By Jeremy Hritz
During the offseason, both before the draft and after organized team activities, I forecasted the Pittsburgh Steelers season. In my first analysis, I had the Steelers finishing 11-5, and post 2012 Draft, I had them finishing 12-4. Now that the preseason has concluded, and the 53-man roster has been confirmed, I have compiled my final prediction for the 2012 season. While the preseason resolved several questions that faced the team (the Mike Wallace situation included), it also presented several new ones that definitely change the way the season will play out. In this season preview, I take at look at the personnel at each position and the schedule, and consider how those elements will influence the team’s success.
The Steelers are solid at the quarterback position. Not only are they set with their elite starter in Ben Roethlisberger, but both Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch and more than capable of filling in for a few games in the event Roethlisberger needs rest, or has a minor injury. What the Steelers cannot afford is to lose Ben for the entire season. While Leftwich and Batch are good back-ups, they are not capable of leading the Steelers to a Super Bowl victory. Steelers fans should be excited about Roethlisberger this year as he enters his 9th season, a year that historically is known for outstanding quarterback play. In a new offense that will work to keep him healthy and on his feet, Roethlisberger could have the season of his career. Expect big things from Big Ben in 2012.
The national media is down on the running back position for the Steelers in 2012 because of the injury to Rashard Mendenhall, and what they perceive to be the lack of explosiveness or experience in the likes of Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer, Baron Batch, and Chris Rainey. What must be considered at the running back position is that Todd Haley’s approach will emphasize the running game, something that Bruce Arians did not prioritize. The running game under Arians lacked rhythm and consistency, and this year, we can expect their to be a purpose and an objective in the running game, rather than just calling a running play for the sake of a running play. What remains to be seen is how Redman will hold up carrying the full load, and if the preseason is any indication, he may struggle with injuries. However, Dwyer demonstrated his worth in the preseason, and looks to be a serious contributor from the backfield. Batch will provide depth, while Rainey will be another threat to score on every touch if he gets the necessary space. Will Johnson will be the lead blocker at the new fullback position, and his presence should help to create running lanes. While the Steelers may not rack up a glut of yards rushing the football, the running game will be more effective, and the complementary styles of their runners will make for a multifaceted running game. The Steelers are more set at RB than the pundits know.
The tight end position was very quiet during the preseason, and whether or not that was by design has yet to be seen. Heath Miller is still Heath Miller, though he is growing long in the tooth. While it has always been anticipated before the beginning of every season that he would be a greater factor in the passing game, that thought never materialized. What can be expected from Miller this season is consistency, a few big third down catches, and solid blocking. There is a chance, however, that Haley is gearing up to make him a larger part of the offense during the regular season. 6’8 Leonard Pope made the squad, who has a history with Haley, and the rookie seventh-round pick out of Oregon David Paulson made it as well. While nothing explosive is to be expected form Pope, other than a large target in the red zone, it will be interesting to see what Paulson does and if he can be a contributor in some way during the season.
Let’s start with the strengths. Maurkice Pouncey is all-world and is the leader of this unit. His play will only continue to better this season as he enters his third year. Hopefully the injuries that impacted him in his first two seasons stay at bay in 2012, so that he can stay on the field. Right tackle Marcus Gilbert played well last year as a rookie, but has not had the most impressive preseason. The same can be said for Willie Colon, who has made the position switch to left guard. Max Starks is back at left tackle, and in his limited work in the preseason, it appears that he will be just fine protecting Roethlisberger. As a result of David DeCastro’s unfortunate knee injury, Ramon Foster steps in at right guard. Like Gilbert and Colon, Foster has not had an impressive preseason. Underlying Gilbert, Colon, and Foster’s struggles in the preseason games appeared to be a lack of explosiveness off of the ball, as they were often lit up and driven into the backfield. If this is an indicator of what is to come during the season, it could make for more of what we have seen over the last several seasons from the offensive line. This unit will have to coalesce as the season progresses to achieve consistency, because with the pass rush that they will face from teams like the Broncos, Eagles, Giants, and Ravens will be unrelenting. What the Steelers need to hope for is a quick recovery from DeCastro so that he can step back into his right guard position, as he has the tools to be great. The story of the 2012 offensive line will have one of two possible endings this year: 1) the line will slowly gel together after a rocky start, and will build momentum and become a formidable unit, or 2) the line will continue its below the line play from the preseason, and it could be a short season for Roethlisberger as a result of injury. The offensive line is one of two positions that I feel needs to be monitored very closely, as its play will go a long way in determining the success of this team.
