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Most of all, the Pittsburgh Steelers need new role models

Veteran leadership is a key, missing element in the Steelers’ 2022 edition.

Syndication: USA TODAY Robert Deutsch / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Pittsburgh Steelers capped their last Super Bowl championship on February 1, 2009, when Santonio Holmes toe-tapped in the corner of the end zone after snatching one of the most iconic passes of Ben Roethlisberger’s career. More than 13 years have elapsed since that thrilling victory, and many loyal fans these days are questioning how much longer it will take for the Black-and-gold to locate that elusive Stairway to Seven.

During the years since the presentation of their sixth Lombardi trophy, the Steelers and the entire NFL have undergone substantial changes which today have erected even greater barriers to the daunting task of winning another championship. Looking back at the Steelers’ starting roster during their 2008 season provides a stark contrast with the makeup of today’s roster. Under the team’s current circumstances, this comparison might not be particularly welcome, but it illustrates not only how far Pittsburgh needs to go to field a championship-caliber team, but also how crucial the element of veteran leadership is to their quest.

2008 Steelers Roster


QB — Ben Roethlisberger

RB — Willie Parker

WR — Santonio Holmes

WR — Hines Ward

TE — Heath Miller

TE — Matt Spaeth

LT — Max Starks

LG — Chris Kemoeatu

C — Justin Hartwig

RG — Darnell Stapleton (rookie year)

RT — Willie Colon


LDE — Aaron Smith

NT — Casey Hampton

RDE — Brett Keisel

LOLB — LaMarr Woodley

LILB — James Farrior

RILB — Larry Foote

ROLB — James Harrison

LCB — Ike Taylor

RCB — Bryant McFadden

SS — Troy Polamalu

FS — Ryan Clark

Offensively, the mere presence of a young, mobile Roethlisberger was superior to what we’ve seen so far in 2022 from Steelers QBs. But when you paired that 26-year-old Big Ben with receivers like Ward, Holmes and Heath Miller, then added the home-run ability of Fast Willie Parker enabled by a stronger OL, there’s simply no comparison with today’s relatively inexperienced and as-yet unproductive offense.

But the talent level and potential of the current Steelers offense at least holds the promise of substantial improvement as its mostly-young players continue to gain experience as a unit. On the defensive side, however, it’s far more difficult to imagine the development of anything resembling the 2008 unit. That defense presented a formidable challenge even to the strongest NFL competition of the time. It was a group that could stifle any opponent’s running attack and terrorize its quarterback. Man for man and overall, the 2008 defense was far superior to the unit we’re watching these days. In fact, were it possible to wave a magic wand and bring back those 2008 players today, it’s doubtful that most of the current Steelers defenders would keep their jobs.

Of course there’s much more to this picture than strictly the substantial difference in talent. For instance, where on the current Steelers roster do we find a level of veteran leadership approaching that once provided by players such as Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, James Harrison, James Farrior, Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark? These days, we’re fretting about the loss of T.J. Watt to injury whereas, in 2008, the team had multiple defensive players capable of making the kind of game-changing plays that No. 90 routinely delivers.

Other than future Hall of Famer, Cam Heyward, where are the veteran stars on today’s team to provide the cohesion and leadership so necessary for a team in transition? Where are the role models for young players to learn from and emulate? Certainly, it’s going to take longer than just a couple of seasons before the Steelers start assembling anything remotely resembling the quality of the 2008 championship team.

Yes, it’s true that the NFL is far different today than 13 years ago. Maybe it’s no longer even possible to recruit and maintain a roster as solid as the 2008 Steelers. But there are certain constants in football which do not become irrelevant simply because they’re more difficult to find in today’s NFL.

It still holds that you don’t win a Super Bowl championship without an exceptional QB surrounded by top-shelf, offensive players and supported by a solid defense. That’s why, in addition to drafting and developing more franchise players like Heyward who will pay substantial, long-term dividends to the organization, the Pittsburgh Steelers must also renew the kind of exemplary culture which once fostered excellence at multiple positions on the team.

With all the contemporary barriers to building a powerhouse team in today’s NFL, accomplishing anything like the feat of the 2008 Steelers might seem like a tall order indeed. But taking some lessons from the pages of a champion — particularly one homegrown in the Steel City — isn’t a bad place to start.