By Cian Fahey
New faces tend to go unnoticed for the Pittsburgh Steelers until they have been around long enough to no longer be new faces. Players like LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons and Keenan Lewis in their early years played reserved roles before stepping into prominence.
With some important veterans moving on, such as Hines Ward and James Farrior, and some key injuries to starters from last year, Rashard Mendenhall, Max Starks and Casey Hampton in particular, the Steelers will be asking more of their free agent and rookie additions than is typical of the franchise.
Even with those players missing, the Steelers still haven\’t put their roster through too much turnover.
The most notable new addition through free agency will, at best, be a second tight end for the first four games of the season. Leonard Pope previously played under Todd Haley for the Arizona Cardinals and Kansas City Chiefs. Heath Miller is clearly the Steelers\’ first choice tight end and Weslye Saunders, despite his suspension entering the season, is the favorite to be his initial backup.
Pope will most likely spend the majority of the season as the team\’s third option seeing time in goal-line formations. Surpassed that, he appears to be just another body to fill the 53-man roster.
Losing a feature back like Mendenahll is always going to hurt your chances at success. However with Isaac Redman in place, the Steelers won\’t suffer a major drop-off in the running game. Chris Rainey is the only addition to the backfield, Baron Batch returns from injury also, but contributions from the rookie will be welcome opposed to expected.
Second round pick Mike Adams will have expectations on him from day one with the Steelers. Replacing Starks won\’t be easy for Adams, but Adams must also live up to the expectations he gave himself after persuading the Steelers to draft him. As bad as the Steelers\’ offensive line has been over the past few years, Starks was always a reliable blindside protector. His presence will be missed.
There is less pressure on first round pick David DeCastro to perform for multiple reasons. While Marcus Gilbert was possibly going to play left tackle this year, he really would be best suited to fill in if Adams cannot perform. If DeCastro can\’t perform well early on, Ramon Foster is a proven veteran at this point who can step in and play well for the Steelers.
If the Steelers want to pass the ball effectively next year, then the importance of the left tackle will dwarf the importance of the right guard spot. DeCastro also didn\’t come out of college with any red flags, therefore it is not just only on-the-field where he faces less pressure.
There is no question that the Steelers need more contributions from their new faces on offense opposed to defense.
Sean Spence and Alameda Ta\’amu will be expected to play roles for the Steelers as rookies. Even more so than Cortez Allen, Curtis Brown and Cameron Heyward did last year. Without Farrior and Hampton, the two rookies could even be shifted into starting roles with an injury or two.
Ta\’amu could have to figure in the Steelers\’ rotation early in the season as Hampton looks to return from his torn ACL suffered at the end of last year. Ta\’amu could have to backup Steve McLendon and spell him should Hampton not be ready early on. McLendon can play a lot more snaps in succession than Hampton can, but to best use him he has to be coming in and out of the lineup.
Spence won\’t figure in the team\’s base defense, but he could sculpt out a role in the nickel package. Spence is an undersized linebacker who will likely be better in coverage than Larry Foote because of his speed and agility.
Foote and Timmons are already clearly ahead of Spence, but he could potentially dislodge Stevenson Sylvester from his backup role.
With the NFL being a passing league today more than ever, having a hybrid player like Spence gives defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau more flexibility in his play-calling and game planning. For that reason, Spence is obviously the most important new face on defense for the Steelers.