Strong. The Steelers are set at wide receiver, and ultimately they have one of the best units in the league. Sure, Mike Wallace may have missed some time, but it will not impact his game. Antonio Brown had another excellent preseason, and Emmanuel Sanders flashed some big play ability. Factor in Jerricho Cotchery, and unquestionably, defenses will have fits defending this group. If Ben has the time, look for dual-thousand yard receivers for a second consecutive year.
I’ll begin the defensive discussion by noting that it has been a while since a young Steelers defender has stepped up and asserted themselves as an All-Pro player (LaMarr Woodley being that last to do so), and as the defense continues to age at several positions, it is imperative that someone takes that step this season. The position with the greatest potential for a breakout star is the defensive line. With nose tackle Steve McLendon and defensive tackles Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward generating some buzz in the preseason this year, one, or ideally all three, can take their play to an exemplary level. The most likely candidate to have a breakout season is McLendon who has been lauded by his coaches and teammates. His play at nose tackle this preseason has been stout and disruptive, and his role in the middle should help to improve a rushing defense that struggled a bit last year. The oldest player on the defensive line will be Brett Kiesel; however, a drop in his play should not be anticipated, though there are some concerns about his health. This group must do a better job than what was done last year in keeping blockers off of the linebackers, as the defense was gashed for too many big runs.
This is the second position of concern that needs to be watched closely during the season. With all of the injuries that this group his endured during the preseason, there are concerns regarding the teams depth. On the outside, LaMarr Woodley will play above the line, as long as he can stay healthy, but there is a big question mark surrounding James Harrison. Issues with his knee kept him from participating this preseason, and it is unclear how that will impact his play during the regular season. If Harrison were to go down, second year player Chris Carter would be the first man up, and he looks to have some upside, as he was quick off of the edge in preseason games. However, behind Carter, things get thin, as Jason Worilds too missed the preseason with a wrist injury, and will more than likely be rusty. Look for the Steelers to possibly rotate Carter with Harrison early in the season to slowly ease Harrison back into game shape. The greatest concerns are on the inside, as behind Lawrence Timmons and Larry Foote, it is nothing but unproven commodities. Again, it will be important that Timmons and Foote stay healthy, as their backups, Stevenson Sylvester, who too was injured and is still recovering, and Brandon Johnson are nothing more than serviceable. Again, the Steelers need a linebacker to elevate his game to another level, and they also need to stay healthy. An effective pass rush was missing last season, which can be attributed to the injuries, and this was a reason why turnovers were down. If this unit struggles, or if injuries overwhelm this position, it could make for an uncharacteristic poor season overall for the defense.
The Steelers have gotten younger at the cornerback position, with Keenan Lewis apparently earning the starting position opposite Ike Taylor as he had a great preseason. William Gay left for the Cardinals, which is a blessing, as opponents often successfully targeted him. Up first at nickel back will be second year player, Cortez Allen who had a solid camp and could have a breakout year. As long as Taylor’s skills do not decline, the Steelers should be improved at the cornerback position. Curtis Brown, who struggled some this preseason, is still a young player who will develop and could eventually make some noise. The Steelers are an injury away from disaster at the safety position, as we have seen in previous years that when Troy Polamalu is out, the effect that it has on the defense is tangible. Also, we need to look no further than last year’s playoff game against Denver to see how much Ryan Clark means to the defense, a reason for concern heading into week one against the now Peyton Manning-led Broncos. There are questions surrounding Polamalu and whether or not his skills are diminishing with age, as he has not made the extraordinary splash plays as regularly as he once did. He appeared a step slower in coverage in the preseason though he did record an interception. Again, the team needs more production from the defense, and it could be Polamalu regaining his old form that could make this happen. As for the depth behind Clark and Polamalu, Will Allen, Ryan Mundy, and undrafted rookie free agent Robert Golden are unproven. Again, the key here is to stay healthy.
Undrafted Drew Butler will be the new Steelers punter, and he performed well in the preseason. Shaun Suisham returns to the team for another season, and more of the same can be expected from him in 2012, some bad and some good. Suisham needs to be more consistent with his field goals this season, as some of his misses in previous years have had an impact on the outcome of the game.
