What kind of writer, blogger or so-called ‘expert’ would I be if I didn’t tell you my thoughts on how the Pittsburgh Steelers will fare this year and why? Normally, I really hate these types of pieces because it’s just so hard to see what the future holds especially as it pertains to injuries, team chemistry and the opposition. Nevertheless, I feel compelled so onward I go…
I’m getting this out of the way right now; I see the Steelers finishing 10-6 and it will be enough to get them into the playoffs. Whether or not it’s as a division champ or a wild-card I really can’t say, but I think they get in with some of it being due to a weakening AFC overall.
The Todd Haley offense has the opportunity to be special right off the bat. Yes, there will be some mistakes because of terminology or certain audibles or signals, but this team has tons of offensive talent and Haley will make sure Ben Roethlisberger has those weapons at the ready.
The receiving corps of Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery is arguably the best four-some in the NFL and throw in tight end Heath Miller and you have plenty of passing options. The running backs are solid and could be explosive. The hard yards will come from Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer while the lightning in a bottle will be Chris Rainey who will need to get touches every week. Rashard Mendenhall appears to be way ahead of schedule but I’m not sure when his first game action will be.
While the loss of first-round pick David DeCastro hurts the line and health is always an issue, the Haley system will benefit this group with a better running game and a quicker, shorter passing game. Second round pick Mike Adams is not ready to be a starter and will hopefully benefit from watching Max Starks play the position, but Adams has to be ready to go and it will start with his feet which must get better. If Maurkice Pouncey and Willie Colon can stay healthy this line has the potential to be very solid. Should they go down with long-term injuries, then my feeling is we will struggle to get to 10 wins.
Overall, this offense is going to be more explosive than people think if Haley is willing to stay three-wide and limit how much he ‘pounds the rock.’ The biggest impact with Haley will be in the red zone where his predecssor Bruce Arians failed miserably. Kicking field goals cannot be an option for this offense because I think we will need all the points we can get.
I am worried. I am very worried about this defense and I can’t be any more blunt than that. I have major concerns that James Harrison will not be 100% at any point in 2012 and have a feeling this is his last season in the black n’ gold regardless. His back-up Jason Worilds has not seen any action in the preseason either so that means Chris Carter plays. Carter rushes the passer well, but he will be a huge downgrade against the run. LaMarr Woodley appears to be healthy after last season’s hamstring issues and he’ll need to be because he is going to see the lion’s share of the double teams with Harrison out.
The depth at inside linebacker is suddenly small as well with rookie Sean Spence going down with a knee injury that will knock him out for the season. Your starters are Lawrence Timmons and Larry Foote with a less than 100% Stevenson Sylvester backing up. Former Bengal Brandon Johnson is getting a crash course to be up to speed on the inside as well. Dick LeBeau’s 3-4 is built around the linebackers, but I don’t think he had Carter and Worilds in mind to start the season.
The defensive line could be really, really good if everything falls into place. Steve McLendon is the man now at nose tackle. He had one of the best camps of any player and will be spelled by Casey Hampton who looked slow and rusty in his only appearance of the preseason but at his age it can be forgiven for now. Rookie Alameda Ta’amu seemed to regress through the preseason as he went from a guy who seemed to be powerful and agile to a guy on roller skates. The veterans need to get hold of this guy if they already haven’t. Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood may be called on to do more than just anchor the defensive end position. If the linebackers are struggling, they will need to get to the QB more often. Cam Heyward is coming along a little more slowly than I thought he would and needs to become more dominant.
Many people like the secondary’s current state and I wish I could share their enthusiasm but I can’t. Ike Taylor is still an excellent corner but he was flat-out abused in the loss to Denver in January and I’m wondering if age is starting to become a factor. Keenan Lewis will get the start opposite him and I believe the goal here is to let Cortez Allen improve his craft before eventually taking over that spot. Part of that equation is that Allen has shown a really strong ability to blitz off the edge when he’s in the nickel. Curtis Brown looked good at times during camp, but he looked bad at times too so special teams will continue to be where he makes his mark.
Much like I am concerned about the health of James Harrison, I feel the same way about Troy Polamalu who revealed this offseason that he believes he’s suffered five or so concussions over his career. With his reckless style of play I ‘m curious to see if he will be available for all 16 games. We already know Ryan Clark is going to miss the opener in Denver and he isn’t young any longer either. Robert Golden and Ryan Mundy are nice reserve safeties but I’m really not in a hurry to see either start long-term.
The final part of my concern is Dick LeBeau. He must create more ways to get pressure on the quarterback and must be more creative period. Sitting back and keeping the play in front of you only works so much before teams start to take advantage of you which happened against the Ravens twice and then against Denver in the playoffs. I wish there were more stability within some of the personnel but there isn’t and LeBeau has to adapt and that might mean taking risks. If the offense clicks early it allows him to do just that. If it doesn’t, it could be more vanilla defense in 2012.
The Steelers will go with rookie punter Drew Butler this year to handle those duties after Jeremy Kapinos was let go. Kapinos was a good find for Pittsburgh considering he twice had to relieve the injured Daniel Sepulveda. Butler was pretty good at times in the preseason but he will need to develop more consistency and most certainly he needs to improve on his ability to get the ball inside the 20.
Despite a brief challenge from rookie Daniel Hrapmann, Shaun Suisham remains the Steelers’ place kicker for this season. Sushi has shown tremendous leg strength on kickoffs and has kicked well in his limited field goal attempts in the preseason. As is always the case with Suisham, he makes most fans nervous any time he lines up outside of 40 yards so get ready for more drama.
Rookie Chris Rainey will handle the return duties and why shouldn’t he? He took two long returns back to the house last week against Carolina despite both being called back by penalty. Emmanuel Sanders could also see time in this capacity as well.
So Why 10-6?
I believe ultimately that the Steelers will be better and more efficiently balanced on offense this year, especially in the red zone. Don’t mistake this for “I advocate grounding and pounding.” I simply want to be able to run the ball effectively when we need to. I am greatly concerned about the offensive line’s overall health and I have little confidence in many of the reserves should they need to start multiple games. This will be the only Achilles’ heel for the offense as I believe they will be explosive in the skill positions and should average better than 20 points per game.
This defense will create plays and will create more turnovers than they did in 2012. They certainly can’t create many less. Don’t underestimate the loss of rookie Sean Spence because I firmly believe he was going to see significant action and now the defense finds itself thin at its’ most important position. This is exactly where I see the team dropping a few games they might otherwise win. The ability to stop the run will not be as good nor will the ability to get pressure on from the outside.
The schedule is not what I would call ‘brutal’ but besides division foes, the Steelers will have to deal with three great pass-rushing teams in the Giants, Cowboys and Eagles. Those three teams will test any offensive line let alone ours. I think the Steelers split with the Bengals and Ravens and will go two and two against the NFC East as well. As is typical, the Steelers usually lose a game or two they shouldn’t and out west at Oakland or a home game could be the likely candidates.