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Know thy Enemy: Pittsburgh Steelers - Sunday, September 23

A few days ago we looked over the New Orleans Saints in the new Know thy Enemy feature here at Niners Nation.  I think this will be a useful preview feature, so today I'm going to take a look at the Pittsburgh Steelers.  The Steelers are represented at SB Nation by Behind the Steel Curtain, a blog written by the great Blitzburgh.

The Steelers finished 2006 with a rather disappointing 8-8 record.  I think it's safe to say that Steelers fans were on the way to a disappointing season when they lost to an abysmal Raiders team in Week 8.  Well that or starting the season 1-3.  It certainly didn't help that their franchise player Ben Roethlisberger had a bad motorcycle accident before training camp.  All in all, not a good final note for The Chin to go out on.

The Steelers enter the 2007 season with only their 3rd coach in 38 years, Mike Tomlin.  While there have been other changes on the team, this is clearly the biggest considering the rock that Bill Cowher was in the organization.  After a great run as defensive backs coach for an excellent Tampa Bay defense, Tomlin dramatically improved the Minnesota defense in his one year as defensive coordinator.  In 2005, the Vikings ranked 19th in Defensive DVOA.  2006 saw the team improve to 4th overall and 8th in weighted defense.  FO states that, "WEIGHTED DEFENSE is adjusted so that earlier games in the season become gradually less important. It better reflects how the team was playing at the end of the season."

The Steelers have always been known as a tough defensive squad; an image that should continue this year.

After losing Joey Porter, the Steelers went heavy on the defense early on.  Lawrence Timmons might not start immediately, but like with Willis in our case, he is a guy of the future for this team.  In the second round, the Steelers went the Jay Moore route (although with a little more talent) in taking LaMarr Woodley.  Woodley played defensive end in Michigan but is being converted to linebacker immediately.  BTSC is definitely excited by his OTA performances.

By far my favorite Steeler signing would have to be the return of the prodigal son, Kevan Barlow.  Through the trade with the Jets and then the deal with Seattle, Kevan Barlow more or less became Darrell Jackson on our roster.  Needless to say, I could not be happier and I wish him ALL the best in Pittsburgh.  He may have been a useless, piece of crap out here, but at least we were able to turn him into a #1 option for Alex Smith.  Fast Willie Parker (not to be confused with Steamin Willie Beamon) is clearly the go-to-guy in the backfield.  Parker has shown some inconsistency at times (as my 2006 fantasy team will attest), so "Deuce" Davenport and Barlow actually gives them solid depth at the running back position.  Barlow may suck, but as a 3rd string back, he's probably got some decent value.

The biggest loss would have to be Joey Porter, who fell into that second tier of really good linebackers.  Taking the #1 ranked outside linebacker in Timmons helps, but losing an established pro like Porter will clearly hurt this defense.  My research over at BTSC does prove an excellent point: Releasing Joey Porter was a sound business decision.  We'll see how the loss plays out for them this year.

The only other major subtraction is of course Bill Cowher, which I discussed above.  Cowher was a fiery presence on the Steelers sideline for the last decade and a half.  I've rooted for the Steelers once in my life and that was when Neil O'Donnell handed Super Bowl XXX to the Cowboys on a silver platter in the 4th quarter.  However, I've always respected the intensity that Cowher brought to the table because it never seemed phoney.  A little over the top, but at least it was real.  I'm very curious to see how Tomlin leads the Steelers on an emotional level.

2007 Questions & Answers
The questions in my mind are pretty straightforward.  Can Big Ben bounce back after an up and down season?  While his numbers weren't atrocious, they certainly were a let down after his Super Bowl-winning sophomore season.  While the running game remains there, Big Ben will need Santonio Holmes to show some improvement in year two.

What can the team expect from Mike Tomlin?  When you are replace your 15-year head coach, it clearly becomes a question mark until proven otherwise.

How will the defense develop with the new young faces?  While Joey Porter had a big mouth and an attitude, he was an integral part of the Super Bowl squad.  Lawrence Timmons comes in highly touted, but there will definitely be a learning curve for the former Seminole.

vs. 49ers
The 49ers will enter this game with a decent idea of where they're at since they open with Arizona and St. Louis.  They'll have faced a pair of great offenses, but quite the type of defense the Steelers bring to the table.  I think this is definitely a win-able game, but the 49ers will definitely need to bring their A-game.  While not a traditionally explosive offense, the Steelers have all the pieces to put up a whole lot of crooked numbers and the defense will smack you in the mouth from the get go.  However, as the Steelers will still be figuring out its identity, I'm willing to out on a limb and say the 49ers make a statement early on with a 27-17 road victory.  The 49ers don't put up huge fireworks, but the defense keeps the Steelers from getting close the entire afternoon.  Thoughts?