1. Willie Parker scored over half of his touchdowns in the first game of last year and then had another injury plagued season. Who do you see getting the bulk of the carries this season between Parker, Moore and Mendenhall, and will there be a dreaded “goal line back”?
Interesting question(s). There’s lots in play I suppose. First of all, let’s just assume that Willie Parker will be at full strength at the start of the 2009 season after being hampered by nagging injuries last season. If that’s the case, it’s probably safe to say that he’ll improve upon his touchdown totals from the past two seasons (5 in ’08; 2 in ’07). That said, it is a contract year for Parker and if the Steelers have any intention of trying to retain him past the 2009 season, they might be less inclined to let him inflate his market value with a big season statistically. And then of course there’s second year ‘back Rashard Mendenhall, the team’s first round draft pick in 2008. Interestingly enough, Coach Tomlin apparently has an interview on the NFL Network that touches on Mendenhall’s recovery. Look for the former Illinois stud to have a solid year and take away a significant number of Parker’s carries and perhaps even yards. Finally, there is Frank ‘The Tank’ Summers, a bruising RB/FB out of UNLV. Who knows just yet how offensive coordinator Bruce Arians plans to use Summers, if at all, in 2009, but if Arians is inclined to deploy a goal-line back again in 2009 (Gary Russell held that role last year), Summers could hurt fantasy owners by taking away touchdowns from both Parker and Mendenhall.
2. I’ve heard some rumblings from the fantasy pundits of breakout fantasy years for Roethlisberger and Holmes. The Steelers often show us fantasy football players how success in real football doesn’t correlate into success in fake football. Do you see the Steelers continuing their formula of good defense, a strong rushing game and timely passing? Or will we see Ben open it up more this year?
I wrote last offseason that Ben Roethlisberger’s 2007 season would probably end up being his finest as a professional – at least strictly from a statistics/fantasy perspective. Big Ben had 32 touchdowns, 3,154 yards and completed an outstanding 65.3% of his passes that year, compared to just 17 TDs and 59.9% a year ago. Roethlisberger had his low moments last year, but considering the offensive line he played behind in addition to how many late-game comebacks he engineered, I don’t think too many Steelers fans would say last season was anything less than a successful one for him. Fantasy owners can expect his interception total to drop from a year ago (15) and for his touchdown numbers to increase back in to the 20s. But I wouldn’t bet on him matching that 2007 season, or coming anywhere near it really.
As for Holmes, I’d expect his receptions to increase from 55 last year partly because of Nate Washington’s departure to Tennessee via free agency. But because Big Ben seems most comfortable looking Hines Ward’s way in the slot, I just don’t see him putting up a 90-100 reception type of season. I do expect him to continue making strides as a route runner and as a complete football player, but that doesn’t much help fantasy owners with no rooting interest in the Steelers. Holmes’s stats may also be a bit undermined by his lack of heigth. At just 5’11”, it’s just hard to squeeze balls in to him in the red zone. It’s possible – as we saw last year in the Super Bowl’s game-winning play – but it took a perfect throw and catch. Anyway, look for Holmes to be somewhere in the 60-75 catch range and perhaps approach the 1,000 yard plateau.
3. The Steelers schedule was brutal last year, but it seemed to help solidify who they were as a team and test them for the playoffs. This year the schedule doesn’t look quite as daunting; do you think that will help or hurt the Steelers chances to go deep into the playoffs? Do you think it might help pad some of those coveted fantasy stats?
I think there will be plenty of tough games over the course of the year to prepare Pittsburgh for the playoffs if they were to in fact get there. It helps that Coach Mike Tomlin seems to be a master motivator that will keep the team focused on the task at hand and nothing else. As for your other question, games against Detroit, Kansas City, Denver, Oakland, and Cleveland (twice) have to excite Steelers fans looking for their favorite players to rack up fantasy points. It’s too early to say which team(s) might be this year’s Miami or Atlanta – but if the teams on the schedule wind up being similarly weak like they were last year, then it’s quite possible that the Steelers will find themselves running the ball late in games with comfortable leads. That could help those fantasy owners with either Willie Parker or Rashard Mendenhall, but it might conversely diminish the production of guys like Big Ben, Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, etc.
4. It seemed like after the Steelers won Super Bowl XL Bill Cowher knew he was on his way out, but Tomlin is young and just starting. Can his enthusiasm and energy combat the Super Bowl hangover? What is the key for a winning season in 2009?
I don’t think there’s any question that Tomlin will have his team ready to play in 2009. Not one day after the Super Bowl, Tomlin was already talking about how there will be no title defense – just another opportunity to go about winning football games with a new 53 man roster. As for the keys to the season, I’ll name three. Obviously the offensive line is still a concern. Big Ben has been sacked more in the past two seasons than any other quarterback in the league. Secondly, keeping Troy Polamalu healthy will be important. The Steelers defense was just so much better with him 100% healthy and on the field for 16 games last year. Finally, William Gay will have to fill in for Bryant McFadden at the cornerback position opposite Ike Taylor. Pittsburgh let McFadden walk during free agency believing that Gay was more than ready to be an every down guy. We’ll see, but it doesn’t take much for a very strong secondary to become one that is only average. Gay must carry his weight alongside a slew of proven veterans.
5. Will Mike Wallace make an impact this year? I’ve seen him on 60 Minutes and he really doesn’t look that fast.
[Laughing]. Nice one. We’ll see. Judging from this video, the kid is not lacking in the confidence department. There may be an opportunity for him to make a few big plays down the field at the wide receiver position. With Nate Washington no longer on the team, Big Ben will now look for a new favorite deep threat. It could be Wallace, whose 4.3 40-yard dash at the Combine was the fastest at his position. Wallace likely will get more opportunities to make an impact on special teams. He appears to be the odds-on favorite to win the kick returning duties to start the year.