July 23, 2010
The Juggernaut Index is our annual ranking of NFL teams for fantasy purposes. Repeat: FOR FANTASY PURPOSES. This is not an NFL power ranking. We're not predicting wins and losses here. Instead, we're reviewing each team's projected fantasy contributions — that's it.
Let's assume that these four things were all you knew about the No. 22 team in the Juggernaut Index:
1) They have only one player who ranks inside the overall fantasy top 50;
2) Their starting quarterback won't appear in a game until Week 6 at the earliest;
3) They just placed their starting right tackle on injured reserve, ending his season;
4) Back in April, they traded a 1,200-yard wide receiver for a fifth round draft pick.
Based on those facts, you'd have to say that this ranking seems about right — perhaps even generous.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are a complicated team, however. They're only 18 months removed from a Super Bowl victory and they finished seventh in the NFL in total yards last season (371.3 per game). If they could have simply had a quiet, healthy, law-abiding offseason, the Steelers would have entered 2010 with a roster full of upper-tier fantasy talent.
The Steelers will enter 2010 with Byron Leftwich(notes) at quarterback, because Ben Roethlisberger(notes) has been suspended for a minimum of four games for violations of the league's personal conduct policy. (It's actually a six-game suspension, but the commissioner can reduce it to four, or potentially increase it.) Roethlisberger has authored several astonishing on-field moments and he's coming off the best fantasy season of his career. He's also authored a few appalling off-field moments — some alleged, others confirmed — and he hasn't met a wake-up call he couldn't ignore.
In our game, there's never any reason to debate whether a player is too morally objectionable to roster. We're simply drafting the stats associated with real-life players, who may or may not be objectionable. There's no fanbase to consider, no corporate partners. We do not share the Rooney family's problems. But we do need to manage around league-imposed suspensions and we have to consider the implications of a prolonged absence when evaluating fantasy potential. In the best-case scenario for Roethlisberger, he'll miss the first four weeks of the season, and he won't assist anyone in Week 5 because the Steelers have a bye. So if you draft him, you'll need to stash him on your bench until mid-October.
We can pretty much guarantee that if you start the fantasy season with an 0-2 record, you'll drop Roethlisberger like a burning coal. Or you'll trade him to a 2-0 team that's better positioned to wait for his return. None of the Yahoo! analysts ranked Roethlisberger higher than No. 17 at his position. There's just no way to justify a starting rank for a guy who's going to miss more than a third of your fantasy league's regular season.
The monolithic Leftwich is the clear favorite to replace Roethlisberger in Week 1. He offers no obvious upside. In his last NFL start, Leftwich went 7-for-16 with 22 passing yards and one pick, as his Bucs were eviscerated by the Giants, 24-0. His career passer rating is 79.6, his completion percentage is 58.3, and his touchdown-to-interception ratio is 1.4-to-1. In some ways Leftwich is actually a safe option for coach Mike Tomlin's team, because there's zero chance that he'll ignite a quarterback controversy. Dennis Dixon(notes) is Plan B if/when Leftwich falters. But with anyone other than Roethlisberger at the controls, the Steelers' offense will be relatively uninteresting and, in all likelihood, one-dimensional.
That single dimension will belong to third-year running back Rashard Mendenhall(notes), a player looking to build on a terrific 2009 campaign. Mendenhall rushed for 1,108 yards last season (4.6 YPC) and he reached the end zone eight times. If Pittsburgh hadn't been so stubbornly committed to Willie Parker(notes) over the first three weeks of the season (or, alternately, if Mendenhall had been stubbornly committed to his playbook), then Rashard's final year-end stats would have been even more impressive. The Steelers are expected to be a more balanced, run-focused team in 2010, and thus less Ben-dependent. The only real concerns with Mendenhall are the quality of the Steelers' offense overall, and the possibility that rookie Jonathan Dwyer(notes) will steal short-yardage and goal-line carries. The 235-pound Dwyer was a TD machine at Georgia Tech (35 in 515 carries), though he's transitioning to the pro game from a triple-option offense.
While Roethlisberger sits, it's going to be difficult to rely on the Steelers' receiving corps. Santonio Holmes(notes) (also suspended) was traded to the Jets during the offseason, but he'll be replaced by Mike Wallace(notes), a second-year wideout who was uncommonly useful as a rookie (39-756-6). "I've not had a rookie wide receiver play that well in 12 years," said his offensive coordinator, Bruce Arians. Wallace has serious speed — seven of his catches went for 40-plus yards last year — and he developed a remarkable connection with his quarterback. Improvisation between Roethlisberger and Wallace resulted in a few game-changing completions last season.
But again, we won't see Ben until Week 6. This fact limits Wallace's short-term potential, though he's still our No. 28 fantasy receiver in the composite ranks. Hines Ward(notes) returns for his millionth season; you'll find him nine spots above Wallace in our rankings. Ward is 34 years old, but he caught 95 passes last year for 1,167 yards, so there's not yet any reason to predict a fade. He's presently leading the "Let's run all day" chorus in Pittsburgh, no doubt because he's one of the league's most lethal blockers. (In a PPB league, you're all over Ward). Behind Ward and Wallace on the depth chart, it's a junk pile with Antwaan Randle El(notes) and Arnaz Battle(notes) at the top. Rookie burner Emmanuel Sanders(notes) should be on the dynasty league radar, but that's it. Heath Miller(notes) is back for another season as the most familiar name in your league's free agent pool.
Pittsburgh's defense had a forgettable season in 2009. (William Gay(notes) actually had his memory erased by Adrian Peterson in Week 7, so he can't recall a thing). The Steelers remained excellent against the run (89.9 rush YPG), but their secondary was at times torched — notably in that horrific fourth quarter against Oakland. Troy Polamalu's(notes) return to health is essential for this unit. We were bullish on this DEF in our early ranks, placing them fifth overall. The Pittsburgh IDPs to target are linebackers James Harrison(notes) (79 tackles, 10.0 sacks), LaMarr Woodley(notes) (62, 13.5), Lawrence Timmons(notes) (78, 7.0) and James Farrior(notes) (102, 3.0), as well as Polamalu.
Here's my bottom line on the Steelers for fantasy purposes: Every skill player needs to be downgraded at the beginning of the year due to Roethlisberger's absence. At the end of the season, in Weeks 13-15, Pittsburgh will face three of the stingiest defenses of '09: Baltimore, then Cincinnati, then the New York Jets. That's a brutal stretch, and it happens to occur during three of the most important weeks on the fantasy calendar. The Steelers will win games, Mendenhall should be a reliable asset throughout the season, and Weeks 6-12 are promising. But there's uncertainty here, too.
I've drafted and mocked a dozen leagues since February, including four this week, and I tend to veer away from Steelers whenever they're next in queue. If Juggernaut Index is supposed to have any relationship to my own draft habits — that's a characteristic I just assigned it, by the way — then I can't reasonably rank this team any higher. I won't own many Steelers. Make me regret it, Pittsburgh.
Photo via Getty Images
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