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Pittsburgh Steelers preseason primer

2006 season recap

Trouble starts early
The 2005 Super Bowl champs entered last season with cautious optimism. Most of the championship team returned for another run, but its leader, QB Ben Roethlisberger, was still recovering from a near-fatal motorcycle accident. The caution was warranted, as things went downhill quickly. The Steelers finished at a respectable 8-8, but only thanks to a late-season surge.

Key camp questions

How will Ben Roethlisberger perform with a new coaching staff coming off last year's disappointing season?
There's no question Big Ben was rushed back last season after his June motorcycle accident and late-summer appendectomy. This year, a healthy Roethlisberger will take the field under a new head coach and a new offensive coordinator. Former Steelers receivers coach Bruce Arians takes over for Ken Whisenhunt, who left to coach the Arizona Cardinals. Arians might give Big Ben more freedom to make decisions and run the offense without a huddle, like Roethlisberger did in college. If his Super Bowl wunderkind confidence returns and he gets the support from the running game the Steelers have come to rely on, Roethlisberger isn't likely to repeat his one league-leading stat from 2006: 23 interceptions.

Can the pass defense, ranked 20th in the league last year, match the run defense, ranked third?
New head coach Mike Tomlin favors the Cover 2 defense he learned under Tony Dungy in Tampa Bay and then brought to Minnesota. While this may have worried some, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has said the adjustment will not be a big deal for the Steelers, who will continue to function primarily out of their traditional 3-4 alignment. With that settled, the team chose to bolster the linebacker corps and pass rush in the draft in order to put pressure on the passer and not expose the secondary. That secondary includes Troy Polamalu, one of the best all-around safeties in the league, and second-year free safety Anthony Smith, who came into his own late last season.

Can Najeh Davenport and Kevan Barlow provide enough relief to keep Willie Parker fresh?
Parker carried 337 times last season, while Davenport had only 60 and Verron Haynes 15. During the Super Bowl season of 2005, Parker carried only 255 times, with Jerome Bettis (110) and Haynes (74) providing much more balance. The Steelers re-signed Davenport and added Barlow in free agency in hopes of restoring that balance. If they can't, the smallish Parker (5-10, 209) could wear down under a second consecutive season of heavy work.

Key position battle

LB James Harrison vs. rookie LB Lawrence Timmons
The Steelers need to fill the void left by the departed Joey Porter. While neither Harrison nor first-round pick Timmons will be counted on to replace Porter's locker room presence or volatile leadership, the man who shows the best pass-rush skills at camp will earn the spot.

Rookie spotlight

P Daniel Sepulveda
At Baylor, the fourth-round pick's punts averaged 46.5 yards, the best in Division I history for players with at least 250 punts. At 6-2 and 229 pounds, the lefty and former linebacker most likely will replace 37-year-old and oft-injured Chris Gardocki.

On the spot

Coach Mike Tomlin
There is a lot of pressure -- and big expectations -- on the first-year coach. The Steelers are one season removed from a championship under a beloved coach, and Tomlin's two predecessors had 38 years of experience between them and earned five rings. As the Steelers come off a lackluster season, the former Vikings defensive coordinator has already shaken things up, interchanging safeties and cornerbacks and flopping linebackers around during minicamp.

Fantasy focus

WR Santonio Holmes
Holmes quietly posted a respectable 49 receptions and 824 receiving yards in his rookie season, and now he'll be allowed a chance to start opposite Hines Ward. A definite sleeper candidate, the Ohio State product is worth a middle- to late-round choice as a No. 3 or 4 fantasy wideout.

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