- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 19
LATROBE, Pa. -- Are the Pittsburgh Steelers in for a free fall or primed for a bounce-back season?
Coming off a Super Bowl title just two seasons ago, the Steelers have a veteran-laden group that looked very talented and professional during the first weekend of training camp. The team is healthy again and quietly confident about its chances to make a playoff run this year.
But there is an elephant in the room for Pittsburgh. Quarterback and two-time Super Bowl champion Ben Roethlisberger will serve a conditional six-game suspension to start the season. It's the primary reason many pundits already have written off the Steelers and believe they'll have to wait another year to get back in the hunt as a legitimate threat in the AFC.
But Pittsburgh is relishing its role as underdog in 2010.
"I look at the times we've been our most successful have been when we're under the radar -- when people don't expect that much from you," Steelers left tackle Max Starks said. "I think for us, we just have a blue-collar mentality. We're just going to put our head down, and we're just going to march forward and let everything else drop where it may."
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. Will the Steelers properly handle QBs? How do you manage a $100 million quarterback who won't play for at least a month, a veteran who is the favorite to replace him, and a talented youngster with very little experience?
There is no handbook for what the Steelers' coaching staff is going through this summer. Roethlisberger's suspension has put Pittsburgh in a unique situation in which the team has to delicately balance preparing for Week 1 and the entire season.
In all likelihood, "Big Ben" will have his suspension reduced to four games for good behavior. But he will be forced to stay away from the team during that span, which means he will miss reps and practice time for at least a month before he returns. That is why training camp is so important for Roethlisberger. Meanwhile, the team also has to find out if Byron Leftwich or Dennis Dixon is the best option for the Steelers in the immediate future.
"We want to make sure that at the end of this thing that Ben has a productive camp," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "But as we proceed at this juncture, our focus, of course, is who's going to be playing quarterback for us the week of the opener. I like where the guys are right now."
2. Is safety Troy Polamalu back? Polamalu is a special talent. No other NFL player closely resembles his playing style or offers his versatility.
Last year the Steelers missed that versatility when Polamalu was sidelined for 11 games with a knee injury. Pittsburgh still finished in the top five in defense, but its inability to close out games in the fourth quarter without Polamalu led to several bad losses that kept the Steelers out of the postseason.
But Polamalu was healthy for the start of training camp and looks ready to go. He has made sudden cuts without issues, looks fast and was making plays in camp.
"He just kind of opens the playbook to anything you want to do," Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. "It's just a matter of how far off the diving board you want to go."
3. Can the Steelers stay afloat early? The first four to six games could make or break Pittsburgh's season.
A slow start, such as 1-3 or 2-4, will have the Steelers playing catch-up the rest of the year in a competitive AFC North division. But a .500 record or better during Roethlisberger's suspension could set the table for Pittsburgh to make a playoff push in the second half.
Everything shouldn't be put on the quarterback position. Sure, Leftwich or Dixon has to do his part. But the running game and defense also have to step up for Pittsburgh to win early.
The Steelers' first four games are against the Atlanta Falcons, Tennessee Titans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Baltimore Ravens. Tampa Bay is the only team in this group that had a losing record last season.
Although it's very early, there is a noticeable difference already in 2009 first-round pick Evander "Ziggy" Hood. The defensive lineman looks to be in great shape and more sure of his role in Pittsburgh’s defense. He's thinking less and playing faster, which could be a huge plus for the Steelers.
"He looks like a second-year player," Tomlin said. "He, of course, is markedly better than he was a year ago, as it is expected. The standards of expectations of him change, as it does everyone in his draft class. To this point, he's meeting those challenges."
Pittsburgh's defensive line needs an influx of youth as starters Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton and Aaron Smith are all over 30. Hood is looking to play a much bigger role in the rotation after recording only eight tackles and a sack last season.
I don't think you can truly pick a disappointing player a few days into training camp. But based on the opening weekend, I wasn't particularly overwhelmed by Leftwich.
The veteran quarterback shared snaps with Roethlisberger with the first team, and there is clearly a difference when each player runs the offense. When Roethlisberger was in, the ball rarely touched the ground. Meanwhile, Leftwich missed several throws in team drills that I felt he should have made.
But again, it's very early in camp. A stronger indication will come during the preseason.
Roethlisberger may be in the best shape of his career. The quarterback often uses the offseason to rest his body and recover from injuries. But as a result, Roethlisberger usually shows up to camp on the heavy side. That's not the case this year as he's thin and looks like he's in midseason form. Roethlisberger said his offseason incident and time away from the team motivated him to show up in shape as a sign of dedication.
First-round pick Maurkice Pouncey appears to be a good fit. He suffered a hamstring injury that kept him out of practice Sunday. But in the first couple of practices, Pouncey looked very fluid and was showing a mean streak by finishing his blocks. He will most likely play right guard this year, but Pouncey is also getting reps at center.
Look for Pittsburgh to put a stronger emphasis on the running game, especially with Roethlisberger out early in the season. Starting tailback Rashard Mendenhall recorded his first 1,000-yard season in 2009 and should get a lot of carries behind this revamped O-line.
Speaking of the running game, second-year player Frank "The Tank" Summers is getting a good look at fullback. Summers did not contribute his rookie year. But offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who rarely utilizes fullbacks, seems to be open to seeing if Summers can man the role. Summers made a really good block on outside linebacker James Harrison over the weekend.
Pittsburgh has two potentially sticky contract situations, but neither player plans to cause a distraction. Pro Bowl outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley and kicker Jeff Reed are both disappointed they did not get long-term extensions. The Steelers informed both players before training camp that nothing will be done with their deals before the start of the 2010 season, but both reported to camp on time.
Keep an eye on rookie receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown. Both are very competitive and making plays early in camp. Sanders, a third-round pick, looks smooth running his routes and coming out of his breaks for a first-year receiver. He may be able to contribute at some point this season. Brown, a sixth-round pick, is more raw but always gives good effort.
Do not underestimate the addition of cornerback Bryant McFadden. He's played well in Pittsburgh’s system in the past, and McFadden can help fill one of the team's few glaring holes on the defense.
Veteran receiver Antwaan Randle El was fielding punts this weekend and has to be considered one of the favorites to win the job. The kick return game is one area Pittsburgh struggled in last season. Randle El has five punt returns for touchdowns in his career.