Steelers 2009: Top five issues they face at camp

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Even when you win two Super Bowls in four seasons, you have issues. Every NFL team has issues and few have good depth all around because that is the system. • The Steelers are not without their own problems and while they may seem significant to those who follow their fortunes, they pale in comparison with most. • Age has been creeping up on some key members of the two-time Super Bowl champs but many of those had strong 2008 seasons, such as Hines Ward (33), Aaron Smith (33) and James Farrior (34). It does not seem much to ask that trio to keep playing at a high level for at least 2009. • As they open their 44th training camp at Saint Vincent Friday, here are the five top issues facing the Steelers as we see them:

Open wide, receivers

No team in history has the kind of decorated wide receivers the Steelers will put on the field again in Latrobe. Ward and Santonio Holmes are the only two Super Bowl MVPs to line up at wide receiver on the same team in NFL history. OK, that's the good news.

The ambiguous nature of what stands behind them is what makes this the most pressing issue as the team enters training camp. Their returning teammates behind them have seven career regular-season receptions between them -- Limas Sweed, pictured at right, has six and Dallas Baker has one. That is why the Steelers added veteran Shaun McDonald, who languished as a free agent until they signed him May 1, and drafted Mike Wallace in the third round.

McDonald, listed as 5-feet-10 and 183, had a nice season with Detroit in 2007 when he led the Lions with 79 receptions, 943 yards and 6 touchdowns. He will compete with Sweed for the No. 3 job opened when Nate Washington signed as a free agent with Tennessee. Sweed, their second-round 2008 draft choice, is the key. He is 6-4 and can add a new dimension to their offense. Wallace also figures to be in the mix somewhere.

You've heard this line before

Again, there is good news in our No. 2 issue because the entire starting line from Super Bowl XLIII returns. Many will say that also is the bad news. Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked consistently over the past three seasons -- counting the 46 in 2008 adds up to 139. Add that to the running game's No. 23 ranking in the NFL, the second lowest since they joined the AFC in 1970, and it does not say much for the line.

There were extenuating circumstances, however, including Big Ben's propensity for holding the ball longer than most quarterbacks and the injuries to halfbacks Rashard Mendenhall and Willie Parker. Also, four of the five linemen were first-year starters at their positions in 2008 -- new guards Chris Kemoeatu and Darnell Stapleton, first-time Steelers center Justin Hartwig and former right tackle Max Starks pressed into duty at left tackle. Right tackle Willie Colon is the old experienced hand at his position with two years under his belt. The Steelers hope the year's experience playing together will improve the play of the line. There could be competition for Stapleton's job at right guard from rookie Kraig Urbik and veteran guard/tackle Trai Essex.

Super Bowl hangover redux?

Until the past week's legal dustup in Nevada, these defending Super Bowl champions had avoided distractions rather nicely. But it's not always distractions that derail a Super Bowl champ (remember Hines Ward's holdout in the summer of 2005?) as much as other matters. Among them would be getting fat heads. A number of players, including Ward, say that is what happened in 2006 and they have learned from that. We'll see.

It should not take long to find out. The defending Super Bowl XL champs opened the season with six losses in their first eight games. There also was one big distraction that season because coach Bill Cowher's family moved to North Carolina and, looking back on it, he just did not seem to be in the game that season as he had previously.

Coach Mike Tomlin has done his best to keep his team's head on straight and seems to not have lost any fire, perhaps even picking up more. One big key will be whether Roethlisberger can put his legal fight behind him and concentrate on his job. This is much different than the physical problems he had to overcome in 2006, and will test his ability to stay focused. He has been a strong-willed quarterback in his five seasons with the Steelers in many ways but he has not been through this kind of experience.

The weak schedule

After last season, strength of schedule should be the last thing on anyone's mind. The Steelers had the toughest schedule in 2008, based on records from 2007, and won enough games to earn the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs.

This year, they have the fifth-softest scheduled based on the .435 winning percentage of their opponents in 2008 (110-143). But watch out for the Baltimore effect. The Ravens were rated one of the easy touches on the Steelers' 2008 schedule because they were 5-11 the season before and starting a rookie quarterback. Everyone knows how that turned out.

Other teams could become the Baltimore of 2009. Chicago? Kansas City? Maybe Cleveland or Cincinnati? The NFL of the salary cap era is littered with teams that have made remarkable improvement or vice versa from year to year. Those would include the teams in Miami, Atlanta and Arizona last season.

The Steelers' schedule, on the surface, does not look soft with potential playoff teams such as the Ravens, Bears, Vikings, Chargers, Dolphins and that Thursday night opener against last year's top AFC playoff seed, the Titans.

The new lineup

What new lineup? OK, OK, there are some missing pieces but there also are many happy returns. The Steelers return 20 of 22 starters, with Lawrence Timmons, pictured at right, replacing Larry Foote at inside linebacker and William Gay taking over full time at left cornerback for Bryant McFadden after the two split the position last season.

That rivals the kind of consistency the Steelers had in their lineups in the 1970s and is rare for any team in the NFL these days. Add Mendenhall at halfback and punter Daniel Sepulveda and the Steelers may have gained talent since their Super Bowl victory.

The losses include Washington as their No. 3 receiver and left tackle Marvel Smith, although he played only the first five games last season. Backup quarterback Byron Leftwich is gone but Charlie Batch returns after missing 2008 with a broken collarbone.

Ed Bouchette can be reached at .


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