When the Steelers entered the offseason after that gut wrenching loss in overtime to the Denver Broncos last year, there was talk that things needed to change. Warren Sapp of the NFL Network called them “old and slow”, and the rise of Bengals in the AFC North had everyone wondering what the Steelers would do to keep pace.
There was no reason to go into a complete rebuilding mode for Art Rooney II and the rest of the front office in Pittsburgh, it’s not as if this team was really as over the hill and outdated as some seemed to think. However, there were some things that did need to change within certain aspects of the team. They started by parting ways with much maligned Offensive Coordinator Bruce Arians, and replacing him with former Chiefs Head Coach Todd Haley. Then came the purging of some familiar faces who have been staples on the field each Sunday for the last decade.
James Farrior, Hines Ward, Aaron Smith, and Chris Kemoeatu were all released as was Bryant McFadden. Each of those players had a big role in the Steelers Super Bowl titles in XL and XLIII along with the appearance in XLV. Father time though waits for no one and as late as 2011, these old veterans were seeing less and less field time either due to injury or just the fact that the players of tomorrow were beginning to take hold of their positions.
So where is all this change now that the final roster cuts have been made? All the new faces drafted this past April were poised to fight it out for starting positions or key reserve roles on the team. First rounder David DeCastro is on injured reserve as is fellow rookie Sean Spence. Even if DeCastro does return under the new injured reserve rules recently put in place, there’s no guarantee he’ll be starting this season.
In fact when you look at this roster, there are very few changes to the starting group from 2011, and most of the “new” faces aren’t exactly “new”.
Isaac Redman: He saw action every week but Rashard Mendenhall was the starting Running Back. Mendenhall can still return this year but there is no timetable as of yet.
Will Johnson: The new Fullback will take the spot held by David Johnson last season, but Johnson doubled as as a Tight End too.
Ramon Foster: The starting Right Guard for 2012 takes over for various names over the last 2 seasons that have held that position. He fought off competition last year to regain the role he filled in 2010 as well. Foster is no stranger to competition or the starting role, occupying that space 26 times over the last 3 years.
Willie Colon: The man who spent most of 2010 and 2011 on injured reserve is back; healthy and moved over to Left Guard. That space was occupied by Chris Kemoeatu, who’s injuries and knack for personal fouls were too much to overcome. Colon, a former Tackle, is an absolute mauler and flat out mean football player who has already shown that he’s ready to go at Guard this year.
Larry Foote: He takes over for the amazing James Farrior who was released. Both Foote and Farrior split time in 2011 in order to help add some speed to the middle of the defense as they tried to combat the short passing game so popular today.
Keenan Lewis: He figures to be the starter at Left Cornerback this season, a spot held by now Arizona Cardinal Will Gay. Lewis was the Nickelback last season.
Steve McLendon: He’s your new starting Nose Tackle on the Defensive Line or at the very least will be on equal ground with teammate Casey Hampton. McLendon worked hard this offseason, adding size and muscle to his frame while not losing the agility and power he’s worked so hard for. He was behind Casey Hampton and Chris Hoke in 2011 but now Hoke is retired and Hampton is still on the roster but McLendon has earned the right to more playing time.
Drew Butler: The rookie takes over for a merry go round of players that have Punted for the Steelers the last couple of years. Jeremy Kapinos figured to land this job but his back problems early in camp ultimately lead to his release.
Chris Rainey: The rookie speedster made a big impact in training camp and showed off his electrifying play making ability in the preseason. He’ll also be considered for the 3rd down back role with Baron Batch, a position filled by Mewelde Moore previously.
That’s pretty much it there folks. You say, well that’s a lot of changes. Technically yes it is, but these players have all been there already. With the exception of Rainey and Butler, everyone else is just taking on more prominent roles, or roles that they filled last season after the starter was injured.
There are other new faces in backup roles, which are still very important: Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown will be key secondary contributors. Leonard Pope will be the primary backup to Heath Miller at Tight End, and will be used in not only goal line packages but also 2 Tight End sets in the regular offense. Jonathan Dwyer had a great camp and preseason and figures to see field every week in tandem with Isaac Redman. On top of all that, when DeCastro returns to the lineup, and Weslye Saunders, it will be interesting to see what roles they play.
What can we expect from this years’ team? With so many familiar faces and a sprinkling of new ones, only time will tell. Are they playoff bound again,do they have enough in them for another Lombardi run? Based on the outcome of last season, the motivation is stronger than ever.