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Steelers offseason: Turning depth from a negative to a positive

This is the time during the offseason, after you’ve just finished your OTA’s and mini camps, that you go back and study your roster, look at film and see just what kind of team you potentially have. With a 90 man roster limit there’s a plethora of bodies to choose from so deciding on a final 53 can be a daunting task. For the Steelers this season they are in some unfamiliar territory. Normally they enter training camp, which starts July 25th, with the majority of their starting linup intact from the previous season. The battles in camp would center around one or 2 starting positions but most of it was backup roles; guys fighting for roster spots. Now though there is much to still be decided both as starters and as role players.

The Steelers have always been a team that continuously built for the future, every year they draft players not necessarily to start right away but to be ready over time. Even first round picks don’t always start right away in Pittsburgh, and on defense especially they rarely start. Unless you have an injury situation, Dick Lebeau and his staff prefer to stick with veterans until the young guys get a chance to learn the complicated defense.

Eventually though, again sometimes sooner rather than later, that depth is going to be tested. Just like the old saying goes, “you’re only one play away from starting”.  While the Steelers have a been a team with depth over the years at certain positions, they’ve also had their issues on places like the offensive line and secondary especially. You can also make a case that they allowed themselves to get old along the defensive line until the last few years when they drafted Ziggy Hood, Cameron Heyward, and now this year with Alameda Ta’amu.

Let’s focus on the depth and see where this offseason has really benefited this team and how that may pay off once the regular season gets under way.

Offensive Line:  If you heard someone way that the Steelers offensive line has been a hodge podge of injured, underachieving talent you’d probably reply with a “so what else is new”, right?  Sean Kugler has earned every bit of his paycheck each season trying to find a starting five and then a host of backups that will undoubtably see significant action. Drafting Maurkice Pouncey  in 2010 was the first major step towards fixing this unit since Max Starks was drafted in 2004. Last season they drafted Marcus Gilbert out of Florida, a former teammate of Pouncey, to further being restocking this group with talent. Obviously players have paid off so far and have a bright future, thank goodness! Enter in David DeCastro and Mike Adams in 2012, a converted Willie Colon moving to Guard and suddenly you have the potential for dominance.

A healthy Doug Legursky and Trai Essex backing up virtually every position on the line, Jonathan Scott as a backup Tackle and for now things seem pretty darn impressive. Being great on paper is one thing but these guys will have to do it for real in just a few months. At least we have some big time talent to look forward too though and last years converted backups can hopefully spend a bit more time on the bench if you know what I mean. Staying healthy and on the field together is paramount to the success of the offensive line no matter who the final starters are.

Secondary: This one dates back to last season technically. So how exactly is last years #1 pass defense a negative? If you’re talking about Ike Taylor, Troy Polamalu, or Ryan Clark then no, it isn’t. However if you’re talking about unproven depth then it certainly was.  Now departed William Gay, who signed with Arizona, was the starter and while he did an overall much better season than in 2010, he wasn’t exactly a stellar shut down corner. Combine that with the unproven depth in Keenan Lewis, Curtis Brown, and Cortez Allen and things begin to come into focus more. Lewis was coming off a 2010 campaign that saw him land in Tomlin’s dog house during the preseason and pretty much stay there all season. The two rookies in Brown and Allen both spent the majority of training camp and preseason injured but did get some valuable experience as the year went on. Cortez especially saw action in the Steelers dime packages and seemed to catch on quickly to what was being asked of him.

Without the benefit of a regular offseason last year, secondary coach Carnell Lake didn’t have the luxury of time when it came to getting his young players ready. To their credit though all 3 players ended up with solid seasons, even with the rookies battling injuries from the midway point on in 2011. Now for 2012 they’ll take that experience from last year, add on a full offseason of work, regular training camp and presason, and hopefully take the next steps to their in reaching their potential in the NFL. It’s going to be a full on battle in camp and preseason for Lewis, Brown, and Allen, which is going to be great to watch. The defense overall is going to be the benefactors of that competition because no matter who ultimately makes it, they’ll have some serious depth ready to step in and take over if need be.

There are some that believe that Cortez Allen may be in line as a future starter to replace Ryan Clark, who’s deal is up after the 2013 season.  There’s no been no indication that they are leaning that way but based on what we’ve seen so far it could be an option the team could explore; he’s got very natural instincts, good hands, and good closing speed.

Inside Linebacker: The venerable James Farrior is gone now and some experts think the Steelers defense is in real trouble. After all replacing a guy like Potsie isn’t exactly an easy thing, however all hope is not lost. In fact I would argue the team has the potential to be even better now. For as great as #51 was, father time waits for no one and his lack of speed was becoming problematic so much so that he split time with fellow veteran Larry Foote. Linebacker by committee isn’t the worst thing in the world but you’d like to have some continuity at such a key position on defense.

Foote is penciled in to start opposite Lawrence Timmons, but 3rd year man Stevenson Sylvester and rookie Sean Spence out of Miami both give you hope for a bright future. While Foote is no stranger to starting, linebackers coach Keith Butler would love nothing more than to see one or both of his young players step up and push the veteran for playing time. To be clear, I’ve got no problems with Foote starting, the man is solid all around and knows the defense probably better than anyone on the field right now.

It wouldn’t be prudent to think that Sean Spence is going to start this year, or even play other than special teams. However we’ve seen time and time again that injuries can happen anytime, last years linebacking corp was a prime example of that. Should Harrison and Woodley miss any playing time this year like we saw in 2011, Timmons could slide back out which would give way to either Sly or Spence. A healthy and improved Jason Worilds would factor into that situation but again, never rule anything out.

The offensive line, secondary, and linebacker all were problematic areas for the Steelers in recent years but with young talent coming to the team this past draft and within the last 2 years, things are definitely on the upswing not only for the depth, but for the starters too. After all, they can go hand in hand on any given Sunday.

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