StrategyJuly 27, 2009


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Daily Preview: Pittsburgh Steelers

By Pat Hunley

Unfortunately for fantasy owners, the Pittsburgh Steelers, Super Bowl XLIII champions, winners of two of the last four Vince Lombardi Trophies, don’t reward the fantasy universe nearly as much as their fanbase. Unless he was named Hines Ward or Mewelde Moore, a Steelers player more than likely didn’t live up to his draft position. Simply put, the Steelers were a run-first team that couldn’t for the life of them run the ball effectively thanks to one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL, and that led to sub-par performances from almost all of its offensive starters.

But somehow it worked. Their dedication to the running game led to fewer turnovers and greater time of possession, and thus fewer possessions for opponents, affording a defensive unit that wound up posting the best statistical performance of the decade an almost unfair advantage. That, combined with the below average point total the offense put up, was usually enough to win, but when it wasn’t, Ben Roethlisberger was there to lead the necessary game-tying or winning drive.

Will fantasy owners who draft Steelers finally get to rejoice as much as the team’s fanbase? I don’t claim to know, but I think I can venture some educated, unbiased guesses despite being a Steelers fan all my life.

QB: Ben Roethlisberger, Charlie Batch
RB: Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, Mewelde Moore (third down)
WR: Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, Limas Sweed
TE: Heath Miller
PK: Jeff Reed

Quarterback: In 2007, Ben Roethlisberger threw 32 TD passes and put up statistics worthy of a fantasy starter after being drafted as a backup. The reverse happened the next year; he was drafted as a solid starter but posted only 17 touchdowns and threw 15 interceptions. The simple reason is that the offensive line completed its disintegration with the loss of Alan Faneca. Roethlisberger’s high 2007 touchdown total came because the Steelers still ran the ball somewhat effectively, with the exception of around the goal line. That’s where Roethlisberger came in. In 2008, with Faneca gone, the running game deteriorated and the offense didn’t get down the field often enough for Roethlisberger to throw a lot of touchdown passes.

With another year to gel together, the offensive line can’t really get any worse, but how well and if Roethlisberger can bounce back will depend on how much they can improve this off-season. Still, in a 12-team league, Roethlisberger will never be anything more than a high quality backup fantasy option because Pittsburgh will always be a run-first team. He could offer some value as a backup if the offensive line makes some strides, but he has very low upside and can get into stretches where he tries to do too much by himself and ends up turning the ball over a lot, meaning he carries some risk as well. While I believe he’s one of the five best franchise quarterbacks out there, I’d avoid him in fantasy drafts this year. His TD:INT ratio should definitely improve, but he’ll never have a shot at putting up huge yardage totals.

As of now, Charlie Batch is Roethlisberger’s backup, and it will likely stay that way, but he will have to hold off Dennis Dixon to keep the job. The Steelers have said that Dixon will be given a chance to outplay Batch in training camp.

Running Back: Willie Parker is still Pittsburgh’s featured back and will be unless he struggles mightily to start the season, something that likely won’t happen on his account. Rashard Mendenhall certainly has potential, but we have yet to see that play out on the field. Mendenhall may get his shot to start in 2010 if the Steelers decline to re-sign Parker and let him leave through free agency, but in 2009, Mendenhall will likely only serve to give Parker a series off here and there.

The big question will be: which back gets goal-line carries? It seems that this question comes up with Parker every year, and it seems that every year Parker keeps the goal-line role. It will come down to Parker and Mendenhall because Gary Russell, who poached three TDs last year, was waived for salary cap reasons. If Mendenhall proves more effective in the goal-line back role, he’ll probably start getting more carries down there, but Parker will likely start out as the goal-line back due to experience.

Barring injury or poor enough play to get benched for Mendenhall, Parker will definitely top 1,000 yards due to how much the Steelers run the ball. He led the league in rushing through 13 weeks in 2007 despite averaging only 4.1 yards per carry. He should also see an increase in touchdowns from the five he scored last year if he can stay healthy. Mendenhall only holds value as Parker’s handcuff at the moment, but he could gain some value if he can steal goal-line carries. Despite filling in as the starter beautifully last year, Mewelde Moore will only serve as the team’s third-down back this year. He could hold minimal value in PPR leagues but nothing more than that barring an injury.

