As reigning Super Bowl teams go, the Pittsburgh Steelers are in a class by themselves. Returning 20 of 22 starters in any season is considered rare, for Super Bowl teams to do it is almost impossible in this age of free agency and the salary cap. The Steelers of 2009 look more like the Super Bowl teams of the 1970s, when there was no free agency. There are some items they would like to tidy up to become the third team in franchise history to make it back-to-back Lombardi Trophies:
-- STRAIGHTEN OUT THE LINE
It was a rough season for the offensive line in 2008, what with the 49 sacks of the quarterbacks and the No. 23 ranking of the running game. Not all that was caused by the line, but add in the failure in short yardage, and there was little to recommend that group for distinction.
Now, they have lost one starter, guard Darnell Stapleton, to knee surgery. He has been replaced by former tackle Trai Essex. They gave big money to left tackle Max Starks and guard Chris Kemoeatu, but they believe tackle Willie Colon is their best lineman, yet are gambling by not extending his contract. They won a Super Bowl with most of this line last season but will be hard-pressed to do it again without seeing improvement here. And the lack of experienced depth looms as a potential trouble spot.
-- REDISCOVER THE RUN
Fingers can point the blame in many directions, but the bottom line still reads a No. 23 ranking on the ground, the second-lowest for the Steelers since they joined the AFC in the NFL merger of 1970. Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall were hurt and the line did not perform well. Second-year coordinator Bruce Arians transitioned from using a lead blocker (fullback) and prefers either a one-back offense or a tight end in place of the fullback.
Again, that they won a Super Bowl with one of the poorest ground games in their history is something they do not want to try to pull off a second consecutive season.
-- RETURN TO SENDER
The Steelers have been searching for a good return man since before Mike Tomlin arrived. Their return game left when Antwaan Randle El signed with the Washington Redskins after Super Bowl XL. The prospect of Najeh Davenport and Gary Russell returning kickoffs was unappetizing, and Santonio Holmes averaged only 6.6 yards per punt return last season.
But now, they have Stefan Logan, who is a threat to return one for a touchdown.
-- NO. 3 WIDE RECEIVER
The loss of Nate Washington left a void that several receivers are trying to fill, foremost among them Limas Sweed, a second-round draft choice in 2008. As with the starting cornerback position where William Gay replaces the departed Bryant McFadden, the No. 3 wide-receiver spot seems to be in good hands. Sweed is not as fast as Washington, but at 6 feet 4, 220 pounds he brings other advantages to the job.
And if they need fast, they can turn to rookie Mike Wallace, who has blazing speed and may be used on occasion as the No. 3 when they want to go deep. Sweed, though, has rounded out his game a lot since last season.
-- PROTECT BIG BEN
Yes, Ben Roethlisberger is big and strong and tough. But how many times are the Steelers going to tempt fate?
Roethlisberger has been sacked 139 times in the past three seasons. While many of those are his own doing because he prefers to hold onto the ball longer than most quarterbacks, his ability to shake away from the rush has helped keep that number of sacks lower than it might be.
Roethlisberger has had concussions, knee surgeries, hand injuries, alleged broken toes, a separated right shoulder, but has missed only two games the past three seasons (one as a precaution at the end of 2007, the other his appendectomy) and five since he became the starter in 2004. As he gets older, though, the pounding will take its toll.