Pittsburgh Steelers Require Early Leadership to Return to the Top

The 2009 Steelers became the first defending Super Bowl champions to miss the playoffs since the 2006 Steelers, so that's a trend they'd love to have the opportunity to erase down the road. To see if Pittsburgh can overcome some adversity and rejoin the playoffs in 2010, let's take a closer look at the Steelers on the 26th stop of NESN.com's 32-day run through the NFL.

2009 Record: 9-7 (missed playoffs)

2010 Schedule Difficulty: Their opponents went a combined 126-130 (.492 winning percentage) in 2009, which makes for the 21st most difficult schedule in the NFL.

Key Additions: Offensive lineman Maurkice Pouncey (draft), inside linebacker Larry Foote, quarterback Byron Leftwich, wide receiver Antwaan Randle El, running back Jonathan Dwyer (draft), cornerback Bryant McFadden

Key Losses: Wide receiver Santonio Holmes, running back Willie Parker

Burning Question: Can the Steelers stay afloat during Ben Roethlisberger's suspension? The quarterback is facing a six-game suspension (that could be reduced to four based on his offseason progress in a comprehensive behavioral evaluation) for a string of off-the-field problems that climaxed with a sexual assault allegation in March. Without getting into the morality of the issue, that's a crushing blow for a Pittsburgh team with perennial Super Bowl aspirations.

Leftwich, Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon will compete for the early-season starting job. It's not the most ideal trio, but the Steelers should get enough out of running backs Rashard Mendenhall, Jonathan Dwyer and Mewelde Moore to take the burden away from the quarterback in this offense.

The Steelers open the season against Atlanta, at Tennessee, at Tampa Bay, against Baltimore, against Cleveland (after a bye) and at Miami. (For dramatic effect, Pittsburgh's seventh game is against the Super Bowl-champion Saints on Sunday night.)

That's a pretty challenging set of games for any team, let alone one without its franchise quarterback. Withstanding that initial run won't just be on Roethlisberger's backup, though. It's got to be an all-hands-on-deck mentality from the defense and running game for the Steelers to keep themselves in position for a playoff berth.

2010 Outlook: The Steelers underachieved last season, whether it was due to a Super Bowl hangover, the injury to safety Troy Polamalu or a combination of both. The defense was undoubtedly the biggest disappointment and couldn't handle life without its playmaking safety.

They were as un-clutch as could be in the game's final minutes. In six of Pittsburgh's seven losses, the defense surrendered the go-ahead score four times in the fourth quarter, and it gave up the tying score twice in the fourth quarter before losing both times in overtime.

That's obviously a fine line between a team that missed the playoffs and a team that could have won about 13 games. Pittsburgh had some pretty good offseason acquisitions to improve its squad, so it appears as though the first four to six games will go a long way in determining the fate of the 2010 Steelers.

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