Five keys for the Steelers this season

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We always pick five keys to the season. Not four, not six. Five. It's nice and tidy. Here are the five things the Steelers need to accomplish in order to win the Super Bowl.

Not everyone would pick the same five. Usually, quarterback graces the list of most every team, and it made it here a year ago. Not this time. Big Ben Roethlisberger will remain a key to this team's fortunes as long as he pulls on jersey No. 7 for them. But there's no longer a question of how he's going to do, but how well, so he does not figure into a key as determined here -- something that either must be overcome or improved for the Steelers to make headway in 2008.

While not everyone may agree with all five, there's little doubt about the first three.

1. Protect Big Ben

You want this guy around for a while, so you have to start treating him like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. He may be big and tough, but 93 sacks over the past two seasons are too many.

So let's do something about it. The line may get too much blame, but it does start there. A healthy Marvel Smith at left tackle should be an improvement, and Willie Colon having one year at right tackle should help. Whoever becomes the third-down back, whether it's Mewelde Moore or Willie Parker, has to pick up the blitzing linebacker.

They need help from Ben as well. It starts when he calls any protection changes because if he gets that wrong it can be disastrous. He also must get rid of the ball more quickly. One of his assets is making a play when things break down. But holding the ball too long can lead to a sack. A spike outside the pocket can be a quarterback's best friend.

The quarterback and his receivers -- including tight ends and halfbacks -- must recognize the blitz, with the receivers getting into the hot route and the quarterback getting rid of the ball quickly.

2. Produce the big play

The Steelers, especially in their Blitzburgh days of the 1990s, thrived on the big play -- sacks, interceptions, fumbles.

They need to return to those days. Their sacks dipped to 36, from 45 just two years ago.

Players and coaches will say quarterback pressures or quarterback hurries are just as important because they force offenses into bad plays. Maybe, but, if the pressures and hurries are there, where were the bad plays, such as interceptions? The Steelers had 11 interceptions last season, down from 20.

Has the zone blitz lost its fizz? Everyone's doing it now, so it's not a schematic thing that's the problem. The addition of second-year linebackers LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons could breathe some life into the pass rush. A healthy Troy Polamalu has produced many a big play; injured much of last season, he had neither a sack nor an interception for the first time.

The Steelers hoped rookie Bruce Davis, who had 241/2 sacks the past two seasons at UCLA, might help as a situational rusher to spell Woodley and James Harrison, the sack leader last year with 81/2. Davis, though, did not progress as they'd hoped in camp, and he may not see the field very often.

3. It all starts up front

Why not use a cliche to note the most critical aspect of the team entering this year, the offensive line? It's almost become a cliche in itself that the Steelers needed to get better there.

There have been two issues: The loss of seven-time Pro Bowl left guard Alan Faneca to the New York Jets in free agency and the inconsistent play of the line as a whole last season.

The coaches have been more than pleased with the showing of Faneca's replacement, Chris Kemoeatu, this summer. He'll have to show he can do it over 16 games because he has started only two in his first three seasons. They have a new center in Justin Hartwig, who beat out Sean Mahan. Hartwig, an experienced center and a good one when he was in Tennessee, is 10 pounds heavier than Mahan and should be able to handle the 3-4 nose tackles better without a lot of help.

Smith was in pain with his spinal disk problem last season. That's been fixed, and it should allow him to play his game. Colon has a year under his belt as a starter, and Kendall Simmons returns at right guard.

The line performed well in the preseason. If it continues that way, it will be a boost to the offense.

4. Keep the defensive line fresh

Just one of the top six defensive linemen will be under 30 when the season starts, backup Nick Eason, 29. The rest range from starting defensive end Brett Keisel's 30 up to newly signed end Orpheus Roye, who is 35.

The front three are excellent, starting with left end Aaron Smith, nose tackle Casey Hampton and Keisel on the right. But big defensive linemen need to get a blow now and then, especially Smith and Keisel, both of whom play in every defense.

The Steelers saw what happened when they lost Smith last season. It's why Mike Tomlin said, before the draft, they needed to get bigger and younger. They got neither.

"I think we still play really well up front," Keisel said. "Obviously, we had some slipups last year, but we've held ourselves to a high standard, and I think we've done pretty good with that."

Keisel and Smith get extraordinary pressure on the quarterback for 3-4 ends, which is not their primary job. Their job is to plug holes, get a push and allow the linebackers to swoop in and get the glory sacks.

There's no question about the starting line, just one of endurance and a major one if they lose either end to an injury.

5. Run consistently

It was an odd scene because the Steelers sported the league's leading rusher through 14 games last season before Willie Parker broke his right leg. They had the second-most yards rushing in the AFC. Yet, at times, they could not run when they really needed to do so.

One was in Arizona, when they managed just 77 yards and could not protect a second-half lead. Another came in Denver, when they ran for 119 yards against the NFL's third-worst defense against the run. A third came against the New York Jets, who yielded just 112 yards even though they were the fourth-worst defense against the run.

The Steelers lost all three games.

It may be a reason they drafted Rashard Mendenhall in the first round and signed Mewelde Moore as a free agent. Moore is likely to play on third downs because he can block, catch and run. Mendenhall will mix in with Parker, who has fully healed and seemed to be at his old self in the preseason. The choice of a goal-line back has not been revealed.

They have more to work with in their backfield this season, and it should play out better for them on the field.



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