- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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The highest-scoring option among Pittsburgh Steelers for fantasy football in 2008 was not any individual, but rather a terrific defense that was the best in the NFL. Sure, the Steelers' team defense finished as the No. 2 unit in fantasy scoring, behind only the Baltimore Ravens' team defense, but most of the offensive options were disappointments in fantasy, including the team's quarterback and starting running back.
Ben Roethlisberger has another Super Bowl ring, but he likely didn't bestow the same honor to most of his fantasy owners, finishing behind 19 others at his position for cumulative fantasy points. Big Ben managed to reach as many as 20 fantasy points in only two contests, and the decline from 32 touchdown passes to 17 wasn't that predictable, as in he wasn't supposed to drop that far. Joe Flacco, Kyle Orton and Brett Favre each topped Roethlisberger's total fantasy points, and Matt Schaub did it in 11 games.
Basically, the Steelers' offense wasn't a whole lot of help to not only the franchise, but fantasy owners. We would never presume another championship run is impossible unless the offense improves, because with a defense this strong, leading the league in fewest points allowed and producing multiple options for fantasy owners in IDP leagues, wins can still be earned. But it would be nice if Roethlisberger, Willie Parker, Heath Miller and others became better fantasy options.
What to look for in camp
Key position battles: "Fast Willie" Parker was not regarded as a terrific fantasy pick heading into 2008, coming off a broken leg and broken fantasy value with two touchdowns. Then he scored three times in the season's first week, raised everyone's hopes and dreams, and then disappeared again, the victim of more injuries (knee, shoulder) and little goal-line productivity. Parker scored three touchdowns in Week 1, but in his other 25 games since the start of 2007, he has scored four times. That's a trend, folks, one not likely to improve, and not a good one for fantasy football.
As a result, no matter how healthy Parker is, expect both Rashard Mendenhall and Mewelde Moore to appropriate quite a bit of the touches Parker is used to, specifically inside the red zone. That was the plan last year as well, but hotshot rookie Mendenhall broke his shoulder before October, so the Steelers used Moore and Gary Russell near the goal line. For proof of how desperate the Steelers were to avoid using Parker at the goal line, consider that Russell averaged 2.8 yards on his 28 rushes for the season, carrying the ball six times for 6 yards in Weeks 12 and 13, but scored twice on short runs. Russell is a Raider currently.
Mendenhall is younger, bigger and gleaming with upside, so expect him to get a long look not only for the goal-line carries, but considerably more. It's too early to authenticate him as brittle (some future Hall of Famer named Ray Lewis is the one who broke his shoulder) or fumble-prone (his troubles came in preseason games, and he was a rookie), and the guy did look special coming out of Illinois. As for the veteran Moore, he'll fit in nicely on third downs and on special teams, catching passes and making big plays. He is better-suited for backup duty. Regardless, it's obvious Parker is no longer a guaranteed fantasy starter. He might not finish the season leading his own group of running backs in value.
Fitting in: Nate Washington decided he was no longer pleased with No. 3 status on a championship team, so he bolted for the big money in Tennessee. Good luck making the Pro Bowl on that similarly structured run-first team. Anyway, Limas Sweed was mostly a no-show his rookie season, but he stands at 6-foot-5 and has the tools to be both a deep threat and goal-line option. Shaun McDonald is considerably smaller, and the former Detroit Lion will have to get used to actually winning games, but he's also only two seasons removed from 943 receiving yards and six scores. For perspective, Hines Ward managed 1,043 yards and seven touchdowns in 2008.
Ward and Santonio Holmes will remain the starters as long as they are healthy, with the former battling injuries and Father Time, and the latter still inconsistent enough to bother fantasy owners. It's likely Holmes will be overrated coming off his Super Bowl heroics. Sweed, McDonald and 2009 third-round pick Mike Wallace aren't likely to infringe on the starters' production, but one of them could find his way into fantasy success.
On the line: While Roethlisberger isn't the most mobile quarterback around and tends to hold on to the football longer than most signal-callers, it doesn't change the fact that he has been sacked no fewer than 46 times in the past three seasons. That's a lot. If it was Kurt Warner getting dumped that much, he'd already be in retirement. Roethlisberger's line had a different look last season, with different names and others merely in new spots. The line had trouble with pass protection, and also with the running game, as the Steelers were one of only seven teams in the league to average fewer than 4 yards per carry as a team. Guards Chris Kemoeatu and Darnell Stapleton are slated to start, though third-round pick Kraig Urbik could unseat Stapleton soon. Max Starks is solid at left tackle, Justin Hartwig ended up being an upgrade at center, and Trai Essex should push right tackle Willie Colon. Competition is a good thing. This line should be no worse than it was in 2008.
The bottom line
Few teams come off a Super Bowl triumph looking as good as the Steelers currently do, because the team-first attitude they promote generally leads to veterans sticking around. While this offense hardly thrived in 2008, it scored enough points at the right times and made a nice playoff run because the defense was the league's best. That defense, led by James Farrior, James Harrison and Troy Polamalu, is probably fantasy's best for drafts, and should duplicate its success. The schedule actually appears a lot easier, with some miserable defenses like the Lions and Broncos on the slate. Maybe the offense will wake up and join the defense in pleasing fantasy owners.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. Check out his daily Baseball Today podcast at ESPN Podcenter. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His book, "The Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments," was published by Source Books and is available in bookstores. Contact Eric by e-mailing him here.