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Juggernaut Index, No. 23: The Pittsburgh Steelers

Andy Behrens
Roto Arcade

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Stay ready, 82 and 88. You might be needed. (Getty Images)

The Juggernaut Index is our annual preseason ranking of NFL teams for fantasy purposes. Repeat: FANTASY PURPOSES. Here, we care about yards and points, not wins and losses. This isn’t your standard NFL power ranking. If a team’s roster features upper-tier fantasy assets, that group will rank near the top of the J.I.

At this stage in Ben Roethlisberger's career, it's a small miracle that he's still upright and functional. He's 31 years old, entering his tenth NFL season, and he's already injured just about everything a quarterback can possibly injure. Ben had meniscus surgery in June. He dealt with rib and shoulder issues last November. He's also suffered previous ankle, knee, head, foot, hand and thumb injuries.

No active quarterback has been sacked more times than Roethlisberger (344). In fact, by the end of the 2013 season he'll likely rank among the all-time top-15, with a realistic shot to someday top Brett Favre's record (525). So he's got that going for him.

Not surprisingly, Ben has only managed to play a full 16-game schedule once in his career. We can blame Pittsburgh's O-line for many of the hits he's taken, but let's also remember that we're talking about a quarterback who possesses a pathological need to keep plays alive, until he's buried under a pile of pass-rushers.

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Big Ben, still upright after years of steady abuse (Getty)

Given the damage that Roethlisberger has sustained over the years — and his apparent lack of any instinct for self-preservation — we have to consider him an injury risk. Whenever he hits the decline phase, things could get ugly in a hurry. But for now, Ben says he's feeling terrific...

"I feel younger than ever. I feel good."

...and I'm willing to believe him. He's averaged better than 250.0 passing yards per game in each of the past four seasons, and he's coming off a year in which he threw 26 TD passes and only eight picks. He's still reliably excellent, if not a top-tier fantasy commodity.

Roethlisberger is the No. 14 quarterback off the board in a typical Yahoo! draft (ADP 107.2), and that seems like more or less the right spot. He's a useful piece in a two-man fantasy platoon — maybe pair him with Romo or Eli or Dalton or Bradford — or a perfectly credible starter in a deep format. The Steelers' offensive line is basically Maurkice Pouncey and four question marks (and no depth), so Ben is probably looking at another 30-plus sack season. That's a concern. Still, the ceiling for Roethlisberger is something like 4,300 yards and 30 scores — he's reached both totals previously, though not with OC Todd Haley. Of course he'll need to find someone to catch his passes.

One of Pittsburgh's most significant offseason losses (and there were several) was deep-threat wideout Mike Wallace, a guy who stressed opposing defenses in ways that no current Steelers receiver can. Wallace's presence on the field created short-range and single-coverage opportunities for other players. Without him ... well, we'll see. He was not an unimportant piece in this offense. Wallace actually had a lousy season in 2012 by his standards, yet he still led Pittsburgh in receiving yards (836) and tied for the team lead in TDs (8).

And then there's the other key weapon that Roethlisberger could be missing in Week 1: Heath Miller, his veteran tight end/comfort object. Miller suffered a trifecta of ligament tears in late December (ACL, MCL, PCL), so his availability for the opener is very much in doubt. Even if he manages to play in the early weeks, it's reasonable to assume he'll be limited, and thus not draftable in standard-size fantasy leagues.

So this receiving corps is down to Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, third-round rookie Markus Wheaton and a collection of undesirables (Jerricho Cotchery, Plaxico Burress, various others). Brown didn't quite live up to his preseason hype in 2012, ultimately delivering a 66-787-5 line over 13 games — nice weekly production, if not special. (Without the mid-season ankle injury, he likely would have finished at 80-1,000-6. That's a standard-issue Stevie Johnson season, essentially.) If you think Roethlisberger is capable of a 28-32 touchdown season, then I assume you also think Brown is in for a career year. It's tough to imagine one thing happening without the other. At 5-10 and 185, Brown is considerably smaller than most of the elite fantasy wideouts, but he's an excellent route-runner with good hands and after-the-catch ability. If you draft him as a WR2, you won't be disappointed.

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Can Emmanuel Sanders make the leap? (Getty Images)

Sanders is coming off a good-not-great season — 44 catches on 74 targets, 626 yards — and he's entering a contract year, if that sort of thing gets you excited. The Steelers will clearly need him to be much more productive in his fourth NFL season. He's similar in size to Brown (5-11, 185), fast but not Wallace-fast, generally a nice fit in a quick-hit passing game. You can expect a significant uptick in targets for Sanders, perhaps an increase of 35-50, so that lands him in the WR3/4 discussion. Sanders isn't exactly a jump-ball specialist — he's caught just five career TDs — so it seems unlikely he'll give us more than 5-8 scores this year, despite the increase in looks.

If there's a sleeper among the Pittsburgh receivers, it's probably Wheaton, a burner from Oregon State. He has the necessary strength and quickness to win one-on-ones, and he had a huge senior season at the collegiate level (91 receptions, 1,244 yards, 11 TDs). Wheaton impressed in the agility drills at the combine, too. (Details here.) This is a very interesting player for dynasty purposes. Remember, Sanders is no lock to return to the Steelers in 2014.

Another Pittsburgh rookie, Le'Veon Bell, is expected to take over the featured role in this team's backfield. Bell has been a monster at Michigan State over the past two years, rushing for 2,741 yards and 25 scores, hauling in 67 passes. Speaking as a fan of a different Big Ten program, I'm happy to see him leave the conference. Really, really happy.

Bell carried the ball a ridiculous 382 times last season, more than any other collegiate back. He's a big dude who's rarely deterred by initial contact, and he's surprisingly nimble for a player his size (6-1, 230-plus). Perhaps you'll recall this highlight from last season, during a game in which Bell ran for 210 yards. He's good, a great fit for the Steelers. Bell is typically drafted as a top-20 fantasy back, in the Murray-DMC-Bush range (ADP 64.0). I can't call him a steal at that price, but I don't think you'll regret the pick.

Beyond Bell on the depth chart, you'll find a few familiar names, players who should have supporting roles in this ground game: Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer, new arrival LaRod Stephens-Howling. None of these guys are necessary picks in standard fantasy formats, obviously, even if you're feeling handcuffy.

Pittsburgh's defense has ranked top-five in the NFL in terms of yards-against in each of the past six seasons, finishing first in both 2012 and 2011 (and 2008 and 2007). You'd think this would translate into fantasy greatness — it probably should — but, in recent years, the Steelers D/ST has been a dud in our game. Fantasy scoring is driven by takeaways, sacks and defensive TDs, and those categories aren't really the strengths of this D. James Harrison is no longer in the team picture, not that he figured to be a difference-maker at age-35, and five-time Pro Bowler Casey Hampton remains an unsigned free agent. If you're looking for IDPs, LB Lawrence Timmons, LB Larry Foote and FS Ryan Clark are the best options here. And if you could guarantee, say, a 13-game season for Troy Polamalu — which you obviously can't — then I'd take him, too.

2012 team stats: 21.0 points per game (22), 250.8 passing yards per game (13), 96.1 rushing yards per game (26)

Previous Juggernauts: 32. NY Jets, 31. Oakland, 30. Jacksonville, 29. Buffalo, 28. Cleveland, 27. Tennessee, 26. San Diego, 25. Miami, 24. St. Louis

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