By Jeremy Hritz
Last year, I wrote an article on June 16th that examined ten questions facing the Pittsburgh Steelers heading into their season opener against the Denver Broncos, and for the sake of reflection, I decided to revisit those questions to see what answers worked themselves out. This article will be the first installment in a two part series, the second of which will take a look at the questions facing the team as they get ready for training camp next week.
My, how what is important can change in a year…
10. Who will be the starting five offensive linemen?
Like this year, optimism was abundant in 2012 regarding the offensive line due to the drafting of David DeCastro and Mike Adams. There was also an element of intrigue as a result of Willie Colon kicking inside to guard, a move that didn’t pay off as envisioned. And the speculation of the resigning of Max Starks was correct, as he rejoined the team and ended up being the team’s most consistent lineman at left tackle.
9. What role will Sean Spence play on the Steelers defense?
Sean Spence received high praise from both Keith Butler and Dick LeBeau prior to training camp last year, and there was a buzz about him possibly earning a starting job. Even if he didn’t start, he was expected to add an element of explosiveness to the defense, something that unfortunately was unable to come to fruition after a serious knee injury in a preseason game against Carolina. Now, it is uncertain whether or not Spence will ever play again, though Mike Tomlin believes differently.
8. Will Cortez Allen or Curtis Brown be able to prove that they are the better choice at left cornerback?
Cortez Allen had the best chance of unseating Keenan Lewis in 2012, but it didn’t happen. However, Allen did contribute as the third cornerback and generated some much needed turnovers late last season. Curtis Brown on the other hand, performed poorly in the preseason and has yet to play at a high level. 2013 could be his final opportunity to prove something before he gets the axe. While Allen didn’t get the starting hat last year, he is primed to start opposite Ike Taylor this season.
7. Will the Steelers offense master the Rosetta Stone?
The answers to this question based on the play last season is a mix of yes and no. The offense didn’t light up the scoreboard, and at its worst, it was a clunky, error-prone, and inefficient jumble. At its best, it was methodical, and it demonstrated what Ben Roethlisberger could do in a rhythmic system when the running game was on. Overall, the Rosetta Stone got the best of the Steelers, but that should change in 2013.
6. Will Chris Rainey live up to the OTA/Mini-Camp hype?
Chris Rainey made a few splash plays in the preseason that had everybody excited, but outside of a few decent returns in the regular season, he will be remembered more for slapping his girlfriend and getting cut than his quickness. Sadly, Rainey fumbled away his chances of meeting the lofty expectations of the media.
5. Which rookie free agent, if any, will surprise everybody and make the team?
Do you remember Marquis Maze, the wide out/return man from Alabama, or the unpronounceable Ikponmwosa Igbinosun from Southern Connecticut? They were rookie free agents considered to have a shot to make the team. In the end, they didn’t, and the two biggest surprises were safety Robert Golden, who earned some snaps last season, and outside backer Adrian Robinson, who has displayed excellent speed off of the edge during the preseason. Golden and Robinson are still on the roster and are expected to expand their roles this season.
4. Which draft pick(s) will get the axe?
Terrance Frederick, a cornerback from Texas A&M, was cut by the Steelers at the end of the preseason, as was wide receiver Toney Clemons from Colorado, who was later signed to the practice squad only to be signed away by the Jacksonville Jaguars. And as mentioned earlier, Rainey was cut, but for reasons not related to performance.
3. Can Ben Roethlisberger and Todd Haley co-exist constructively?
This was a big story last offseason, as many pundits predicted that the Big Ben/Haley relationship would be volatile. However, outside of some petulant comments by Roethlisberger late in the season, they seemed to work together just fine. However, another 8-8 season or worse, lowlighted by an anemic offense in 2013 could bring to reality the widely predicted fireworks.
2. Can the Steelers make it to week 1 without a significant injury?
An emphatic no. Injuries, more than anything, plagued the Steelers and their success in 2012. In addition to injuries to Spence and DeCastro last preseason, James Harrison was not available at the beginning of the season, and the early bumps and bruises were portents of things to come.
1. Will Mike Wallace report to camp on time and with a new contract?
This was the 60 million dollar question of the offseason last year, and it ended with a disgruntled employee indifferently fulfilling his obligation as a wide receiver rather than being an invested member of the Steelers. When Antonio Brown was rewarded a new contract, it all but signaled what was ahead for Wallace, and it offered a glimpse into what would be an awkward 2012 season.
These were the important questions for the Steelers, now with answers, from one year ago. Stay tuned for my follow-up which will examine what the essential questions are this year for the team as July 26th approaches.