As the offseason begins to wind down, the focus will finally make a welcome shift from personnel decisions to football. This was an important offseason though, because it isn't clear if this team is on the rise or on the fall. There is an interesting mix of youth and experience, depth and vulnerability at this moment. The success or failure of this team to compete for a championship over the next few years could depend upon the answers to a few key questions. These are my top questions going into camp (in no particular order)
1) Which is going to have a bigger impact on the effectiveness of your offensive line: upgrading your worst performer or losing your most reliable one?
Going into the offseason, pass protection was the big concern - at least for most fans. The way the draft shook out, little help was available there, so we picked up a free-agent who we expect to win a starting job, correctly watched a HOF LG walk for greener green stuff and blew a huge chunk of change for last years backup tackle. I'm not sure we did enough here. But, coach Z seemed to have a great impact on Starks and Essex last year - both of whom played pretty well in the Jville playoff game. Both looked really bad in the pre-season - so progress right?
2) Will getting a $100 million contract effect Roethlesberger?
His worst season was after winning the Super Bowl (and almost killing himself). He followed up that poor performance with his best season. You could make the observation that he has played very well when he has something to prove. He has the unquestioned commitment from the franchise, his first pro-bowl and a huge chunk of cash. I think he will be great, but others have fallen flat after getting paid (see Shawn Alexander)
3) How well did we pick last year?
The success of Timmons and Woodley will be a huge indication of how well this team will do over the next few years defensively. We addressed the future core of our linebackers last year in the draft - they have always been the focus of our defense. With future needs looming (d-line comes to mind), if we blew either of these picks, we could be set back quite a while. These two need to contribute in a big way this year if we are to reach our expectations.
4) Will Mike Tomlin show up on gameday?
Don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of Tomlin - so far so good anyway. But I was a little disapointed that he was so hands off during the games. He seems to completely defer to his assistants. That isn't a bad idea - at least with respect to Lebeau, but I guess I would want my head coach to have some sort of gameday presence. Other than making some questionable challenges, he didn't seem to be that impactful. He was a rookie - it wasn't his team yet, but he needs to grow and make a difference if we are to be championship caliber.
5) Can our D-line hang on.
What a difference we saw when Smith went out last year. We all know the front three have some miles on them (at least Hamp and Smith do) and the top five are pretty old for football. We may see an upgrade in the front seven due to the linebacker play of 56 and 94, but depth on the d-line is one of the biggest weaknessess of our team.
I have faith that we will progress this year. I don't know if we are a playoff team, given our schedule - but I always try to keep my expectations in check this time of year. As the chin put so well, "there is a fine line in this league"