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It Don't Come Easy - Steelers 2010 Preview

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If you are a football fan who watches the Steelers for the unpredictability of their games, you’re probably going to like the 2010 season. But if your next breath depends on whether or not the home team wins, an oxygen tank may be in order. Nothing will come easy this season for the Steelers or their fans.

Don’t believe it? Come out from behind those black-and-gold tinted glasses, and step into the real world.

The Steelers have problems—some big, some small—that could get fixed in time for the regular-season opener Sept. 12 against the Atlanta Falcons at Heinz Field. But they also could linger for 17 weeks and cause the team to miss the playoffs for a second consecutive season, something that hasn’t happened since the three-year drought of 1998-2000.

There are so many flaws in the roster that the 1,000 words allotted for this story may not be enough to describe them. But here’s a stab at it (in order of importance):

Right tackle – The biggest problem appears to have surfaced here (Ha! You thought it was quarterback) where 13-year, 330-pound veteran Flozell “The Hotel” Adams threatens to offer a few too many room-service sacks to opposing pass rushers.

Dumped this year by the Dallas Cowboys, where he had played his entire 182-game career at left tackle, Adams was moved to right side by the Steelers after Willie Colon was lost for the season with an Achilles injury.

Through the first two preseason games, Adams, 35, looked like the Steelers’ best bet at the position, even though his pass blocking lagged seriously behind his run-blocking skills.

The first four games of the regular season could get ugly if Adams doesn’t improve his ability to protect the slow-footed Byron Leftwich.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin still could juggle the line, but right guard Trai Essex, who can play right tackle in an emergency, said this about Adams remaining in the lineup: “There’s nothing that tells me otherwise.”

Leftwich may need eyes on the side of his head, too.

Cornerback – When the Arizona Cardinals traded Bryant McFadden back to the Steelers after only one season, something didn’t look right. Why were the Cardinals so willing to get rid of McFadden—and a sixth-round draft choice—for nothing but a fifth-rounder in return?

The Cardinals couldn’t possibly be so clueless that they would give up a quality cornerback for almost nothing.

And so it appears that McFadden isn’t such a great catch, after all. He helped the Steelers win a Super Bowl two years ago, but McFadden has been something less than spectacular this summer. He’s 2 inches taller than William Gay, and only marginally better.

If you think all the problems in the secondary were solved by the return of strong safety Troy Polamalu, you’re wrong. McFadden may keep his job, but it may be because second-year players Keenan Lewis and Joe Burnett just aren’t ready.

Wide receiver – The Steelers have the 13-year veteran (Hines Ward) and first-year starter (Mike Wallace), but little else in between. Antwaan Randle El is reliable, but no longer remarkable.

Behind them, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders are rookies and prone to disappear from time to time. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians won’t expect too much too soon.

“These young guys are coming along,” Arians said. “They are young guys, though. That describes them. They are up and down like a roller coaster, but the talent is there. It is just that the experience level is not there.”

Quarterback – Ben Roethlisberger had an outstanding training camp, in terms of his preparedness—mentally and physically—for the challenges that awaited him.

The problem is the Steelers could be 1-3 by the time NFL commissioner Roger Goodell lifts Roethlisberger’s suspension.

Leftwich has a strong arm, but he’s vulnerable to the pass rush. Dennis Dixon would have the job if Tomlin thought he could handle it for four games, so don’t even mention quarterback controversy.

It could be worse. Goodell could decide not to reduce Ben’s suspension to four games. 2-4, anyone?

Backup running back – The NFL has become a two-back league, and the Steelers are searching for that reliable backup to Rashard Mendenhall.

Isaac Redman seems to be a fan favorite, but the feeling persists that it originates as much from the alliteration of his nickname and surnames (Red Zone Redman) as his ability to carry a football.

Still, Redman may be the Steelers’ second-best back.

The biggest disappointment of camp was rookie Jonathan Dwyer, who was injured or ineffective through almost all of August. And Steelers fans thought their team was so clever to get a talent such as Dwyer in the sixth round.

Stay well, Rashard.

Special teams – This doesn’t appear to be the problem it was last season when the Steelers allowed four touchdowns on kickoff returns. But it’s early; don’t rule out anything.

Now, Jeff Reed’s short kickoffs have Tomlin secretly seething and experimenting with punter Daniel Sepulveda. On the other end, 2009 return man Stefan Logan has been outplayed by Brown, who averaged nearly 11 yards per punt return through the first two preseason games.

The good stuff -- Other areas of the team are in great shape, especially on defense with the return to health of Polamalu and defensive end Aaron Smith.

A key has been left outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley’s willingness to set aside his contract question and display the leadership and disruptive skills that eventually will earn him a monster contract (here or elsewhere).

Yes, 11 starters are 30 or older, but that’s a crisis for another day. Today, the savvy and experience of those players give the Steelers an advantage over many opponents, and will serve them well in tight games.

Bottom line -- Steelers fans should be aware that the team always will be a playoff contender as long as the quarterback walks a straight line.

For all of his character flaws and immaturity, Roethlisberger is the best thing to happen to the franchise—purely in terms of football—since the trade for Jerome Bettis in 1996.

For proof, watch closely during the first four games of the season.

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