The 2013 NFL season gets underway tonight, so now it's time for my yearly preview of the Pittsburgh Steelers upcoming season along with my prediction.
Offense: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger appears to be healthy, and he looks good physically. It goes without saying that the Steelers only have a shot this season as long he is stays that way. Roethlisberger is the king of third downs and play-action, and a good running game will only enhance both of those qualities.
The offense will likely have to lean on a running back by committee until Le'Veon Bell is fully healthy and able to carry the load. While Isaac Redman might be the starter initially, I expect both LaRod Stephens-Howling and Felix Jones to be used as complements to him until Bell is ready. I hate using a committee of running backs, but I just don't see any way that they can avoid it at the start of the season. Stephens-Howling appears to be a good fit for the offense, and he should see plenty of work on third down in the first half of the season. All four can run the outside zone, but they will need good blocking in order to have success.
Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth will surely be missed at the start of the season. It will be a plus if Miller can play before the bye week, but I can't help but think he will miss the first four games. I hope I am wrong. While David Paulson is an adequate receiver, he's still lacking a lot as a blocker. Being that both David Johnson and Michael Palmer won't produce much in the passing game, they better make their blocking contributions count. Make no mistake, it will be a bumpy road until Miller returns as the tight end group is average at best without him.
The hamstring injury suffered by fullback Will Johnson couldn't have come at a worse time. Johnson is not only a good blocker, but great out of the backfield as a receiver. I hope they don't rush him back as they can't afford for his injury to be one that lingers.
As far as the offensive line goes, we will know real quick whether or not Mike Adams and Marcus Gilbert are ready to live up to their second-round selections. Both were average during the preseason, and that doesn't give you a warm fuzzy feeling inside. I am not worried about the interior line as I feel Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro and Ramon Foster are more than capable in not only the run game, but pass protection as well.
This offensive line has zero depth and they really can't afford an injury. While Kelvin Beachum might be a jack of all trades, he is a master of none of them. I really only feel comfortable with him playing right tackle at this point, so an injury to one of the three interior positions could be brutal. Guy Whimper and Cody Wallace? You better hope that we never see either play.
The wide receiver group, along with Roethlisberger, is the strength of the offense. At some point, Markus Wheaton will pass Jerricho Cotchery on the depth chart, but don't underestimate what the veteran brings to the table on third downs and as a run blocker. Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders can each catch 70 passes this year, but they have to start showing that they are red-zone threats. With Miller sidelined to start the season, you have to wonder where the receiving touchdowns are going to come from as both Brown and Sanders have combined to produce just 12 of them in their first three years in the league.
Defense: The starting 11 players on defense should be fine this year, and the defensive line is deep at the end position. While Al Woods makes a great fourth defensive end, I really hope we don't have to see him play a lot of nose tackle because he doesn't have a lot of experience at the position. While nose tackle Steve McLendon should help the pass rush this year, there will be times against the run that he won't keep the linebackers covered up. He is a strong kid, but he needs work when asked to two-gap
I think LaMarr Woodley is poised for a big year, but the jury is still out on what will happen on the other side. If Jason Worilds wants to get paid by another team next year, he has to outplay rookie Jarvis Jones right from the start. That being said, Jones will see action this year, and it's only a matter of how much. As fast as he's progressed, you still have to think that he hasn't mastered the entire defense just yet. That will come, but until it does, I suspect he won't get as many snaps on defense initially unless Worilds falls flat on his face at the start of the season.
As long as Lawrence Timmons stays healthy, there's no reason to think that he won't be a beast in 2013. Larry Foote is another year older, but should have one decent season left in him. As long as he stays covered up, he will be fine. There is no experienced depth behind Timmons and Foote, so you better hope the two starters stay healthy. While I do think Vince Williams is the future, he will have his share of growing pains if asked to play a lot during his rookie season. Kion Wilson is unproven while Terence Garvin is a candidate to bounce back and forth from the practice squad. Should Sean Spence somehow make it back this season, that would be a huge plus.
As far the secondary goes, the starting four plus William Gay should be just fine. Behind those five, however, is a lot of inexperience. Curtis Brown hasn't proven that he's anything more than a special-teams player and while Shamarko Thomas looks like he has a promising future, he's yet another young defensive player who needs time and grooming. Any long-term injuries suffered by this secondary will be hard to cover for. Troy Polamalu has to stay healthy this year.
Special Teams: The preseason was used to weed out players and now Danny Smith has his guys. Don't read too much into the preseason because there was a lot of shuffling going on. Adding Zoltan Mesko should stabilize the punting and there is no reason to think that Shaun Suisham will backslide.
Thomas, Wilson, Williams, Brown will see a lot of time on special teams as will Antwon Blake and Chris Carter. I like this group and am expecting a few turnovers this season. More than anything, I can't see this group being as bad as last years.
Stephens-Howling and Jones aren't flashy kickoff returners but they are more than adequate. At some point, I fully expect that Wheaton will become the full-timer punt returner so that Antonio Brown no longer has to worry about that duty.
Schedule: This is a good year for the Steelers to have a soft schedule. While a soft schedule doesn't guarantee wins, facing a lot of young and unproven quarterbacks won't hurt. Their toughest opponents will of course be the New England Patriots, Green Bay Packers, Baltimore Ravens and the Cincinnati Bengals.
In order to win the division, the Steelers have to win four of their six divisional games. Outside of those six games, they will need to win at least five of the remaining ten games. They can make the playoffs with a 9-6 record, but they will be doing a lot of scoreboard watching in week 17 if that is the case.
Prediction: The 2013 version of the Steelers is not a very deep one, and that means they are only two or three injuries away from having serious issues. The move to youth had to happen at some point, and they can absorb that youth easier on offense than they can on defense.
Heading into their first meeting against the Ravens, this team needs to be no worse than 3-2. Going 4-1 in those first five games would be huge. Unlike last year, they have to beat the inferior teams without quarterbacks, so they must easily handle the New York Jets, Oakland Raiders and the Buffalo Bills. If they lose any of those three games, they will likely finish 8-8 or worse this season.
Because of their lack of depth, I have the Steelers going 10-6 at best this season. They will make the playoffs with that record, but the health of the team from that point forward will decide how far they go into the playoffs. If Roethlisberger stays healthy, he is good for eight wins, so I will add two more on top of it.
Can this team win it all this year? Anything is possibly when you have a great quarterback. Do I think that they will? No.
I sure hope I am wrong.