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NFL Sneak Peak – The Pittsburgh Steelers

NFL Football Futures Betting – 2009 NFL PreSeason Analysis – Steelers Football Gambling

The Pittsburgh Steelers were strong from the beginning of the 2008 campaign, and hit their peak coming down the stretch, as they allowed just 83 points in their last seven regular season games. It helps having the league’s #1 defense, though that’s not to say the offense as limited as, say, the Baltimore Ravens, whom they beat in the AFC title game.

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Still, this was far from a perfect ballclub, and some issues needed to be addressed. First and foremost among them are protecting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who was so heroic in directing the dramatic winning drive in the Super Bowl.

Now they will try to make it two in a row, and in the AFC, they’ve got many teams who could upend them along the way.

Let’s take a look at the numbers:

Odds To Win AFC North

PITTSBURGH STEELERS -225
Baltimore Ravens +320
Cincinnati Bengals +800
Cleveland Browns +900

A lot of people had never heard of Ben Roethlisberger when he was playing quarterback at Miami of Ohio. Now he is 27 years old and already has two Super Bowl rings. It is safe to say that he is better than his statistics indicate. He would have to be; Roethlisberger’s 59.9% completion rate was one of the lowest among starting quarterbacks in the AFC, and along with his 17 TD passes, he also threw 15 interceptions.

Much of the time Big Ben was running for his life, and that is because the offensive line was once again terrible at pass blocking. The Steeler front allowed 49 sacks last season; only four teams permitted more. There were no significant personnel additions to that O-line, so one can only hope that this team can learn to play better together. The offensive line also slumped in terms of opening up lanes for the Pittsburgh running backs; the team was 23rd in the league in rushing yards. It would not be surprising if that area improved, because Willie Parker, who is injury-prone and has been often overworked, should get the kind of relief the Steelers were originally expecting out of Rashard Mendenhall, last year’s first-round draft choice who played in four games before suffering a shoulder injury that out him out for the year.

Hines Ward is an old reliable who gained over 1000 receiving yards again, and Santonio Holmes, who caught 55 passes last year, came of age as a hero and Super Bowl MVP. Nate Washington was lost, having departed for Nashville, and this is the year Pittsburgh will look for something substantive out of former Texas Longhorn wideout Limas Sweed. One of the good things about Roethlisberger is that he knows how to buy time and his size makes it hard for pass rushers to bring him down, so often these receivers get extra time to get open.

The defense is loaded with stars, and attrition was almost nil (cornerback Bryant McFadden was the only significant loss). With James Farrior, Lawrence Timmons, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, they have the best set of linebackers to be found anywhere in the NFL. It is important that nose tackle Casey Hampton, a four-time Pro Bowl selection, stays healthy because he is the anchor of that defensive line, drawing blockers to him and allowing the linebackers to make plays.

Troy Polamalu was a dominant safety, in a year when his name was often linked to Baltimore’s Ed Reed as two men who truly stood out from the pack at the position. Ike Taylor and McFadden proved to be more than solid at corner, and now William Gay and Ike Taylor have to pick up the slack for McFadden’s departure. This stop unit ranked first in yards allowed, passing yards allowed, third down efficiency and points per game allowed, as well as yards per rush.

So the Steelers seem to have what it takes on the defensive side of the ball, and the rushing game could become more of a collaborative effort if Mendenhall can stay off the injured list. Keeping Roethlisberger’s jersey clean is a priority, but the elements seem to be in place for Pittsburgh to win this division, as they are by far the best all-around team, and I would not bet heavy against another run to the Super Bowl.

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