QUARTERBACK: Starter - Ben Roethlisberger. Backups - Byron Leftwich, Dennis Dixon. Injured reserve: Charlie Batch.
Roethlisberger was inconsistent after an outstanding 2007. He was down to 17 TD passes and an 80.1 passer rating, down from 32 TDs and a 104.1 rating in 2007, both team records. Yet he also had five winning drives in the fourth quarter or OT in 2008, and had to do so under a lot of pressure behind a so-so line - he was sacked 46 times. Batch, his backup, broke a clavicle in the preseason and Leftwich was signed in training camp. Leftwich helped them win two games when he played one half each against Washington and Cleveland. He signed a one-year deal and likely will leave to compete for a No. 1 job. Batch has long since healed and stayed around the team on a daily basis and should be the backup next year. Dixon might be a future No. 2 with them.
RUNNING BACKS: Starter - RB Willie Parker, FB Sean McHugh. Backups - RB Mewelde Moore, RB Gary Russell, FB/RB Carey Davis. Injured reserve: Rashard Mendenhall.
Parker missed five games with injuries, one to his MCL and another to his shoulder. He was healthy at the end of the season and running like the old Fast Willie. Indeed, his 146 yards in the playoffs against the Chargers were the most in the postseason in 33 years for Pittsburgh. The Steelers list McHugh as their third-team tight end but he long ago overtook Davis as their starting fullback, a job not often used in this offense. Moore was a big help, first filling in for the injured Parker as a starter and also as his backup and as their third-down back. Russell became their short-yardage back 10th game of the season. Davis does a little bit of everything. Mendenhall was knocked out of the season with a broken shoulder in the fourth game; they decided not to have surgery and he's been rehabbing it.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Heath Miller. Backups - Matt Spaeth, Sean McHugh. Injured reserve - Jon Dekker.
Miller has put up consistent production since his rookie season in 2005 and this season was no different, except for his touchdowns. He caught 48 passes, a career high by one, for 514 yards, his second-most. He scored a career-low three touchdowns, though. He remains an outstanding blocker, one reason they don't throw to him more. Spaeth caught six of his 17 passes in one game when Miller was out. He's not much of a factor. McHugh mainly blocks at tight end when he's no blocking at fullback.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes. Backups - Nate Washington, Limas Sweed.
Ward had one of his better seasons, leading the team with 81 catches for 1,043 yards and seven TDs. He last had 1,000 yards in 2004. He had consecutive 100-yard games twice in 2004, something he had done only once previously in his career. Holmes' stats dipped a little from his second NFL season and he was made inactive for one game after his arrest for marijuana possession. He caught 55 for 821 and his 14.9-yard average was down from a league high of 18.1 in 2007. Washington improved in 2008 and was their best big-play receiver. He caught 40 for 631 and had a 15.8-yard average. Sweed had a tough rookie season. He dropped almost as many as he caught, six, and did not even play in the first five games.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters - LT Max Starks, LG Chris Kemoeatu, C Justin Hartwig, RG Darnell Stapleton, RT Willie Colon. Backups - T/G Trai Essex, T/G Jeremy Parquet, T Tony Hills, T Jason Capizzi. Injured reserve - T Marvel Smith, G Kendall Simmons.
Starks started every game after Smith's back gave out on him in the fifth game. Starks was kept at a cost of $6.9 million transition tag and becomes a UFA, as does Smith, who had surgery on his lower back. Starks held his own and they might try to sign him to a new contract. Smith also might get a short-term offer. Kemoeatu replaced Alan Faneca and did OK in run blocking. Hartwig was a big improvement in his first season than Sean Mahan from 2007. Stapleton did OK as well as a replacement for Simmons, who injured his Achilles in the fifth game. Colon should be a guard. Essex, their top backup at T/G also can become a UFA.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LDE Aaron Smith, NT Casey Hampton, RDE Brett Keisel. Backups - De Travis Kirschke, NT Chris Hoke, DE Nick Eason, DE Orpheus Roye, NT Scott Paxson. Injured reserve - Kyle Clement.
Smith had another outstanding season as one of the most underrated DL in the league. He pressures QBs and blows up the run as well as having good lateral movement. Hampton pushes the pocket and clogs up the middle as well as any NT. Keisel missed six games with injuries and never became the pass-rusher they thought he could be. Kirschke had his best season as a backup with the Steelers, filling in for Keisel. Hoke rotates some at NT and does a good job of it. They still need to inject some youth into their line.
LINEBACKERS: Starters - LOLB LaMarr Woodley, LILB James Farrior, RILB Larry Foote, ROLB James Harrison. Backups - Lawrence Timmons, Keyaron Fox, Andre Frazier, Patrick Bailey, Bruce Davis. Injured reserve - Arnold Harrison, Mike Humpal.
Harrison, the NFL defensive player of the year, set the Steelers record with 16 sacks and combined with Woodley (11.5) for the most by a duo (27.5) in club history. Farrior, the defensive captain, had one of his best seasons and joined Harrison in the Pro Bowl. Foote did such a good, steady job that he held off Timmons, a 2007 top pick, as a starter. Timmons did a good job in the nickel and had five sacks. The rest were mostly special teams players. Davis, a converted college DE, sat and learned.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Bryant McFadden, SS Troy Polamalu, FS Ryan Clark, RCB Ike Taylor. Backups - CB Deshea Townsend, CB William Gay, S Tyrone Carter, CB Anthony Madison, S Anthony Smith, CB Fernando Bryant.
Polamalu made All-Pro and his fifth Pro Bowl while having his best statistical season with seven interceptions and another returned for a TD in the AFC title game. They have good depth at corner but no Pro Bowl candidates. Gay was rotating with McFadden near the end of the year and he also can play safety. Smith has been a big disappointment and often did not dress for games in 2008.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Jeff Reed, P Mitch Berger, LS Jared Retkofsky, PR Santonio Holmes, KR Gary Russell. Injured reserve - P Daniel Sepulveda, LS Greg Warren.
Reed had another strong season, making 27 of 31, many of them in tough weather conditions. Berger, who also holds for Reed, has been terrible punting. Holmes averaged only 6.6 yards a punt return in the regular season, then broke one 67 yards for a TD in the first playoff game. Sepulveda, who had ACL surgery in the preseason, will return to punt in 2009.