After winning the Super Bowl in 2008, the Steelers have had a tumultuous run both on and off the field. The team struggled to an 8-8 finish last season and then suffered through a horrendous offseason that included a suspension for the franchise’s star player.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was suspended for four to six games for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. If that weren’t bad enough, wide receiver Santonio Holmes, coming off a career season, was traded due to his off-the-field troubles, and the team lost starting right tackle Willie Colon to a season-ending injury in June.
Whether or not the Steelers, despite these issues, can remain in the playoff hunt in perhaps the league’s toughest division will be an interesting development to watch.
With Roethlisberger suspended, Byron Leftwich, Dennis Dixon, or Charlie Batch will be the team’s opening day starter at quarterback. That figures to increase the team’s reliance on the running ability of Rashard Mendenhall over the first part of the season. However, after passing the ball 536 times last year, the Steelers were expected to shift to a more balanced attack in 2010, even without Roethlisberger’s suspension.
Given Roethlisberger’s off-the-field issues, Steelers management is unlikely to give him another chance if he is involved in any more incidents. Still, he remains an elite quarterback.
After taking over as the team’s starter during Week 4, Mendenhall had an impressive 13-game stretch where he accumulated 1,063 rushing yards and six touchdowns. With no proven backup behind him, the Steelers need Mendenhall to remain healthy and to duplicate his feats from last season.
With Holmes out of the picture, second year speedster Mike Wallace moves into the starting lineup opposite Hines Ward. Wallace had an impressive rookie season that included several big plays, but he needs to prove that he can build on that production against starting cornerbacks. Ward is coming off a season in which he had the second most receiving yards of his 12-year career, and he doesn’t appear to be slowing down at thirty-one years of age.
The team is hoping to find a third receiver among veteran retreads Antwaan Randle El and Arnaz Battle or rookies Emmanuel Sanders (third round) and Antonio Brown (sixth round). Return specialist Stefan Logan could figure into the mix on gadget plays, as well.
At tight end, steady Heath Miller figures to see an expanded role with Roethlisberger out. He is a solid blocker and receiver but doesn’t offer much big play ability. Matt Spaeth backs him up.
With both the Bengals and Ravens shaping up as solid playoff contenders in 2010, the Steelers will be hard-pressed to make up ground if they struggle during Roethlisberger’s suspension. However, they will benefit from a schedule that features, over the first six weeks of the season, a number of winnable games.
QB Ben Roethlisberger
Roethlisberger is coming off his best season as a pro, finishing as the 8th-ranked fantasy quarterback in 2009. The Steelers moved to a more pass-based offense last year, using three solid wide receivers in Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, and second-year speedster Mike Wallace. However, Holmes was traded to the Jets, and the team is expected to move to a more ground-based attack in 2010. Nonetheless, Roethlisberger’s fantasy prospects for 2010 were still solid until the league suspended him for four to six games for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. Assuming a four-game suspension, Roethlisberger becomes a questionable fantasy starter, and drafting him becomes risky unless you plan on starting the fantasy season with three quarterbacks on your roster. If it turns out to be a six-game suspension, you need to plan on having two starting-caliber fantasy quarterbacks, and the resources to do so are likely better served strengthening your roster in other areas.
RB Rashard Mendenhall
From a fantasy perspective, the biggest winner from Ben Roethlisberger’s suspension is Mendenhall. The Steelers were expected to utilize the running game more in 2010 anyway, but Mendenhall now figures to be used even more heavily with Roethlisberger out of the lineup. Mendenhall is a reasonably shifty runner who is a decent receiver (25 receptions last year), and he has impressive size, though he doesn’t always use it to maximum advantage. If he becomes a more physical runner, he has a chance for a true breakout fantasy season in 2010. Once he was moved into the starting lineup in Week 4 last season, Mendenhall averaged a very impressive 13.8 fantasy points per game. Amongst running backs in 2010, Mendenhall is in the tier below the consensus top four running backs, and there is a decent chance he will be at the head of that tier by season’s end.
RB Jonathan Dwyer
The rookie sixth-round pick has an opportunity to earn the primary backup role to Rashard Mendenhall. While Mewelde Moore will assume the pass-catching role out of the Steelers backfield, his lack of size means the team will probably go with a bigger back in the starting role should Mendenhall go down with an injury, as he did during his rookie season in 2008. Dwyer has good size at 5’11” and 230 pounds and was a workhorse runner at Georgia Tech. If Dwyer wins the role, he is worth taking a flier on and is worthy of using as a handcuff to Mendenhall.
WR Hines Ward
Mr. Consistency is back with the Steelers and, with Santonio Holmes off to New York, Ward’s role as the team’s top wide receiver seems secure for another couple of years. At thirty-four years of age, there are no signs of Ward slowing down, and he is coming off his second consecutive 1000-yard season and has now reached that plateau in six of the last nine years (twice he finished with 975 yards). Even though he had to play through some nagging injuries last year, he managed his highest number of receiving yards since the 2003 season. He’s still Ben Roethlisberger’s security blanket. Ward loses value because of the Roethlisberger suspension but gains targets with Holmes departing for the Jets.
WR Mike Wallace
Wallace looked like a budding star prior to the Holmes trade and he looks even better after it. He should be a solid option in 2010, even with the Roethlisberger suspension. Wallace was the biggest surprise among rookie receivers in 2009, with 756 yards and six touchdowns—good enough for 34th overall at the position. Wallace has excellent speed and was as a solid deep threat for the Steelers last year, averaging 19.4 yards per reception. It’s not realistic for him to maintain that average in the starting lineup, but he should improve on his production from a year ago, and he has excellent upside and is a great option in keeper leagues.
TE Heath Miller
Coming off a career year, Miller emerged as a solid check-down option for the Steelers as well as a great red zone target. He is likely to suffer due to Ben Roethlisberger’s four to six game suspension, which will likely reduce his looks in the red zone if the offense struggles. However, he could quickly become a favorite for Dennis Dixon or Byron Leftwich, which may benefit him in PPR leagues. Miller was a low-end fantasy starter with Roethlisberger but reverts to a fantasy backup in 2010—albeit a high-end one.