After reaching the pinnacle of the NFL mountain by winning the Super Bowl at the end of the 2005 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers succumbed to a hangover more accustomed to afflicting the losing team in a Super Bowl. Their 2006 season was vastly inferior and they failed to make the playoffs.
Ben Roethlisberger didn’t fare much better. Not only did he nearly bite the big one in a motorcycle accident, Big Ben would get a bit lighter a short time later when he had his appendix removed. The two events are generally regarded as the reasons for his mediocre 2006 season -- his only season where his QB rating would dip below 90 points.
With Bill Cowher’s retirement and Roethlisberger coming off his worst season in the league, Steelers fans didn’t quite know what to think heading into the 2007 season. What they got made them forget all about the atypical 2006 season and instead look forward to the future with the hopes of attaining even more Lombardi trophies.
New head coach, and Omar Epps look alike, Mike Tomlin would go on to have a very successful rookie coaching season, steering the team towards 10 wins and a wild card playoff berth. They would succumb to the up and coming Jacksonville Jaguars in a thriller of a game, 31-29.
Even if the Steelers had failed to do anything to their team, they would most likely be the favorite to win the AFC North yet again. While the Cleveland Browns definitely showed promise last year, the Steelers have been in the running for much longer and they showed last year they were still the team to beat up north.
Although free agency would see the departures of Steelers veteran guard Alan Faneca and cornerback Allen Rossum, the offensive line and defensive backfield still look strong. The only splash the Steelers made in free agency came with the signing of center Justin Hartwig, however their draft would provide plenty of opportunity for Pittsburgh water cooler talk.
The Steelers organization, surprising no one who follows the game, would have yet another solid draft. With the selection of running back Rashard Mendenhall in the first round, the Steelers have arguably the most lethal running back combo in the entire league with Mendenhall complimenting starter Willie Parker. The front office would also show many other teams what it’s like to listen to your quarterbacks suggestions (I‘m looking at you Tennessee) and selected big target wide out Limas Sweed in the second round. The Steelers scored Sweed with the 53rd pick overall, which was an absolute steal considering he was slated to go in the first round. For unknown reasons, NFL teams were dead set on not selecting a receiver in the first round in 2008 and every single one would fall into the second round.
The Steelers would also shore up their future in case Roethlisberger would go down again, selecting quarterback Dennis Dixon in the fifth round. Dixon’s speed and throwing power might lend an opportunity for him to spell Roethlisberger in certain situations, reminiscent of when former quarterback Kordell Stewart would spell Tommy Maddox.
It would be a federal offense to talk about the Steelers and not mention their defensive effort last year. The defense finished number one overall in the NFL last season and looks to return just as strong in 2008. It appears the Steel Curtain truly has returned to the city of Pittsburgh. While the offense didn’t finish quite as well (17th overall) the addition of Rashard Mendenhall and Limas Sweed should do wonders for the offense. The combo of Mendenhall and Parker should prove as the very definition of smash mouth football, with Roethlisberger no longer having to really play a complimentary role with the emergence of wide receiver Santonio Holmes and Hines Ward’s return. Expect the Steelers to be a favorite online in the upcoming edition of Madden.
The AFC North isn’t as weak as in years past with the division as a whole looking like a contender. The only question mark in the division goes to the Cincinnati Bengals, who continue to have their players face legal troubles on a consistent basis. Good on them for releasing Chris Henry, even though he was a prime talent at receiver. Any team with Carson Palmer at the helm of the offense should not be counted out. To a lesser extent, the Baltimore Ravens are also a question mark -- but they have all the pieces to contend once again, and their future really relies on their decision on how they will deal with rookie QB Joe Flacco.
Regardless of the specifics, the path to a second straight AFC North division crown isn’t looking like a certainty as it may have in years past. But the Steelers have everything needed to make it happen. Not only that, they now have everything needed to win their second Super Bowl in 4 years.
2007 Team MVP: James Harrison
Projected 2008 MVP: Santonio Holmes
Projected Rookie standout: Limas Sweed
Projected 2008 record: 11-5 (1st in the AFC North)