When Ben Roethlisberger was suspended by the NFL for his role in an off-field incident this offseason, it sent the expectations for the Steelers' offense into flux.
How confusing is it? The amount of games Roethlisberger will be gone for hasn't even been determined yet; Commissioner Roger Goodell initially made the suspension six games but said he'd consider cutting the punishment if Roethlisberger kept his nose clean -- or extend it if Roethlisberger doesn't.
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We're going with the expectation that Roethlisberger will have his suspension reduced to four games, but that still keeps him out of action until Week 6 as the Steelers are on bye in Week 5. As such, no one can draft him to be their Fantasy starter -- but everyone should get in on him as an elite No. 2 quarterback, especially since 10 of the consensus Top 14 Fantasy quarterbacks have byes in Week 6 or later.
But Roethlisberger isn't the only Steel City bad boy -- Santonio Holmes was traded to the Jets after various off-field incidents, leaving some unanswered questions at the position. Last season they were impossible to cover with Holmes stretching defenses and requiring constant supervision. With him gone, the Steelers will ask for more from their receiving corps, which will have to find a way to produce with Byron Leftwich likely under center for their first four games in place of Roethlisberger.
It's a good thing the defense is in good shape -- literally. Defensive end Aaron Smith and safety Troy Polamalu practiced this offseason and appear to be healthy following season-ending injuries last year. Additionally, the defense hung on to free safety Ryan Clark, brought back cornerback Bryant McFadden and added lots of depth at linebacker through the draft, so they're set to be punishing in 2010 after finishing last year with a whimper.
The Steelers will need them -- especially for those first four games.
Keeper-league target ... Jonathan Dwyer, RB
This isn't an indictment on starter Rashard Mendenhall at all, but the Steelers have been blown away by the rookie. Dwyer gives the team a physical alternative to Mendenhall -- something they didn't have last season -- not to mention a guy who could fill in for Mewelde Moore on long third downs in case something happens to him. But we were most surprised when head coach Mike Tomlin spoke of considering Dwyer for short-yardage duty, which would give him instant Fantasy cred. It would also hurt Mendenhall. The preseason might determine just how much time Dwyer gets on the field, but the good-speed back from run-heavy Georgia Tech is light years better than his sixth-round NFL Draft status suggests. At the very least, he's worth keeping an eye on if you're in a dynasty or keeper league.
Breakout ... Mike Wallace, WR
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Wallace is a classic case of talent meeting opportunity. With Holmes jetting off to New York, Wallace will be asked to fill his role and play much more often than he did last season. Wallace did a lot of damage last season -- 756 yards and six scores -- on just 39 catches. His ascension with the Steelers proves that he understands the NFL game and should accelerate his learning curve to absorb what it takes to start and play close to 60 snaps per game. Defenses will have to continue to respect his deep speed, and if Wallace is going to take the next step in his career he'll make them pay for it on comeback, sideline and across-the-middle routes. While his 19.4 yards per catch average is sure to drop and while his numbers coming out of the gate might be a little thin because of playing without Roethlisberger, Wallace is still a candidate to improve on his stats and be a very effective Fantasy receiver. He's as solid as they come as a No. 3 option worth a pick after the Top 30 or so wideouts are off the board.
Bust ... Heath Miller, TE
Two things are working against Miller: The state of the Steelers' passing game and his role in it, and the growing number of top tight ends around the league. Miller enjoyed the best year of his career in 2009 with 76 catches for 789 yards and six scores, but toward the end of the season he saw some inconsistencies in his production compared to the first half of the season as the Steelers got back to running the ball and leaning on their deep-ball game. Miller should still be involved in the offense, but we'd be surprised to see him match the totals he had in '09. Furthermore, there are too many other solid Fantasy options at tight end to ignore. We see him as a tight end owners will "settle" for on Draft Day, not target.
Let's first look at the Steelers' four-game opening schedule, when they'll be without Roethlisberger. Of their first four opponents, only the Ravens boast a tough pass rush and a good secondary; the rest won't totally hamper the Steelers offense. Best of all, Mendenhall should do a good job against the first three defenses.
Following the bye, Pittsburgh travels for three straight weeks and stays at home for three straight weeks with a three-week span of night games overlapping two-thirds of the road schedule. It's not all bad for them when they get Roethlisberger back, though their second-half schedule isn't exactly a party.
Training camp topics
Roethlisberger's suspension will overshadow everything in Pittsburgh, but there will be eyeballs on the Steelers' offensive line following the season-ending injury to right tackle Willie Colon. The drafting of interior lineman Maurkice Pouncey will give them some flexibility, but this front five is nowhere near as deep and talented as others around the league, and it could end up being a huge detriment for the Steelers.
There's also the consideration of how Roethlisberger's status will impact steady receiver Hines Ward. His yards per game average has actually gone up over the last three seasons (which is in line with the Steelers' move to passing more than running), and he's racked up either six or seven scores each of the last four seasons. But Ward's best seasons came when he played opposite either Plaxico Burress or Holmes. Getting a quality split end to take some pressure off of him has been a key to his success, so while Wallace will still draw coverage, he'll have to prove he's explosive right out of the gate in order for Ward to overcome some potential hardships. But don't get hung up on Ward because he's old or not as fast as he once was -- he's only 34 and only dealt with minor hamstring strains during offseason practices. He's still a fairly reliable No. 2 Fantasy receiver, albeit one you won't go into drafts hoping to land.
The player(s) who might end up being linchpins for the Steelers' offense are Antwaan Randle El and rookie Emmanuel Sanders. Essentially, if the offense is going to operate as proficiently as it did last season, one or both of these receivers need to step up and at least warrant some coverage. In the case of Sanders, who is sort of a Wallace clone, his progression is especially important if he can help stretch defenses and make life easier for the other receivers -- precisely what Wallace's role was in 2009.
Limas Sweed (Achilles'; out for the season) ... Hines Ward (hamstring; probable for the start of training camp) ... Aaron Smith (shoulder; probable for the start of training camp) ... Troy Polamalu (knee; probable for the start of training camp).
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