You have to feel good about a coaching staff that includes Mike Tomlin, Dick LeBeau, and Keith Butler. Throw in new offensive coordinator Haley who has head coaching experience, and the preparedness of this team in 2012 should never be in question. The influence of a new perspective from Haley on the offensive side of the ball should make the offense more productive, and LeBeau’s emphasis this offseason and preseason on turnovers should result in a rejuvenated defense. Overall, the Steelers boast one of the best, if not the best coaching staffs in the NFL.
The two biggest question marks facing the Steelers this season surround the offensive line and the linebacker position. While the Steelers are loaded on the offensive side of the ball at wide receiver and have a franchise quarterback in his prime, if the offensive line cannot provide adequate protection, those abilities will be rendered meaningless. Offensive line coach Sean Kugler and Haley will need to game plan to capitalize on the line’s strengths so as to put the offense in the best position to score points. Additionally, the Steelers cannot afford any more injuries on the offensive line, and if they do, it is difficult to imagine them getting the push that they will need in the running game or giving Roethlisberger the protection that he needs to make plays down the field.
Defensively, one or two players are going to need to take the next step in their development to provide for some explosive plays on defense. The tenure of Harrison, Polamalu, and Taylor is waning, and it is time for the next man up to assert himself as the next defensive star of the Steelers. Regardless, the talent is there to be a great defense, barring injuries and assuming that they play at the highest level.
So what does it all mean?
The injury bug has bitten the Steelers hard in the preseason, and normally when the injury bug bites, it keeps on biting. The Steelers need to hope that the injuries are done for 2012, though that hope is probably unrealistic. The Steelers open up with the team that ended their season last year, with the difference being that the Broncos can now effectively pass the ball. The Broncos also run the ball well, as they led the league last year in rushing, averaging 164.5 yards per game. The other element to consider about the Broncos is that they can rush the passer tremendously well via Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller. Why is all of this important? When considering the Broncos strengths, they all align with what could be the Steelers weaknesses, which is why the opening game will be telling about the success of 2012 squad.
The offensive line will struggle early on in the season, but not as much as in previous years as a result of Haley’s offensive approach. The offense overall, will be much more methodical and rhythmic, which will help the Steelers control the clock and rest their defense. The running game will not be glamorous, but it will be productive and will have to be accounted for by defenses. Ultimately, the offense will still be passing-centric, and Roethlisberger and company will put up some astounding numbers. Under Haley, the offense will be more effective, and the red zone woes of previous years will disappear, with an emphasis on shorter, quicker throws in the red zone. The offense will be a work in progress that will improve game by game, and will be in peak shape come playoff time; however, expect there to be struggles early on.
Defensively, the line should be improved, and it could be McLendon that emerges as the new stud. As long as the Steelers can stay healthy, I expect them to have a much improved pass rush this season, and much better play in the secondary that will include several interceptions. The one area that I foresee as an issue is the rushing defense, and if the Steelers cannot stop the run well, they will have difficulty advancing in the playoffs. While we know what Keisel can do, McLendon, Hood, and Heyward will need to show that they can free up the linebackers so that they can make plays in the running game.
Look for an early struggle, with the national media piling it on that the Steelers are dead in the water, yet look for a resurgence as the season wears on, as this will be a team that will be in post-season form at the right time.
The Steelers will finish the season 11-5, will beat the Ravens twice, and will win the AFC North. Whether or not 11-5 will be good enough for a first round bye has yet to be seen, but this will be a team that will be capable of winning on the road.
Sun 9/9: Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver Broncos - Loss
Sun 9/16: New York Jets at Pittsburgh Steelers - Win
Sun 9/23: Pittsburgh Steelers at Oakland Raiders - Win
Sun 9/30: BYE
Sun 10/7: Philadelphia Eagles at Pittsburgh Steelers - Loss
Thu 10/11: Pittsburgh Steelers at Tennessee Titans - Win
Sun 10/21: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals - Loss
Sun 10/28: Washington Redskins at Pittsburgh Steelers - Win
Sun 11/4: Pittsburgh Steelers at New York Giants - Loss
Mon 11/12: Kansas City Chiefs at Pittsburgh Steelers - Win
Sun 11/18: Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers - Win
Sun 11/25: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns - Win
Sun 12/2: Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens - Win
Sun 12/9: San Diego Chargers at Pittsburgh Steelers - Win
Sun 12/16: Pittsburgh Steelers at Dallas Cowboys - Loss
Sun 12/23: Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers - Win
Sun 12/30: Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers - Win