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How playoff contenders cope with suspensions is crucial

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In the NFL, coaches spend the entire offseason emphasizing the importance of getting off to a quick start when the regular season opens, but the suspensions of three prominent players, as well as the pending bans of two others, will make that an arduous task for some coaches guiding postseason contenders in 2010.

Houston linebacker Brian Cushing and New York Jets wide receiver Santonio Holmes will open the regular season serving four-game suspensions, while Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger could be forced to miss the first six games (his suspension could be dropped to four pending his completion of counseling). Defensive tackles Pat and Kevin Williams of the Minnesota Vikings are appealing their suspensions and waiting to hear if they'll be forced to sit the first four games.

How well these teams adjust to playing without their pivotal playmakers will ultimately determine if these title contenders are still in the mix at season's end.

Mike Tomlin, Gary Kubiak, Brad Childress and Rex Ryan will spend their offseason crafting plans to maximize the talents on their respective rosters, but their early-season success at replacing suspended stars will ultimately determine if they make the playoffs.

Here's a closer look at the effect each suspension is likely to have and how the team plans to proceed without their star players:

Back to ground attack for Steelers

Of all the suspensions, the Steelers' loss of Roethlisberger appears to be the most damaging. The two-time Super Bowl winner is unquestionably the driving force of the offense, and his masterful improvisational skills keyed the league's seventh-ranked offensive attack last season.

Without Roethlisberger, the Steelers will have to return to the grind-it-out ways that had become a franchise hallmark for years. Though Dennis Dixon, Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch will compete over the summer for the right to serve as Roethlisberger's fill-in, the burden of carrying the Steelers' offense will fall on the shoulders of Rashard Mendenhall, who rushed for 1,108 yards and tallied seven touchdowns last season after getting off to a slow start.

Given Mike Tomlin's stated intention to re-establish the running game in 2010, it seems likely that Mendenhall will become the Steelers' primary offensive option. While leaning on the running game is always a solid strategy in the rugged AFC North, the tactic will be tested early against Tennessee in Week 2 and Baltimore in Week 4.

If Mendenhall is unable to get it done, the Steelers' success will fall to one of the backup quarterbacks. Though the team has been able to succeed with Roethlisberger shouldering a big load, the weight could prove to be too much for Leftwich, Batch or an inexperienced Dixon. For the Steelers to keep pace early with Roethlisberger on the shelf, the running game will likely have to lead the way.

Vikings could have super-sized hole to fill

If the suspensions of Pat and Kevin Williams are not overturned, the Vikings will have to replace almost 630 pounds in the middle of their defensive line and find a way stop opponents' ground games without their two best run-stuffers. The pair have spearheaded a Vikings defense that has perennially ranked among the league's best against the run, and their ability to force long-yardage situations has enabled the team's ferocious pass rush to relentlessly get after quarterbacks.

Last season, Minnesota ranked second in the league in rush defense (87.1 yards per game), and led the NFL with 48 sacks.

The absence of the Pro Bowl tandem will put the onus on Kennedy and Fred Evans to step up their games to keep the Vikings in contention in a hotly contested NFC North during the opening month. Athough Kennedy has seemingly resurrected his career in Minnesota, the former first-round pick is not a dominant force at the point of attack, and his inability to command consistent double teams in the middle will allows offenses to turn most of their attention to shutting down Pro Bowl DE Jared Allen off the edge.

With the Vikings poised to face the New Orleans Saints to open the season, the lack of a persistent pass rush could allow Drew Brees to take aim at a vulnerable secondary. And the lack of the beefy Williams duo will make it difficult for the Vikings to hold up against the powerful running games of the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets in Weeks 2 and 5 (Minnesota has a bye in Week 4).

Playmaker-by-committee approach for Texans

Losing a defender with Cushing's multifaceted skill set could severely hinder the Texans' defensive performance in the first quarter of the season.

Cushing finished as the league's second-leading tackler while amassing five sacks and four interceptions in a Pro Bowl rookie season. His versatile skills helped the Texans finish with the league's 13th-ranked defense (up from No. 22 in 2008), and allowed them to secure the first winning season in franchise history.

Costly for Cushing
Brian Cushing might lose more than four games.
He also could miss out on $950,000 in future bonuses, writes Jason La Canfora, who examined the Texans LB's contract. More ...

Without the services of Cushing, the Texans will need multiple players to emerge as playmakers. Zach Diles will move over from his weakside linebacker spot to fill Cushing's strongside post, and recently signed Danny Clark will add depth to the linebacking corps. While both are solid players, neither offers the playmaking ability of Cushing, and the Texans will need both to play big during an opening month that features matchups against a trio of offenses (Indianapolis, Dallas, and Washington) with prolific quarterbacks.

Given the stress of facing such passers to open the season, the Texans need someone to replace the pass-rush production that will be lacking with Cushing on the sidelines. One player sure to get a shot at an expanded role is Connor Barwin.

The team's second-round pick in 2009 offers versatility in the mold of Cushing, and his ability to float from pass rusher to zone-dropper would give coordinator Frank Bush a dynamic weapon to use in exotic pressure packages. Barwin recorded 3.5 sacks as a situational pass rusher last season, and his exceptional athleticism will be tapped into while Cushing is unavailable.

With the team only registering 30 sacks last season, including five from Cushing, it is imperative that Barwin emerges as a viable pass-rush option opposite Mario Williams.

Edwards a competent fill-in for Jets

The Jets, who made a lot of noise during the offseason with their surprising accumulation of Pro Bowl-caliber talent, including a trade that brought in Holmes and strengthened the receiving corps, have a daunting opening-month schedule. While they were aware of the Holmes' suspension for violation of the league's substance abuse policy prior to trading for him, his absence means they will essentially trot out the same lineup that finished with the league's 31st-ranked pass offense in 2009.

It also means that Mark Sanchez, who was prone to mistakes in the second half of his rookie season, will face the formidable Baltimore Ravens, New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins without an upgraded aerial attack.

Although the scenario is not ideal for a young signal-caller, the Jets' offense might not skip a beat without Holmes on the field. The team has never played with him, and is not likely to miss someone they've never had in game action.

In addition, the presence of Braylon Edwards gives the team a temporary No. 1 receiver to feature in the game plan. While Edwards has been maddeningly inconsistent throughout his career, he has displayed flashes at times, and should develop a strong rapport with Sanchez after spending a full offseason working with him. Edwards, who hauled in 35 receptions for 541 yards with four scores in 12 games as a Jet last year, posted nine receptions of 20 or more yards. His robust 15.5 yards per catch career average is indicative of his big-play potential.

If he can eliminate the drops that have plagued him throughout his career, he is an explosive weapon that is clearly capable of anchoring the Jets' passing game in Holmes' stead.

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