Wide Receiver: The decline of Santonio Holmes in 2008 can be attributed to a multitude of factors. The decline in the running game made play-action less effective, which in turn made deep routes less effective. Nate Washington also saw an increased role in the offense as the team’s deep threat, which meant fewer opportunities for big plays, cauing an inevitable decline of Holmes’ amazing 18.1 yards-per-catch from the year before. Finally, the offensive line’s poor play led to a higher frequency of short-to-medium length passes, especially on third down, and Hines Ward has always been Roethlisberger’s go-to guy in those situations. Dynasty owners shouldn’t fret because it’s pretty clear that Holmes is developing into a phenomenal NFL receiver. Still, I wouldn’t count on him upping his stats considerably in 2008 because he’s still the #2 receiving option in a run-heavy offense.

Ward had somewhat of a breakout year in 2008, although it’s tough to consider it breaking out considering he’s 34 years old. He led the team in receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns after accumulating only 732 yards in 2007. Ward has only dipped below 70 receptions once since 2000, so he’s clearly still the #1 option in the Pittsburgh offense. He could take a minor step back if Holmes gets more involved in the offense, but he’s still going to get his fair share of receptions and touchdowns. Expect similar numbers to last year.

Three players are competing for the #3 receiver job, although none will have significant fantasy value barring an injury. Limas Sweed, last year’s second-round pick, is the favorite for the job, and I’d be shocked if he didn’t win it. While fans may remember his infamous drop against the Ravens last year, he still has plenty of potential. Whether he can replace Nate Washington remains to be seen. Mike Wallace, this year’s third-round pick, should make the team as the #4 receiver and could help with return duties. I don’t expect Shaun McDonald, whom the Steelers recently signed, to make the team. The Steelers only carried four receivers last year, they spent high draft picks on Sweed and Wallace, and McDonald has never produced significant numbers outside of a Mike Martz offense.

Tight End: Much like Roethlisberger, Heath Miller is much more valuable to the Steelers than his statistics show. He’s one of the better all-around tight ends in the league and will likely be one of the first expiring contracts the Steelers address after the 2009 season, but he’s never going to turn into Jason Witten because of Roethlisberger’s tendency to spread the ball around. Last year his touchdowns dropped from seven to three, probably because he was needed as a blocker more often around the goal line than in the past. Expect that number to improve, but his ceiling is probably his 2007 numbers (47 receptions, 566 yards, 7 TDs).

Matt Spaeth, Miller’s backup, deserves brief mentioning because Miller’s rookie contract expires after this year and the Steelers don’t have a lot of cap room to give extensions. Spaeth has shown some talent, especially as a blocker, in his first two years, and if he shows enough this year the Steelers may feel comfortable with letting Miller leave via free agency, which would be a big boost for both players’ values if Miller signs with a team that utilizes him more as a receiver. Just something to keep in mind for dynasty league owners.

Team Defense/IDP: Last year’s Steelers defense put up top-five numbers in most fantasy formats as a D/ST unit. However, such a performance likely will not be repeated. Typically, the Steelers aren’t known for producing a ton of turnovers; the team’s 20 interceptions nearly doubled its 2007 total of 11, a year in which the Steelers still led the league in total yardage allowed. This spike in interceptions can be attributed to the combination of the defense’s stellar play and the offense’s lack thereof. The Steelers’ typical low yardage and point totals were still there because of the defense, albeit at much higher levels than we’re used to seeing. But what made the Steelers an elite defensive unit last year was the offense’s inability to stay on the field, leading to more possessions for the opponent and thus more chances for them to turn the ball over.

I have always believed in waiting on defenses or even playing weekly match-ups rather than drafting elite defenses with picks I could use to pick up positional players. Especially in the case of Pittsburgh, I advise staying away next year. Other owners will be willing to reach for the Steelers based on their well-publicized, phenomenal season last year, and the conditions that allowed them to put up such amazing numbers will in all likelihood not exist again next year.

As previously mentioned, the Steelers had the juicy fantasy combination of a phenomenal defensive unit and an offense that couldn’t hang on to the ball that allowed them to excell as a D/ST unit. This also applied to quite a few Individual Defensive Players, especially linebackers. James Farrior posted his third highest career tackle total. Lawrence Timmons posted 65 tackles despite playing only on passing downs. James Harrison had over 100 tackles to go with his 16 sacks, and LaMarr Woodley also put up 12 sacks albeit with a meager 60 total tackles. However, keep in mind again that such a great combination for defensive stats won’t happen again, meaning that a lot of these players will likely see decreases in production.

