July 12, 2009
By Donald Starver
I was asked by Most Valuable Network (MVN) to write a 2009 season preview on the Steelers. In this article, I made a statement that upset some Steelers fans. I stated that I didn’t think that the Steelers were the best team in the NFL last season.
If you think back to the 2008 season, you’ll remember that the Steelers were soundly defeated by the Philadelphia Eagles. Frankly, I wasn’t looking forward to facing them again. Similarly, the Tennessee Titans manhandled the Steelers during the regular season. Perhaps it is blasphemous for me to say this, but I breathed a sigh of relief when the Baltimore Ravens knocked the Titans out of the playoffs. The New York Giants had also beaten the Steelers during the regular season. Though that game was much more competitive than the Eagles or Titans games, I still think the Steelers and Giants were pretty evenly matched, and a rematch could have gone either way. Lastly, who predicted that the Arizona Cardinals, the lowest seed in the NFC playoffs, would take out the top-seeded Carolina Panthers? The Panthers were probably the hottest team in the NFL going into the playoffs. One could have made an argument that any of these teams was actually better than the Steelers.
So were the Steelers the best team in the NFL in 2008? There’s no way of knowing. But the Steelers got it done when it counted, and that is all that anyone will ever remember. Moreover, that’s all that counts.
Going into 2009, the Steelers appear to be just as good as they were in 2008, if not better. The team returns almost all of the starters from their Super Bowl championship team. They are likely to get a greater contribution from their 2008 rookie class (which made almost no impact last year). They also had an excellent 2009 draft. Combine that with a much easier schedule than they had in 2008, and the Steelers appear to be guaranteed to make another deep playoff run.
Unfortunately, the rest of the NFL isn’t just going to hand the Steelers the title. If the Steelers want to repeat as champions, they are going to have to hold off several worthy challengers to the throne.
Below is my list of the teams that may pose the greatest challenge to the Steelers’ continued dominance. Please note that these teams are not listed in any particular order:
New England Patriots – Let’s face it. The Patriots just aren’t the same team without Tom Brady. As much as I hate to admit it, Brady may be the best quarterback in the NFL.
In 2007, the Patriots almost went undefeated. Brady and Randy Moss rewrote the record books. Matt Cassell’s Patriots of 2008 were a mere shadow of the 2007 team. But the 2009 Patriots should be very reminiscent of the 2007 team. Only they’ve added Fred Taylor and Joey Galloway. Gulp!
The Patriots are the most important hurdle for the Steelers to overcome. Not only must the Steelers prove that they are more than just interim champs who were merely keeping the throne warm until Tom Brady’s return. They must also establish their dominance over the Patriots in order to prove that they, and not the Patriots, are the team of the decade.
New York Giants – The Giants won the Super Bowl the year before the Steelers did. Moreover, they beat the Steelers in 2008.
The Giants are a very well-balanced team, finishing 2008 in the top 10 in both total offense and total defense.
Perhaps their only question mark is their receivers. Amani Toomer is done, and Plaxico Burress will never play for the Giants again. However, the Giants have several receiver waiting in the wings to fill the void. Sinorice Moss may finally be ready to be the field-stretching receiver that he was drafted to be. Super Bowl hero David Tyree is still in the mix. Former Michigan star Mario Manningham is highly regarded by the team, and 1st round draft pick Hakeem Nicks may be the best of the bunch. Suffice it to say that wide receiver should emerge as a strength for the Giants.
Oh yeah, did I mention that Osi Umenyiora will be returning to the line-up?
Philadelphia Eagles – I don’t understand Philadelphia fans. Donovan McNabb has been one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL for a long time. He consistently takes the Eagles to the playoffs, yet at the end of each season it seems like Eagles fans are trying to run Donovan out of town.
Personally, I think the Eagles will once again be a playoff contender. Besides McNabb, the Eagles still have Brian Westbrook, arguably one of the best running backs in the NFL. Wider receiver DeSean Jackson will be an experienced veteran, and should be even better than last year. Rookies Jeremy Maclin and LeSean McCoy should contribute during their freshman year.
If you look at the offensive weapons that the Eagles have provided Donovan McNabb, one could easily argue that this year’s Eagles could be even better than the Terrell Owens team that went to the Super Bowl a few years back.
Chicago Bears – The Chicago Bears haven’t had a good quarterback since…..well, ever. Now they have a young Pro Bowl caliber quarterback in Jay Cutler.
The Bears almost made the playoffs with Kyle Orton at the helm. What will they do with a star QB running their offense?
Cincinnati Bengals – Just joking folks. I just wanted to see if you were paying attention.
Indianapolis Colts – Sure, Tony Dungy is gone. But the Colts shouldn’t lose a beat under the leadership of Dungy’s hand-picked successor. Besides, Peyton Manning runs this team. As long as he’s under center, the Colts will be a force to be reckoned with.
Baltimore Ravens – The Ravens were the 2008 AFC runner-up. Thus, they have to be considered to be a contender. However, with Rex Ryan leaving as defensive coordinator, Ray Lewis getting yet another year older, and Bart Scott no longer on the team, I don’t think the Ravens will be in the Steelers’ class.
Tennessee Titans – The Titans had a great season last year. But I don’t expect to see a repeat performance from them this year. Albert Haynesworth was the heart and soul of that team. I’m not sure if there is another defensive player in the league who is as important to his team as Haynesworth was to the Titans. The Titans’ defense should see a significant decline without him.
On offense, I think “smash & dash” will prove to be one-hit wonders. I just don’t believe that LenDale White can be a consistent threat in the NFL.
Carolina Panthers – Is there a better running back tandem in the NFL than DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart? Julius Peppers will be back with the team next year. So will Steve Smith. The only thing holding this team back is Jake Delhomme. It’s too bad the Panthers signed him to a 5-year, $42.5 million extension.
San Diego Chargers and Dallas Cowboys – Both teams are better on paper than their on-field performance indicated in 2008. I expect the return of Shawn Merriman to help the Chargers. Similarly, the Cowboys should benefit from the removal of distractions like T.O., Tank Johnson, and Pac-Man Jones.
Notice I didn’t include the Arizona Cardinals. Despite making it to the Super Bowl last year, the Cardinals are still……..the Cardinals. They were the lowest seed in the NFC playoffs last year, and I believe that the Bears and Cowboys will be greater threats in the NFC in 2009.
I feel much better about the Steelers’ chances this year than I did last year. With a better team and a much easier schedule than they had last year, a 14-2 regular season record is very feasible this season.
Will they bring home another Lombardi Trophy? Only time will tell. After all, anything can happen in the playoffs. But one thing seems certain, if the Steelers can stay healthy they will be a playoff team.
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