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2011 Pittsburgh Steelers preseason preview

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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The last time we saw the Steelers, they were huddled up in a Super Bowl loss. (Getty Images)  
The last time we saw the Steelers, they were huddled up in a Super Bowl loss. (Getty Images)  

LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2010, lost to Green Bay, 31-25, in Super Bowl XLV

COACH (RECORD): Mike Tomlin (48-23 in four seasons with Steelers, including 5-2 in playoffs)

OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Bruce Arians

DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Dick LeBeau

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OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS, 2010 (NFL): 11th rushing, 14th passing, 12th scoring

DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS, 2010 (NFL): 1st rushing, 12th passing, 1st scoring

KEY ADDITIONS: TE John Gilmore (Buccaneers), DE Cameron Heyward (first round, Ohio State), CB Curtis Brown (third round, Texas), RB Baron Batch (seventh round, Texas Tech), TE Weslye Saunders (undrafted free agent)

KEY DEPARTURES: TE Matt Spaeth (to Bears), OT Max Starks (released), WR Antwaan Randle El (released), OT Flozell Adams (released)

PLAYING THE SAME HAND: Welcome to Team Status Quo. They were one drive -- with the ball in their hands and less than two minutes left -- from grabbing their seventh Super Bowl triumph. So the Steelers, through the labor-stuck summer, opted to ante up and stand pat. Once the CBA was forged, they brought back CB Ike Taylor and OT Willie Colon, who was replaced by Flozell Adams after a season-ending Achilles' injury. They also re-signed a bevy of other free-agents who were backups or special-teamers: nickel corner William Gay, NT Chris Hoke, third-down back Mewelde Moore, K Shaun Suisham, P Daniel Sepulveda, LS Greg Warren and OT Jonathan Scott, who may assume the starting spot where he replaced an injured Max Starks late last season. If it ain't broke ... and the bulk of this club has played in three Super Bowls of the past six.

LAY IT ON THE LINE: They won two of those three Super Bowls with Ben Roethlisberger running for his life and a so-so offensive line that had holes in pass protection but created them in the run game. In short, the organization learned it could thrive with offensive-line inconsistencies. Besides, isn't Roethlisberger a bigger threat and a better option when he's on the run? The 2010 first-round addition of C Maurkice Pouncey solidified a shaky group, one whose sack total promptly dropped from a consistent 49, 47, 49 and 50 (average: 3.0 per game) to only 43 last season. No wonder Pouncey made the Pro Bowl -- he switched from guard to his natural, collegiate center position only one day into training camp and made the line around him that much improved. In fact, when Roethlisberger returned from his four-game suspension, he was sacked just 32 times in 12 games (2.6 per) for his least abuse since his rookie season. The line's area of expertise, though, was run-blocking. RB Rashard Mendenhall, who improved at finding holes and making yards after first contact, rushed for 1,273 yards and 13 TDs -- the best of his three seasons. The Steelers averaged 120 yards rushing per game, which allowed them to return to their grinding, ball-hawking, win-with-defense style that brought them most of their previous half-dozen Lombardi trophies.

FRONT-LINE QUESTIONS: Still, there are subjects of wonder ... about both lines for a Steelers organization that lives by its trenches. Can Scott -- who started the last two months of 2010 -- continue to play well at left OT, or would they bring back Adams for that natural, left OT presence? Will they bring back Adams anyway, at right OT, and move Colon back to his college position, guard? And on the defensive side, can the all-important, thirty-something front three not only stay healthy, but stay on the field together? Pro Bowl DE Aaron Smith already is talking about taking his place behind Ziggy Hood, after the way Hood played in his injured place last season. NT Casey Hampton will drag his 325-plus-pound body into the middle of offensive double-teams for the 11th season. But can Smith still play effectively after arm surgeries scrubbed two of his past four seasons? Can Hampton still play effectively at his size and age (34)? That's the same age as the other DE, Brett Keisel -- again empowered by a mystical beard. Such advancing age is the reason the Steelers drafted Ohio State DE Cam Heyward in the first round. If he plays often, though, that could be a bad sign: defensive line coach/assistant head coach John Mitchell almost abhors playing rookies.

SECONDARY CONCERNS: The Steelers brought back all the usual suspects, starting with Taylor. But that also comes with a downside: New England's Tom Brady, Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers (for 304 yards, three TDs and no INTs in the Super Bowl) and Drew Brees shredded that exact same secondary for 300-plus yards apiece last season. It wasn't merely the marquee names, either. Joe Flacco and Chad Henne combined for three games worth of 779 yards, three TDs and two INTs. It is an area that definitely requires tightening, especially with Brady -- and, of course, an angry young Flacco twice -- back on the schedule along with Peyton Manning, Matt Schaub and Sam Bradford. Maybe draftees Curtis Brown or Cortez Allen could unseat William Gay as nickel back or provide coverage help ... but it's doubtful, in this abbreviated preseason without an offseason to learn Dick LeBeau's system. That system is the critical factor in the Steelers' persnickety approach to veteran free-agent help: They hardly ever go there for the secondary.

FINAL WORD: A Super Bowl participant with every starter back essentially, except one (Adams)? An older, more-experienced team on a level playing field where nobody had OTAs or offseason work together? No wonder these Steelers feel confident about their 2011 chances. The NFL schedule-makers did them no favors, though: The Steelers visit Baltimore, Indianapolis and Houston in the opening four weeks. So it is imperative through this preseason that the aging Steelers, warts and all, get into game readiness, and quickly. S Troy Polamalu (Achilles) plus surgically repaired LB James Harrison (back) along with WRs Hines Ward (wrist) and Emmanuel Sanders (foot) prime among them.

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