By Matthew Marczi
When the Pittsburgh Steelers take the field on Sunday to take on the Tennessee Titans in the season opener at Heinz Field, it will be a game of many firsts; indeed, far more than normal. With several new starters on both sides of the ball, the team will be fielding a lot of combinations that have never worked together in a regular season game before.
Of course, we know that the starting offensive line as it is currently formulated has never played together before. Mike Adams, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, and Marcus Gilbert all have starting experience to varying degrees, but as a unit, they have only put in exhibition time together.
The interior of the line did get some time together at the tail end of last season after DeCastro returned from his knee injury and Willie Colon was placed on injured reserve. The Foster-Pouncey-DeCastro unit started the last three games of the year, so that is a plus.
But DeCastro has never played with either Adams or Gilbert before, and the two tackles have never played together either, as Max Starks played every snap at left tackle last year. Of course, Adams has never played at left tackle in the regular season either, and that alone may be the most serious growing pain of the entire season.
But Antonio Brown is also being asked to step up into a bigger role than he has ever had before, and Emmanuel Sanders is now a starter in a contract year. It remains to be seen if they can make the transition from complementary pieces behind Mike Wallace to legitimate threats and playmakers.
On the defensive side of the ball, Mike Tomlin is entering his first season without James Harrison at outside linebacker, and he must turn to a pair of his own young draft picks to fill the void. Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones will split time at right outside linebacker as part of a three-man platoon—also a first.
One first that may occur later this year could very well be the first rookie defensive starter. Jones was likely not far off from starting the season opener befor an SC chest sprain limited him up until earlier this week. Pouncey remains the only opening day rookie starter, although others along the offensive line were forced to start as rookies. David Paulson also started the season finale after Heath Miller’s injury. Speaking of which, the Steelers will be starting a season without Heath Miller for the first time since he was drafted.
Another pairing that will see the field together for the first time is the starting tandem at cornerback. Last year, Cortez Allen replaced Ike Taylor after the latter went down for the rest of the season, so they never got the chance to pair up as the starting duo. Taylor has been singing the praises of the younger defensive back since his rookie year, so we will see just how much the student has learned from the master.
Of course, the other big change on defense comes from the meat up front. The Steelers are facing the first season without Casey Hampton since he was drafted, although he missed much of the 2014 season. Steve McLendon has exactly one start to his name in 37 career games.
Now he is expected to start 16 games. While there was some hand-wringing about the team’s failure to provide the young nose tackle with the number of snaps promised, the truth is that he will be seeing a workload he has never had to deal with before, and while he appears up to the job, it is never a guarantee. He is just one of at least six players—depending on the opening packages—that will be starting a season opener for the first time in their careers.