NFL Season Preview: The Pittsburgh Steelers
The Pittsburgh Steelers:
It has seemed like forever that the Steelers needed to make some major upgrades on their offensive line to improve run-blocking and keep Ben Roethlisberger from getting hit all the time. They did just that in the 2012 NFL Draft, landing two starters in the first two rounds in Guard David DeCastro and Left Tackle Mike Adams. I'm still astonished that DeCastro fell that far in the draft. While guard isn't a sexy position persay, DeCastro is one of the best to come out of college in a long time. He's a mauler who can run block, pull and protect the passer and should be a perrennial pro-bowler for the next decade. If I was the Cleveland Browns sitting there with the #22 pick I would have drafted DeCastro in a heartbeat because it would have A) Addressed a need B) prevented them from reaching for Brandon Weeden and C) prevent division rival the Steelers from drafting him. Paired with Pro-Bowl Center Maurkice Pouncey, the Steelers should have one of the better interior lines in the league. Mike Adams is another guy who could have conceivably gone in the first round but likely fell due to character concerns. He has the talent to step in at LT right away which is good because that position has been a revolving door of mediocrity for the Steelers the last couple of seasons. Willie Colon is likely moving to Right Guard which is fine as long as he stays healthy (a legitimate concern to be sure). Marcus Gilbert filled in very well at RT after Colon was injured last season and will open the season at the position. The overhaul on the offensive line should give Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense under new coordinator Todd Haley a lot more flexibility to do what they want.
Todd Haley flamed out as a head coach in Kansas City, but he is a very good offensive mind and will give the Steelers a more balanced running attack. Rashard Mendenhall will likely miss most, if not all of the season with an ACL injury he suffered in January but Isaac Redman has proved to be a more than capable backup and I think he can shoulder the load just fine. With the way the offensive line is looking, it'll be much easier for a one-cut back to succeed. The Steelers also drafted Florida running back Chris Rainey in the fifth round. Rainey is diminuitive but very fast and could make for a very effective change of pace back and pass catcher for PIttsburgh.
Pittsburgh's Wide Receivers have gotten a lot of attention this offseason. Hines Ward retired after an incredible career but it was time for him as he barely got any snaps last season anyways. Then there's the ongoing situation with Mike Wallace. The speedy wideout was a restricted free agent this offseason and wants a new contract (which he has admittedly earned). Stories are all over the place on what the Steelers have offered him and what kind of demands he wants but the bottom line is he is currently holding out of training camp. Should this situation continue Wallace could conceivably be out through even the preseason unless the Steelers trade him or they can come to an agreement. I personally think he'll be traded, particularly after the Steelers inked their other big time WR Antonio Brown to a $42 million dollar contract, but I don't think it's in the Steelers best interest to trade him necessarily. While there are flaws in Wallace's game (namely drops) he is a focal point of the offense, has developed a great rapport with Ben Roethlisberger and draws double teams consistently. Antonio Brown has absolutely the talent to be a #1 wideout but having those two play opposite one another greatly benefits them both. The Steelers might not necessarily be hurting if they trade Wallace but their offense likely won't be as potent. Emmanuel Sanders has been largely untested as a #2 although the ability is there. Solid, reliable TE Heath Miller should see more passes thrown his way this season because of the improvements on the OL; he had to block a lot last year to make up for ineffeciencies.
For the first time in a long time the Steelers defense might actually be a cause for concern. The starters are old and while they have spent some high draft picks on inevitable replacements I'm not sure any of them are ready yet. Nose Tackle Casey Hampton left the wildcard game against the Broncos last year with a torn ACL and the difference was immediate. The Steelers need that giant cog in the middle or their entire D is effective which is part of the reason Denver was able to move the ball so effectively. Hampton should be healthy for the start of the season but he's 35 years old. His backup Chris Hoke retired this offseason. The Steelers used a fourth round pick on Alameda Ta'amu, who has the potential to be a great Nose Tackle in the future but rookies rarely get a chance to play much in the Steelers complex defense and he might be pressed onto the field if Hampton's injury lingers. Two recent first round draft picks will vie for the two 5-technique spots; Evander "Ziggy" Hood and Cameron Heyward. Hood has had some starting experience but struggled last year and really doesn't offer much of a pass rush. Heyward didn't receive much playing time due to being a rookie but the potential is certainly there. He'll likely rotate with the aging Brett Kiesel.
The Steelers bring back three of their four starting linebackers from last season. James Farrior was cut due to age and cap room and Larry Foote is pencilled in to replace him. Foote is another older guy (32) and while he has experience and knows the system he frankly isn't that good anymore. The other ILB Lawrence Timmons is one of the better 3-4 ILB's in the league and doesn't get much credit. Outside Rush Linebackers James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley will continue to apply pressure on the quarterback although that is also predicated on how well the DL plays (the Steelers ranked 19th in the league in sacks last season). Harrison had a very solid year in 2011 but he's 34 and could regress soon. Woodley is an excellent player who contributed 9 sacks last season while battling hamstring problems. He'll be back at 100% this season. I expect recent third round pick Jason Worilds to see more action this year. He faired pretty well subbing in for Woodley last season.
The secondary could be a major concern. Troy Polamalu is still one of the top safeties in the league and had another great season but has had a series of concussion problems and any more could cause him to miss significant time, plus (is this sounding familiar?) he's on the wrong side of thirty. Free Safety Ryan Clark is 33 and regressing and they don't have much depth at the position. Cornerback Ike Taylor got torched in the playoff loss to the Broncos last year but will return as a starter. He's solid but inconsistent and also getting older. Opposite him will be Keenan Lewis, a mediocre corner who was picked on quite a bit last year. Of course, if the front seven plays well it will be much easier on the secondary but that remains to be seen.
The Steelers are a perrennial contender due to having a top 5 Quarterback and a very good defense. While their offense could be better than ever this year their is some concerns on defense mainly involving age, injuries and inexperience. They will contend and likely make the playoffs although the second half of their schedule is very rough: The Giants in New York, the Chiefs, the Ravens twice, the Chargers and the Cowboys in Dallas. Ultimately, I think this team has to be almost 100% healthy on defense to contend for anything beyond a wildcard spot.