By Matthew Marczi
For a team facing so much adversity in the past season and heading into the next with a litany of questions to address, it’s natural to consider the issues and how they can either go right or wrong, as well as how they will affect the broader dynamics and future success of the team, both heading into this season and into the future.
Though not statistically true, it is technically true that every team enters the offseason with the potential to finish the year as the league champion or as the first team on the clock in the next draft.
Some teams have a wider realistic range than others, and I think the Pittsburgh Steelers are one of those teams. Think of them as Schrödinger’s franchise; in February, they are both future champions and future owners of the top draft pick.
In order to gain a better feel for not only the issues facing the team this year, but how those issues might play out, it’s useful to take the devil’s advocate approach. This is the pessimistic side of the coin.
Question: What will the Steelers be getting from Maurkice Pouncey in 2014?
The Steelers were dealt quite a blow early in the opening day loss when All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey went down with a torn ACL as a result of a friendly fire incident. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley himself acknowledged that the team was still reeling from that loss for a while after it happened.
Whenever you lose an All-Pro player, it has a far-reaching impact on team dynamics on the field. While journeymen centers Fernando Velasco and Cody Wallace performed admirably overall, their physical limitations and lack of cohesion with the rest of the line were obvious, as neither were with the team in camp.
After landing on the All-Pro team in his first three seasons, he spent all but eight snaps in year four off the field, so naturally he’ll be looking to regain his status as arguably one of the top centers in the league.
But how realistic will that be?
It is true that he will be returning to perhaps the best scenario that he has seen since coming into the league. With guards Ramon Foster and David DeCastro, playing the best ball of their respective careers, flanking him on either side and new offensive line coach extraordinaire Mike Munchak leading the charge and hopefully understanding how to maximize his athleticism, it would certainly seem the line is finally poised to take that last step.
But while he’ll be nearly a year removed from ACL surgery once the year actually starts, it seems nearly assured that he will be impacted in some form. While players such as Max Starks and Casey Hampton were able to make relatively seamless returns the next year, their positions are rather immobile on the whole, which presents a different set of circumstances from what Pouncey will be facing.
More accurately, we all saw Heath Miller most recently struggle to return from his own ACL injury, missing the first two games of the year and subsequently lacking separation in coverage and poor footing as a blocker. Running back Rashard Mendenhall also missed the early portions of his return and suffered another injury while trying to compensate for his reconstructed knee.
While those two injuries occurred later in the year and Pouncey’s was early on, there’s reason to believe it will still be an issue. For one, his superior athleticism is a very large part of what makes Pouncey successful, not only in blocking players larger than him but also getting on the move and downfield.
There’s no telling how long it might take for Pouncey to feel comfortable on his reconstructed knee, and that’s a very important process for a center, who is literally in the center of the action. And center is one of the most important positions on offense, so if your center is off his game, your whole line might not be in sync.
The Steelers had better hope that Pouncey’s youth and athleticism will allow him to recover quickly and perhaps participate a bit in the preseason to get his sea legs back before the start of the regular season. Otherwise the team could be off to another rocky start, if he’s ever even able to get back into form at all. We’ve seen what this line looks like without a quality cener between Pouncey and Jeff Hartings, and it wasn’t pretty.