Here are six players for the Pittsburgh Steelers that I feel must have big years if the team hopes to return to the playoffs and potentially make another run at Super Bowl glory in 2010. There are no real scientific metrics here, just my thoughts with less than two weeks to go until training camp.
I've chosen six guys - one for every Lombardi Trophy the Steelers have won - who I feel must perform at a high level this coming year. In some instances, big name guys, like James Farrior or Aaron Smith, can afford to perhaps not live up to expectations only because there's capable young talent waiting in the wings for an opportunity.
Anyway, there are many more than just six guys who must elevate their games if the Steelers hope to return to the postseason. But here are a few who can help make or break the team's season in 2010.
Troy Polamalu - We all know what kind of difference Polamalu makes when he's healthy and freewheeling out there for Dick LeBeau. Just one year removed from a historically dominant performance as a unit, the Steelers defense crumbled at inopportune times last year without Polamalu. Injured before halftime of the opener against Tennessee, Polamalu managed to suit up for four other games (the Steelers were 4-1 with him in the lineup), but he wasn't able to help right the ship defensively with the Steelers in the midst of their midseason swoon. Not too many people are paying much attention to Pittsburgh heading into the training camp this year, but if No. 43 is able to play a full slate of games, and the team doesn't dig itself too deep a hole during the first four to six weeks of the season, I see no reason why the Steelers won't be scrapping and clawing for a playoff spot come December.
Rashard Mendenhall - What does Mendenhall have in store for an encore in 2010? The 2008 first-round pick showed glimpses last year of why the organization was so high on him coming out of Illinois. Mendenhall finished the year with 1,108 yards and seven TDs on 242 carries. Somewhat surprisingly (although not entirely, considering who's calling the plays), Mendenhall had only one 25+ carry game last season - his 29-carry coming out party against the San Diego Chargers in Week 4. Whether Bruce Arians was trying to limit his exposure to injury, or simply couldn't tear himself away from the passing game, I'm not sure. But it's a fairly safe bet that Mendenhall will be asked to shoulder more of the load in 2010. If he can clean up some of his fumbling issues and continue to fight for tough yardage after first contact, I expect Mendy to top the 1,500 yard plateau and finish with at least ten rushing touchdowns.
Casey Hampton - This one's simple: if Big Snack is anywhere near the force he's been for the majority of his borderline Hall of Fame career, the Steelers will once again force teams to beat them through the air. Last year, opposing offenses did just that, carving up the Steelers' secondary. But even if Pittsburgh's defensive backfield plays closer to its '09 form than its championship level in '08, the Steelers will still have an opportunity to be a playoff-caliber defense if it is once again next to impossible to run consistently against them. That all begins and ends with Casey Hampton.
Max Starks - There's a lot of versatility along the interior of the offensive line, but after Willie Colon was lost for the year with an achilles heel injury, there's far less margin for error at the two tackle positions. Left tackle Max Starks simply must stay healthy and play the best football of his career. There's literally nobody that the coaching staff could confidently trot out there to replace Starks in the event of an injury or poor play.
Hines Ward - There's little to no chance for the Steelers to accomplish their goals without another solid season from Hines Ward. Ward has been nothing short of outstanding the past two years:
2008: 81 receptions, 1,043 yards, 12.9 YPC, 7 TDs
2009: 95 receptions, 1,167 yards, 12.3 YPC, 6 TDs
That's remarkable stuff considering that Ward was 32 and 33 years old during the last two campaigns. With Santonio Holmes in New York, there's nowhere for Ward to hide in 2010. The Steelers need him to be productive for their offense to have much of a chance. That doesn't mean he needs to post another 90+ reception season or eclipse 1,000 yards for the seventh time in his career. The Steelers just can't afford for him to be sidelined with injury for an extended period of time, or have Father Time catch up with him.
Bryant McFadden - If McFadden is able to play at a B+/A- level, the Steelers' pass defense could very easily be back in the top ten this season. After a year away in the desert playing for Ken Whisenhunt's Arizona Cardinals, B-Mac is back in Pittsburgh, where he played the first four years of his career. McFadden is a physical, sure tackler from his cornerback position, and while he's had his missteps in coverage throughout his career (most recently during the Cards' two playoff games a year ago), he's still a better bet to perform than are any of the young DBs eager to win the starting job opposite Ike Taylor. McFadden is familiar with LeBeau's system, is not yet 30 and in his physical prime, and should be sufficiently motivated to prove himself after a fairly humbling past 18 months.