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Steelers' Tough Offseason Isn't A Six-Win Death Sentence

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Despite their offseason woes, the Steelers are not a six-win squad.

I would be remiss if I didn't address an article the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran over the holiday weekend, wherein Gene Collier suggests that the Pittsburgh Steelers, after a tumultuous offseason, are now a six-win team.

The article reads like a laundry list of all the unlucky breaks the franchise has endured in the past two and a half months. First there was the Santonio Holmes trade, and then the Achilles injury to Limas Sweed, further thinning the Pittsburgh receiving corps. Then -- and you may have heard about this already -- star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was suspended for at least four games due to his second rape allegation in less than a year. To make matters worse, the Steelers lost starting right tackle Willie Colon to an Achilles injury last week.

It's been the worst offseason for the Steelers in recent memory. And when you list them rapid-fire like that, the turnover in quality personnel really can seem insurmountable.

Plus, if you're Collier, you get to do fun things like allude to the Illiad, since Sweed and Colon were both lost to Achilles injuries. (Get it? Collier is probably a former English major, like myself, so I'm hip to the occasional urge to wax literary -- although I'd likely be citing authors at least 2,600 years younger than Homer. But likening Achilles' "mythic anger" to injury bug casualties like Sweed and Colon, just because there's a cute rhetorical link? I know these are the dog days of the offseason and we've got white space to fill, but puh-leaze.)  

Oh -- Collier also gets to suggest that guys like Colon shouldn't be working on their agility during the offseason for fear of tweaking that tricky tendon. Probably shouldn't bench press, either. Don't want to tear a pectoral. And no eating. Don't wanna choke. Liquid diets for all the big fellas on the offensive and defensive lines! It should be really fun for Ravens fans to watch Haloti Ngata line up against Christian Bale from The Machinist.   

But I digress.

My real qualm with Collier's article is its almost maddening pessimism. I'm a lifelong Steelers fan, but I can remain impartial enough to concede that Pittsburgh's turbulent offseason just might result in a middling regular season and a second consecutive year without the Black & Gold in the playoffs.

But six wins? Again: puh-leaze.

Collier's argument amounts to little more than the aforementioned laundry list of offseason wreckage while counting backward, like a child who's "it" in a game of hide-and-seek, from the Steelers' 2009 nine-win mark:

They were a 9-win team a year ago, with the quarterback generally upright and relatively upstanding. They were probably an 8-win team with the departure of Santonio Tweeter-dumb Holmes, probably a 7-win team in light of the formerly-upstanding quarterback's four- to six-week suspension. They look like maybe a 6-win team with Colon's Achilles unstrung.

Overreactions like this must be defused.

It hurts to lose a talent like Holmes, sure, but Mike Wallace showed last year that he can play. If the second-year receiver has improved his route-running even a little bit in the offseason, he should prove an adequate successor.

The Steelers also have two solid-if-unspectacular veteran wideouts (Antwaan Randle El and Arnaz Battle) who are capable of making plays in the slot, and a couple of rookie receivers (Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown) who have impressed so far and could contribute down the stretch. And let's not forget reliable options Hines Ward and Heath Miller.

If losing Holmes is the zombie apocalypse, the Steelers certainly aren't the paranoid guy who's spent months stocking his basement pantry with beefaroni and reinforcing his windows with wooden planks. But they're at least the guy with the third-story apartment who just went to the grocery store. I'm not saying the offense won't miss Holmes, just that there's enough depth to deal with the situation. 

Losing Roethlisberger hurts, but not as much as it might have. That NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell issued the quarterback's suspension so early was a blessing. When the Steelers kick off their season on September 12th, they will have had all the time they could have possibly wanted to prepare Big Ben's replacement (it's looking more and more each day like it'll be Byron Leftwich) to step in for a month.

Now, I say "for a month," because there is no way Roethlisberger stays suspended beyond Week 4. Both the quarterback and the franchise will jump through whatever hoops Goodell shoves in front of them in order to minimize the suspension. And with the first month featuring only one legitimately frightening matchup (Week 4 against the Baltimore Ravens), the Steelers are primed to weather Roethlisberger's absence with a 2-2 record in an absolute worst-case scenario (the upstart Atlanta Falcons could give Pittsburgh some trouble in Week 1).

Whatever September's outcome, the Steelers will still have a great quarterback on their side for the majority of the season.

Admittedly, Colon's loss concerns me even more than those of Holmes or Roethlisberger. Assuming the Steelers don't make a move to reinforce their offensive line - like signing free agent tackle Flozell Adams -- it looks like the competition to replace Colon will come down to Trai Essex, Ramon Foster, and Jonathan Scott. Other reports say it could be rookie first-rounder Maurkice Pouncey.

The point is no one knows how this will turn out just yet. Once training camp and the preseason are in the books, we may have a better idea of the situation, but with a position like offensive tackle that's so difficult to evaluate statistically, it's likely we won't truly grasp the significance of losing Colon until the games that matter.

But just like Pittsburgh's efforts to replace Roethlisberger, the quest to find a stand-in at right tackle won't be rushed. The Steelers have plenty of time to figure something out. 

Moreover, there are some facts Collier has really neglected in assessing the allegedly doomed Steelers. First of all, the team's best player -- some guy named Troy Polamalu -- appears to be healthy and ready to take the field in 2010. His absence for most of last season was an enormous part of Pittsburgh's vulnerability to the pass.

I don't need to get into what kind of difference this guy can make on the field. You've all seen the highlight reels. You know what a healthy Polamalu is capable of.

Pittsburgh's nine-win mark from last year, the starting point that gets Collier to his six-win, doomsday prediction, also deserves consideration. The 2009 season is but a blip in the rear-view mirror, and it's been dissected to death by a number of sources -- so I'll keep this short.

The Steelers didn't lose by more than two scores all season, and shoddy kickoff coverage -- a very fixable facet of the game -- was often the culprit in these closely contested matchups.

What's more, while Pittsburgh dropped games to teams they undoubtedly should have beaten (the Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders, and Cleveland Browns), they also proved capable of besting elite talent, teams like the San Diego Chargers, Minnesota Vikings, Green Bay Packers, and Baltimore Ravens, all of whom are popular preseason Super Bowl picks for 2010.

The Steelers' offseason has been a train wreck, yes, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Check back next week for a game-by-game breakdown of what to reasonably expect from the Steelers in the upcoming season. (Hint: it's more than six wins!) 

Photographs by dizfunk used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.