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: Are the Steelers in a good place from a health standpoint?
The Steelers may be due for a karmic season of good health, but that’s never stopped the injury bug from biting before, and it won’t stop now.
Pittsburgh lost two starters to season-ending injuries in the opener last year, and there should be cause for concern about how both of these players return from injury, though for different reasons, and one can be more easily replaced than the other.
All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey tore his ACL in that game (or, more specifically, right guard David DeCastro tore it). This isn’t his first experience with lower leg injuries, though it is by far his most significant.
While Pouncey is still a young man, even by NFL standards, there is no guarantee that even the fittest athlete will be back to full health after just a calendar year from having torn his ACL. And considering a big part of Pouncey’s game is his athleticism and mobility for the position, cause for concern is more than justified.
A key element within the notion of incorporating the outside zone into the offense was in fact Pouncey himself. The ability to successfully run these plays is predicated on Pouncey being able to take advantage of his superior athleticism to get out in front of plays on the outside of the tackle box.
The Steelers had no choice but to abandon this just eight snaps into the season, and the ability to revisit the idea rests entirely on whether or not Pouncey is up to it. Meanwhile, inside linebacker Larry Foote is coming off a year in which he missed 15 games due to a ruptured biceps, and he’s not getting any younger in the process.
Foote, a longtime starter for the Steelers, hardly ever missed a game throughout his career before basically sitting out a year. But because he was brought back to Pittsburgh as a backup, he’s only been a starter for one of the past four seasons, that being 2012.
Perhaps, like Aaron Smith, Foote’s body is slowly breaking down, and once that starts, the descent can happen rather quickly. Even if Foote begins the season as the starter, it may not be long again before Vince Williams has to step in due to injury.
The ACL injury that Heath Miller suffered in 2012, meanwhile, may well have permanently affected his play. He showed last season that he lost some speed he may never get back, and an inability to separate from coverage may only be a growing concern from here on out. His blocking had already been on the decline, but the knee only exacerbated it. Will another offseason be enough to get that knee in better shape, or will the Pro Bowl tight end only continue to decline?
Running back LaRod Stephens-Howling is another player who makes his living off his athleticism, and he also tore his ACL in the season opener. Can he show that he still has that speed and quickness that brought him to Pittsburgh?
Can the offensive line avoid the nagging injuries that have plagued the unit for half a decade and more now? Can Troy Polamalu stay healthy again, or was last year just luck? Ben Roethlisberger only has a couple seasons under his belt in which he hasn’t missed a game, and last year was one of them. Whether or not he can repeat that performance is just one of several health-related questions facing the Steelers this season.