Last year, five Steelers linebackers reached 60 tackles. One of them (Larry Foote) is gone, so that leaves more opportunity for Farrior, Harrison, Timmons and Woodley to boost their statistics. But once again, remember that tackle opportunities should go down assuming the offense can hang on to the ball a little more often next year.

Farrior has been a pretty solid bet for high tackle numbers over the past few years, and I wouldn’t expect that to change next year. He won’t register a lot of sacks or turnovers, but the tackles will be there. Don’t worry about age; he still has the ability despite being 34 years old.

Timmons’ value should certainly go up now that he’s in the starting lineup and will play every down. However, I wouldn’t expect him to turn into the IDP stud that a lot of people are projecting. He still has to contend with Farrior on the inside for tackles; Larry Foote never became an extremely valuable IDP at the same position in five years as a starter, eclipsing 100 tackles only once. I’d expect around 80 tackles and similar sack numbers because Foote still managed to post his only 100+ tackle season in a year when Farrior posted over 120, but nothing more than that until Farrior’s play starts to significantly decline in age.

Harrison is an interesting IDP player; over the past two years, he has posted 98 and 101 tackles from a position where most of the players’ values are derived from sacks. While he may not be able to maintain both his sack and tackle totals, I wouldn’t expect his statistics to fall below DeMarcus Ware’s 2007 season (84 tackles, 12 sacks).

Woodley’s statistics will probably hover around the same level. He’ll get a lot of one-on-one opportunities because of the other linebackers around him, but that will also limit his tackle opportunities, especially because he’s in a position that doesn’t typically provide a lot of tackle opportunities.

Every year, Troy Polamalu is one of the most overvalued IDP players out there. Yes, he’s certainly one of the two best safeties in the NFL and is in my opinion the most valuable player to the Steelers besides Roethlisberger, but the talented group of linebackers in front of him always deprives him of the opportunity to post high tackle totals. He has never eclipsed 100 total tackles in a season and hasn’t gone higher than 77 in the past three years. He gained a little more value last year because he picked off a career-high seven passes, but the Steelers don’t typically have 20 interceptions in a year, meaning that total will undoubtedly go down. If you can draft Polamalu as your #2 defensive back, then go ahead. Otherwise, let others overpay for one of a number of Steelers whose real-life value is much higher than their fantasy football value. Ryan Clark has little to no fantasy value for pretty much the same reasons.

Ike Taylor has the potential to have value as a #3 defensive back (if you’re in a league with that many IDP starters); he gets tackle opportunities because teams aren’t afraid to throw at him due to his inability to haul in interceptions. He has 80 and 91 tackle seasons in his career. William Gay might steal that value if teams feel inclined to target him instead; Gay is now the Steelers’ #2 corner after Bryant McFadden departed in free agency. Don’t count on any of these players for huge numbers though.

None of the Steelers’ defensive linemen have significant fantasy value. In extremely deep leagues, Aaron Smith might be rosterable, but he’s a very low upside pickup not capable of putting up double digit sacks or anything more than 50 or 60 tackles.

The fantasy value of most of the Steelers depends on if and how much the offensive line can get its stuff together. If it doesn’t improve at all, the team’s offensive players will continue to struggle to put up quality numbers while the defense will have quite a few opportunities to showcase its abilities. If it can become a mediocre to average unit, most of the offensive players will benefit while most of the defensive players will lose opportunities because the offense will hang on to the ball more often. It seems hard for the line to not improve because it didn’t lose any starters and has another year to gel as a unit, but whether that improvement is significant enough to make the offense a lot more functional remains to be seen. Still, very few, if any Steelers players will provide the spark that will lead to a fantasy championship. Some can provide good value if they fall far enough (Hines Ward last year), but most end up getting drafted higher than they should and hurting your team. Just another reminder that fantasy football doesn’t care how good a player’s team is — a player is only as valuable to a fantasy owners as his statistics.

 
Pat Hunley is a Steelers fan who is trying to shed his bias in pursuit of a potential career in sports journalism, which he will explore at the University of Missouri's world-renowned journalism school. You can find him in the Cafe forums posting under the name steelerfan513.
 
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