To compete for a Seventh Super Bowl win, the Steelers have signed four key players who may help clinch Super Bowl XLIV.
When a team wins the Super Bowl and loses only a handful of contributors from its roster in the offseason, it's hard to find room for improvement. But as just about every team this side of New England has proved over the last 10 years, repeating as Super Bowl champions is no easy task. If the Steelers are to compete for that "Seventh Heaven," here a few players who will be key to that run:
Normally, losing an undrafted wide receiver from Tiffin University is no cause for concern, but when that guy's replacement is known mostly for dropping a sure touchdown in the playoffs, it becomes one. When the Tennessee Titans showed Nate Washington the money, he rightly nodded his head in approval. Ironically, Limas Sweed was with Washington at that very moment.
"I was with Nate when he got the call from Tennessee at Casey Hampton's fundraiser in Galveston [Texas]," Sweed says. "He talked about it and I just said, 'You have to do what you have to do.' And now there's an opening, so I have to do what I have to do."
What he "has to do" is become the productive chain-mover the Pittsburgh Steelers hoped he would be when they drafted him 53rd overall in 2008. On paper, he should be the perfect complement to the Steelers' top two wide receivers: Hines Ward is the ultimate possession receiver; Santonio Holmes is your speedy game changer, while Sweed brings the size and speed combination to go over the top. But there is one thing Ward and Holmes both have in abundance that Sweed seemingly does not: Swagger.
Despite being the top wide receiver on one of the top college teams in the country at Texas, Sweed seemed uncomfortable with the NFL game as a rookie. But as others before him have shown (see Plaxico Burress' "spike" as a rookie), many players develop by leaps and bounds in their second season. For Sweed, just the added responsibilities on the practice field during the offseason have already helped his confidence.
"I'm one of those people where I'm a perfectionist. I like to know what's going on, and if I don't know what's going on 100 percent, it frustrates me," Sweed says. "All I can do is keep getting with Ben, keep getting with Hines and just keep learning. The more and more reps I get and the more we go over everything, the better I feel."
Unlike the wide-receiver position, the Steelers did not lose any significant production at running back over the spring and summer. Willie Parker is back as the clear-cut starter, and after filling in nicely when Parker went down for a stretch last year, Mewelde Moore is the likely candidate to be their third-down back. But the difference-maker in their stable of backs could be the guy who played the least last year - Rashard Mendenhall.
At this point last year, there was talk that Mendenhall could push Parker for the starting tailback role. But during training camp, he quickly became known more for his buttery fingers than for the breakaway runs he was famous for in college. This prompted Hines Ward to make him carry a football around with him at all times during the preseason (while offering $100 of Mendenhall's own money to any player who could pry it away from him. Let's just say he lost a few Benjamins.).
Following an up and down preseason, Mendenhall finally got his chance to shine in Week 4 after Willie Parker was injured. But as quickly as that door opened, it slammed shut - in the form of a Ray Lewis hit that broke his collarbone. He was then forced to watch while his teammates went on to make NFL history.
"It was tough...but at least I got to experience everything off the field about being in the NFL," Mendenhall says. "To see how Willie and Mewelde work during practice...and to take care of everything off the field like my house, now I should be ready to come back and just worry about football."
With his shoulder fully healed, Mendenhall could actually be a "bonus" draft pick on the offensive side of the ball.
"I see this year as a brand-new start," he says. "I want to get out on the practice field and start taking handoffs so I can make myself as good as I can be."
The Steelers have not unearthed many "second-day gems" in the draft over the past few years, but one of them is this cocky cornerback from Louisville. And "cocky" is just the attitude a Steelers cornerback needs, especially when he might be called upon to start when the season opens Sept. 10.
"As a corner, you just gotta have that swagger," Gay says. "You're left out there on that island. People always think it's your fault if somebody scores, so you have to walk around with a swagger like 'I can't be stopped and I can check anybody.'"
Even if "Big Play Willie Gay" is not the opening-night starter, he is sure to see a lot of action as the team's top nickel back. And with Deshea Townsend not getting any younger, Gay could be playing himself into a long-term role with the team, which could translate into a long-term contract.
"All of that [contract] is down the road. Right now, it's Game One that I'm focused on. I'm just trying to get better at my craft and trying to be a top-notch cornerback."
Now that Larry Foote is back in his hometown of Detroit, the Steelers' version of Foote is primed and ready to assume a starting role. Since Timmons normally played as a "hand-down" defensive end in college, it was assumed he would make the transition to outside linebacker.
But because of his sideline-to-sideline speed (and possibly due to how quickly LaMarr Woodley assumed a starting role opposite James Harrison), "LT" will take Foote's place alongside James Farrior in the middle of the Steelers' vaunted 3-4.
"My thing has always been trying to be as versatile as possible," Timmons says. "The more versatile people always stay around longer, so I'm just trying to be as useful to the defense as possible."
While Timmons does not provide Foote's veteran presence, he brings much more athleticism to the table, which will allow "Mad Scientist"/defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau to add yet another "Bunson Burner" to his laboratory.
In his limited time on the field over his first two years, Timmons flashed signs of greatness both as Foote's replacement and on special teams. Don't be surprised if he has the kind of breakout year in 2009 that James Harrison had in 2007.
Craig McConnell is a born-and-bred Pittsburgher. He is a coordinating producer at FSN, where he's worked since 2001. Before joining FSN, Craig worked as a videographer at WSYX-TV in Columbus and WTOV-TV in Steubenville. He lives in Hampton with his wife, Jill, and their two kids, Derek and Leah.