The Steelers rolled their way to Super Bowl XLV last season but came up short against the Packers. Now they're facing some tough history because of it: Only three of the last 10 Super Bowl losing teams made the playoffs the following year.
Similar history exists for skill-position players on losing Super Bowl teams, but only one of the Steelers' stars might run into trouble (read on). All of them, however, should return to the roles in which they finished last season -- Pittsburgh added nothing more than offensive line and defensive talent through the draft. That should make Fantasy owners comfortable in drafting Steelers players since they're already established in the team's system and won't have to learn a new playbook. That's a huge benefit considering that teams with new talent haven't been allowed to work with them on learning something new.
It's also been a headache-free offseason for the Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger isn't headed for a four-game suspension like last season, no significant players are at risk to miss the start of the season and there are no huge coaching changes. Save for Hines Ward's championship run on Dancing With The Stars, it's been a very quiet offseason for the AFC champs.
And that's exactly how they like it.
Bust ... Rashard Mendenhall, RB
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Mendenhall is coming off his best season as a pro. He's become a staple in the Steelers offense, he doesn't share the ball a whole lot and has a very nice schedule awaiting him in 2011. So why in blue blazes is he a bust candidate? Check out the history of running backs following a Super Bowl run. It's not pretty, mostly because rushers take on a lot of work in those seasons and break down the following year. In Mendenhall's case, he logged a league-high 412 touches including 385 carries on the ground between Week 1 and the Super Bowl, so he put a lot of miles on his odometer. He also had several of his big games without Ben Roethlisberger throwing all over the place in the early part of the year, something that's not expected to happen in 2011. The Steelers' offensive line wasn't upgraded much this offseason, either. If you're going to take Mendenhall, don't do it until Round 2 at the earliest, and make it a high priority to back him up with whoever ends up No. 2 on the depth chart in Pittsburgh.
Late-round flier ... Isaac Redman, RB
Our hunch is that Redman will retain the backup role behind Mendenhall ahead of backs like Mewelde Moore and Jonathan Dwyer. If our philosophy on starting running backs breaking down after a Super Bowl run holds true, then Redman should be in line to see a lot of work. Any coach in Pittsburgh will tell you that Redman's come a long way since entering as an undrafted free agent in 2009, averaging a stunning 4.8 yards per rush last year and scoring his first NFL touchdown on a reception, not a goal-line plunge. If you draft Mendenhall, you should get Redman too, but even if you don't draft Mendenhall it's not a bad idea to spend a late pick on Redman and hang on to him for a couple of weeks to see what kind of impact he'll have.
Sleeper ... Emmanuel Sanders, WR
This is a close call between Sanders and fellow second-year rookie Antonio Brown -- both might actually make an impact this season -- but Sanders is the safer choice. And that's saying something considering he's coming off of surgery on both of his feet and has been doing rehab work for much of the offseason. But Sanders has been proactive in planning player-only workouts, a sign that he's gung ho on keeping a sizable role in the offense. As a third receiver on the field with Mike Wallace and Hines Ward, Sanders would see single coverage and could pick off some deep passes (assuming that speed is there). Sanders won't put in as much special-teams work as Brown, so he's likely to catch more balls than him, which he did as a rookie last year.
The only reason why the Steelers' schedule isn't quite as much of a gem as the Ravens, Browns and Bengals is because they'll play two first-place teams from last season -- the Patriots and Chiefs. The Pats typically give the Steelers trouble, but the Chiefs game shouldn't be a hassle despite being played in Kansas City. Otherwise there's very little to dislike about the dance card of the Black & Gold. Playing two NFC West teams and Cleveland twice in the last four weeks (including once in Week 17) is a gift from Roger Goodell.
Training camp topics
How much longer can Hines Ward play? Statistically speaking he had his worst season in a decade in 2010 and many feel he's losing his ability to work at a high level. Ward will tell you he played with injuries (including a broken thumb), which might explain why he caught only 59 of the 94 passes tossed his way. Chances are he can perk up his stats a little bit, but Father Time might start having his way with the 35-year-old. He'll likely rest periodically during training camp but should be OK for the start of the year.
But then there's Mike Wallace, who has every single intangible you want going for your receiver if you're thinking Fantasy. Wallace is entering his third year (typically when receivers begin to hit their peak) and will be a restricted free agent after the season. Motivation will be high for him to land a big contract tender, if not a lucrative extension. He's also got a great schedule and is easily the most threatening receiver in the Steelers' offense. Assuming he doesn't go through any troubles in camp, Wallace has the makings of a major Fantasy stat producer in 2011.
But the guy we've heard the least from this offseason is Ben Roethlisberger. A year ago his life was turned upside down as he dealt with off-the-field allegations stemming from his alleged behavior. A four-game suspension followed, but then he played well by throwing for 3,200 yards and 17 touchdowns with just five interceptions over 12 starts. Since the Steelers became more pass oriented, Big Ben's averaged more than 275 passing yards per game and has a sick touchdown-to-interception ratio of 2.53 to 1. That's tough to overlook, especially considering that he, too, has played behind a rag-tag offensive line. Throw in that pretty schedule and Roethlisberger is not a bad choice for Fantasy usage at all given where you'll find him on Draft Day. His camp should be sterling.
What about the Steelers' defense? After getting slayed by the Packers in the Super Bowl, the unit is expected to come back healthier and deeper on the defensive line thanks to first-round pick Cameron Heyward. But the secondary will get tested if free-agent cornerback Ike Taylor isn't re-signed. The Steelers added depth there via the draft but a veteran addition is likely in the works. Even with the front seven blitzing like crazy, opposing offenses will attack the secondary if there's weakness there because they know there won't be much weakness in the run defense. Additionally, the health of Troy Polamalu should be monitored as he played hurt in the postseason and was ineffective.
Hines Ward (knee, thumb; probable for the start of training camp) ... Troy Polamalu (Achilles'; probable for the start of training camp) ... Emmanuel Sanders (feet; probable for the start of training camp).
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