By Matthew Marczi
The Pittsburgh Steelers have had a lot of moving parts over the past few years as they extradite themselves from the services of many of the now-aging players that once brought them to the promised land twice in the past decade, and in sight of it a third time.
With that in mind, the team is now turning itself over to a lot of younger players, and whether they turn out to be the next bedrock of the organization or the reason the Steelers continue to miss the playoffs or sputter out in the first round may very well be on their shoulders. It may be harsh, but if the Steelers fail this year for any reason other than injury, the blame will probably be placed on these players.
William Gay: The favored flavor of whipping boy in Steeler Nation, it is actually true beneath all the vitriol that William Gay has a lot of shortcomings on the football field. He has been exposed on big stages and in embarrassing ways, from giving up three touchdowns to the as-yet-not-a-household-name Rob Gronkowski in a prime time game in 2010 to being run over by Adrian Peterson. That has not made it any easier on him.
However, from his short stature to his less than ideal speed to his lack of physicality at the line of scrimmage, Gay can be a high maintenance player as a nickelback in terms of shifting safety help his way. He was the defender on three touchdown passes during the first three preseason games this year, and while a lot of the blame could rightly be placed on the safeties on some of them, he was also the primary defender, and thus deserves blame. Given the amount of playing time he should see this year, Gay’s success or failure will go a long way to determining the fate of the 2013 Pittsburgh Steelers.
Jason Worilds: Entering his fourth season, former second-round pick Jason Worilds is finally no longer staring up at James Harrison. However, he now has Jarvis Jones breathing down his neck. Worilds has not always made the most of his opportunities. Harrison has missed eight games over the past two seasons, yet he only started one of them. In 2011, he missed four games with a facial fracture; Worilds just so happened to be out for those same four games. Harrison missed the first three games of the season last year, recovering from a knee operation; Worilds, too, was recovering from an operation on his wrist, and was limited to spot duty in those games.
When he has been in the game, he has done an acceptable job. However, my biggest concern is that he has played better, particularly as a pass rusher, on the left side than on the right. Perhaps the proposed rotation will work in his favor in that regard. Should Worilds falter and Jones is not quite ready to pick up the slack, the fault will be on the veteran, and not the rookie.
Antonio Brown: Antonio Brown had a breakout sophomore season when nobody really knew who he was or what he could do. Now, he is being asked to be the unquestioned number one threat for the Steelers in the pass game, which is a tall task for the former sixth-round draft pick. He has been the top target exactly once before, in the 2012 season finale, when both teams had nothing to play for, and that other team happened to be the Cleveland Browns.
On the plus side, Brown finally started, you know, actually scoring by the end of the season, ending the year with four straight games with a touchdown. On the other hand, he also had some key drops and mental errors at big moments in games, such as not kicking a fumble out of the back of the end zone for a safety, or inexplicably fumbling away receptions or punt returns. In fact, he fumbled four times last year. He still has some room to grow as far as maturity on and off the field goes.
Mike Adams: Mike Adams is a talented player with a lot of upside. Mike Adams has issues as a pass protector. Mike Adams was just moved to left tackle.
Mike Adams might get Ben Roethlisberger killed. The second-year player did not have a great preseason by any means, and it is clear that if he is going to establish himself as a legitimate franchise left tackle in this league, then it is going to be a process, and the Steelers are going to have to be patient. That process may play out this season, but by the end, it may already be too late. Especially with a quarterback who likes to hold on to the ball longer than normal, as evidenced in his injury in the Kansas City Chiefs game last season. Marcus Gilbert may also be somewhat of an unknown commodity, but he has had greater success as a pass protector in this league, and he is also not on the left side.
The Replacements: The Steelers face the possibility of being without their two most veteran and accomplished tight ends for a long stretch of the season, and will be relying on players with far less pedigree such as David Johnson, David Paulson, and Michael Palmer. Matt Spaeth will miss at least half the season, and there is still no guarantee that Heath Miller will be back sooner rather than later, or that he will not have any setbacks, as Rashard Mendenhall did last year. Will they be able to handle the load, and if so, for how long can they hold out until the reinforcements arrive?