are all over 30 and will not keep playing at such a high level for long. Hampton has had weight issues and coach Mike Tomlin has not been patient about it. Smith, 33, has been their best defensive linemen for years and continues to play at a high pace. The success of the Steelers linebackers - and the many Pro Bowls they've made - is due in part to the play of the three-man line.

LINEBACKERS: Starters - LOLB LaMarr Woodley, LILB James Farrior, RILB Lawrence Timmons, ROLB James Harrison. Backups - OLB Andre Frazier, OLB Bruce Davis, OLB Arnold Harrison, ILB Keyaron Fox, ILB Patrick Bailey, ILB Donovan Woods.

The Steelers can easily lay claim to having the best group of linebackers in the NFL. Harrison, the defensive player of the year, may only be getting started at age 31 and Woodley was equally a dynamo in his first season as a starter. Harrison's 16 sacks set a team record and with Woodley's 11.5 combined to produce the most by a duo in club history. Farrior made another Pro Bowl. Timmons replaces departed Larry Foote, but that was going to happen, one reason Foote begged out of his contract. Timmons is a Troy Polamalu-like presence at linebacker and was a big contributor in their nickel defense last season. The one missing ingredient is depth; there is no reliable backup at any of the positions.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB William Gay, RCB Ike Taylor, FS Ryan Clark, SS Troy Polamalu. Backups - CB/S Deshea Townsend, S Tyrone Carter, CB Anthony Madison, CB Joe Burnett, CB Roy Lewis, CB Keiwan Ratliff, CB Keenan Lewis, S Ryan Mundy.

The Steelers have a good, not great, secondary that benefits from the pressure the front puts on quarterbacks. Polamalu helps make everything go with his ability to play all over the field and make spectacular plays. Clark had his best season after overcoming a near-fatal blood illness in 2007. Taylor often covers opponents' best receivers. Gay alternated series with departed Bryant McFadden in 2008 and steps up full-time, one of only two new starters from the Super Bowl game. Rookies Burnett and Lewis along with veteran Ratliff were added to the mix and could spell doom for veteran Townsend, 33, who played in the nickel and dime defenses last season. The Steelers had the best pass defense in the league in 2008.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Jeff Reed, P Daniel Sepulveda, LS Greg Warren, P/KR Mike Wallace, KR Joe Burnett.

Reed has never made a Pro Bowl but he has been as good a kicker as the Steelers have had, particularly in the swirling winds of Heinz Field. He kicks in the AFC North with all the weather and outdoor stadiums. Sepulveda returns after ACL surgery last summer ended what would have been his second season. He has a strong leg but was inconsistent as a rookie in 2007 after the team used two draft picks to get him on the fourth round. Warren also missed half of last season with a torn ACL. Wallace and Burnett, both rookies, are the early favorites to be their two return men. The Steelers do not want Santonio Holmes returning punts again because of his value at wide receiver and they have not had a good kickoff return game in years. The coverage teams improved tremendously in 2008 and were a strength of the team, allowing an average of 6.2 yards on punt returns, 19.1 on kickoff returns and no touchdowns.


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