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There haven’t been this many questions surrounding the Pittsburgh Steelers since Tommy Maddox was the starting quarterback.

After a tumultuous offseason, Ben Roethlisberger will be sidelined for the first four-to-six weeks of the regular season, Santonio Holmes has been traded to the Jets and right tackle Willie Colon is out for the year with a torn Achilles’ tendon.

It doesn’t help matters that division rivals Baltimore and Cincinnati added quality receivers in the offseason (Anquan Boldin and Terrell Owens, respectively), further testing a pass defence that was only average in 2009.

The Steelers will battle the aforementioned Ravens without the suspended Roethlisberger in Week 4. They’ll have to survive that game as well as matchups with Atlanta, Tennessee and Tampa (and possibly Cleveland and Miami) with either Byron Leftwich or Dennis Dixon at quarterback.

Leftwich vs. Dixon has been the debate of the summer among Steelers fans. By all indications, the coaching staff is leaning toward the veteran Leftwich, who has 49 career starts. But Dixon appears to have tools that conform better to the offence. 

Despite being a very big dude — hence the nickname – Big Ben is quite mobile in and out of the pocket. That’s a quality Dixon has and Leftwich does not. Considering that Pittsburgh’s offensive line isn’t what it used to be, especially with Colon being out for the year and replacement Flozell Adams embarrassing himself in the preseason, the nimble and more naturally talented Dixon might be the best option. 

2009 in a nutshell: A Troy Polamalu injury and shocking losses to the Browns, Chiefs and Raiders cost them a shot at defending as Super Bowl champions.

Why 2010 could be different, in a nutshell: No Roethlisberger early on; no Holmes; no Colon; a healthy Polamalu.

Three random thoughts/observations/projections

1. The loss of Holmes — who was dealt to the Jets after once again violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy — might not be as painful if second-year wideout Mike Wallace can take a big step forward. The third-round pick exceeded expectations last year as the team’s third option at wide receiver. This year, he might even have a chance to push veteran Hines Ward for looks.

2. It’s not all bad news on the offensive line. Centre Justin Hartwig isn’t spectacular, but his backup (for now), rookie Maurkice Pouncey has been stellar despite dealing with a hamstring injury in training camp. The 21-year-old from Florida will likely get plenty of reps at both guard and centre.

3. One area not causing concern is the linebacker corps, which is almost always one of the strongest units in the league. That hasn’t changed this year, with veteran Larry Foote returning to add depth after one sorry season in Detroit. On the inside, Foote will provide relief for James Farrior next to Lawrence Timmons, who continues on his path to stardom (not everyone’s opinion, but the guy is underrated). On the outside, LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison should continue to dominate.

2010 prediction: In a tough division, I’m not sure they can survive that early stretch without Roethlisberger. They go 9-7 and miss out on the postseason for the second straight year.

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