Oh boy, that game against the Ravens was tough to watch. The Steelers got manhandled both on offense and defense, putting up little resistance on their way to a 7-35 thrashing via the hands of their hated rivals from Baltimore. Much has been said about this game already, so I'll refrain from a more detailed analysis. But Sunday could come with some consolation, when the Steelers await the Seattle Seahawks in their 2011 home opener at Heinz Field. After Seattle became the first team in NFL history to win a playoff game despite a losing record last year, many fans out west were excited about the upcoming season.
Of course, the Seahawks made some major roster moves during the offseason that somewhat tempered this excitement. Gone is quarterback Mattt Hasselbeck, replaced by perpetual Minnesota Vikings backup Tavaris Jackson. Gone is linebacker Lofa Tatufu, a staple in the center of the Seahawks' defense. Instead, fans were introduced to the prolific (yet once again injured) receiver Sidney Rice and pro bowl tight end Zach Miller, hoping that the two will help Jackson improve his suspect passing game.
'Five Players to Watch' analyses a handful of Steelers who need to contribute for their team to succeed each week. That much was proven last week, when the likes of Doug Legursky, Jonathan Scott, Bryant McFadden, and James Harrison lost their respective match ups by alarming margins and as a result had a hand in costing their team a victory. For this week, the premise remains the same. If these 'Five Players to Watch' can win the match ups against their Seahawks counterparts on Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers should come away with a comfortable victory. If they can't, we might be in deep trouble.
5. Antonio Brown, Wide Receiver / Kick Returner, #84, 2nd Year
4. Troy Polamalu, Strong Safety, #43, 92th Career Start
3. Ben Roethlisberger, Quarterback, #7, 100th Career Start
This was going to be the year. After being underrated throughout his career, this was supposed to be the time Ben Roethlisberger officially established himself among the best quarterbacks in the game. After tumultuous offseasons in 2009 and 2010, he had finally gotten his life back on track, got married, and came back into the locker room as a true leader. As a result, he was voted one of four Steelers captains by his players and displayed calm confidence throughout the preseason, posting a ridiculous 146.6 QB rating in the three games he played. Then came the game against Baltimore.
Though definitely not helped by his offensive line, Roethlisberger had an horrific game in which he was directly responsible for 5 turnovers (3 interceptions, 2 fumbles) and could lead an offense loaded with talent to only seven points. Quarterbacks have bad games, but Sunday's debacle ranks among Roethlisberger's worst performances in a black and gold jersey. Yet as we all know, this game marks not the end but the beginning of a long season. 'Big Ben' has shown his ability to bounce back from bad games before, and will need to do so again if he wants to lead Pittsburgh back on the path to victory. With Seattle comes a foe familiar from his first Super Bowl victory in February 2006, when he played a bad game yet made just enough plays to bring the Lombardi trophy back to the 'Burgh. Now he faces a young but talented secondary, lead by second year safety Earl Thomas who had a convincing rookie year with five interceptions. The Steelers are now Roethlisberger's team and with this much receiving and running talent around him, he will be expected to play much better than he did in Week 1 in order to get back on track and have a career season.
2. Aaron Smith, Left Defensive End, #91, 150th Career Start
Remember last year, when Aaron Smith tore his left triceps in late October against Miami? Many fans on this site and others worried immediately that the talented but inexperienced Ziggy Hood might not adequately fill the giant shoes of the decade's best 3-4 defensive end. But Hood convinced the doubters with confidence and ability, consistently stopping the run while rushing the quarterback with impressive resiliency. Now, the 13th year veteran is back in his starting position on the left of the defensive line, but Steeler fans are nervous once again.
The reason is simple: despite multiple assurances to the contrary by both players and coaches, Smith hasn't been himself since recovering from his triceps injury. Perhaps most telling was a play in the first quarter when he got blown up at the line of scrimmage by Ravens right guard Marshal Yanda, allowing Ray Rice to run right through the hole for an easy one yard touchdown. Not only was Smith squarely beaten, he was put on his behind in a fashion that Pittsburgh fans are not used to seeing. Throughout the game, he not only failed to command double teams but was consistently pushed back at the point of attack, becoming a major reason for the ineffectiveness of the Steelers' pass rush and Baltimore's' alarming 5.0 yards per carry in the running game. Unlike years past Smith has a couple of talented and promising players behind him in Hood and rookie Cameron Heyward, both hungry for a chance to prove themselves as stars in the Steelers defense. Smith is biding his time; if he fails to impress while playing against a worse offensive line for Seattle, we might have seen the last of #91 as a starter in Pittsburgh.
1. Marcus Gilbert, Right Tackle, #77, 1st Career Start
BONUS: Bill Leavy, Referee, In the League since 1995
Six and a half years after the game in Detroit, Seahawks fans are still livid about some of the calls Leavy made, despite a later apology. We have had plenty of rough 'discussions' right here on BTSC as well as on Field Gulls over these calls, and I won't incite further verbal headbutting by bringing up the specific calls again. But Seahawks fans and media alike are riled up over Leavy's return to a match between the two teams, and it won't go unnoticed during the broadcast. Also interesting will be how Leavy himself reacts: who will get the benefit of the doubt in 50/50 situations? Will he whistle an entirely fair game (almost impossible for any human being), or favor one of the teams again, perhaps this time by overcompensating for his 'mistakes'? An interesting storyline throughout the game, for sure.
If Marcus Gilbert, Aaron Smith, Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, and Antonio Brown turn in solid games, the Steelers should handle the Seahawks with relative ease. But a few other players are important to Pittsburgh's success as well. Like his counterpart Smith, Brett Keisel couldn't hold his own against the Ravens and was blown off the line with alarming regularity. The linebackers were suspect against the run, and couldn't generate even the hint of a pass rush. Maurkice Pouncey and Doug Legursky showed that they haven't played together much, and need to communicate better. Who are your Players to Watch for the Steelers home opener against the Seahawks?