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PFT’s Preseason Power Rankings No. 6: Pittsburgh Steelers

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For much of last season, it seemed that the Steelers were destined to return to the Super Bowl, for the third time in four years.  But a stronger-than-expected season from the Ravens relegated Pittsburgh to a wild-card berth, and a game plan that grossly underestimated Tim Tebow kept the Steelers from advancing.

While it was the defense that failed the Steelers in the playoffs, offensive coordinator Bruce Arians got the axe.  After a clumsy, public exchange regarding whether Arians retired or was fired, it became clear that the Steelers finally decided to move on, and Arians promptly landed on his feet in Indianapolis.

The controversial decision to dump Arians against the wishes of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and to give the job to the son of long-time Steelers player and scout Dick Haley could go a long way toward determining whether the 2012 Steelers continue to perform at an elite level.

STRENGTHS.

Dick LeBeau’s zone blitz scheme still provides the framework for one of the best defenses in the league, but safety Troy Polamalu ties it all together.  When he isn’t making a big play, springing up from out of nowhere to snatch the ball out of the air or plugging what would have been a hole through which the ball carrier would have carried the ball, Polamalu is making quarterbacks and receivers and running backs worry about the possibility that he’s lurking.

When Polamalu is healthy, the defense and in turn the entire team operates at a higher level.  When he’s injured (whether playing through it or missing games), the team is different, and far less potent.

So with all due respect to the presumptive leader of every NFL team, Polamalu is the true leader for the Steelers.  And the organization and its fans should savor every snap that he has left in a career that begins its 10th season in 2012.

The linebackers continue to be another source of defensive strength, regardless of whether their success is driven by the scheme or whether they would be high-level performers in a different sysyem.  With James Harrison still having plenty of gas in the tank and LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons hitting their primes and veteran Larry Foote poised to slide into James Farrior’s spot on the inside, the back end of the front seven continues to be one of the strongest units not just of the Steelers but of any team.  Rookie Sean Spence could find a way to make an immediate impact, too.

On offense, the Steelers quietly have assembled one of the best collections of receivers in the league.  After 2009 third-rounder Mike Wallace emerged as a star in his second season, 2010 sixth-rounder Antonio Brown became the team’s MVP in his second season.  Throw in Jerricho Cotchery playing the Hines Ward role and  Emmanuel Sanders finding seams in a defense focused on Wallace and Brown, and the Steelers have a strong four-deep collection of wideouts.  (And, yes, Wallace eventually will show up and play.)

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is still one the best in the league, as long as the Steelers allow him to continue to do the things that have made him one of the best in the league.  With offensive coordinator Bruce Arians gone and former Chiefs coach Todd Haley taking Arians’ place, time will tell whether Ben will still be allowed to be Ben.

WEAKNESSES.

The offensive line has been a liability for years.  The fact that the team devoted its first two draft picks to upgrading the unit represents the latest concession that kicking the can no longer will work.

And so, as Len Pasquarelli of the Sports Xchange recently pointed out, a team that has started in Week One only three rookie offensive linemen over the last 45 years could start two of them when the Steelers visit the Broncos on September 9:  guard David DeCastro and tackle Mike Adams.

The could help turn a consistent soft spot into a strength.  For now, though, the fact that they could both start makes the offensive line stand out as a weakness on a team that doesn’t have many.

The retirement of nose tackle Chris Hoke and defensive end Aaron Smith coupled with a torn ACL suffered by nose tackle Casey Hampton in the playoff loss to the Broncos takes a major chunk out of the defensive line.  The Steelers hope that they’ll be able to fill the void from within, with players like Ziggy Hood, Cameron Heyward, Steve McClendon, and rookie Alameda Ta’amu.

With new offensive coordinator Todd Haley expected to re-embrace the running game, the Steelers need guys who can run with the ball.  Rashard Mendenhall is recovering from a torn ACL.  It’s unknown whether Isaac Redman or Baron Batch or anyone else can emerge as the go-to back.  If no one does, Haley may have to rely on a revolving door at the position.

CHANGES.

A franchise that reloads but never rebuilds, the Steelers will have to fill multiple chambers in 2012.

Receiver Hines Ward, who owns 1,000 career catches, two Super Bowl rings, and one Super Bowl MVP trophy, retired (after being unceremoniously cut).  Though they’ll miss his leadership, Ward’s production will be more than replaced by Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Jerricho Cotchery, and Emmanuel Sanders.

On defense, end Aaron Smith and nose tackle Chris Hoke retired, too.  The players the Steelers have drafted over the years will have to step up, and they usually seem to do.

Veteran Larry Foote and/or newcomer Sean Spence will have to replace James Farrior, a rare defensive anchor who became a star in Pittsburgh after starting his career elsewhere.

Free-agent departures included cornerback William Gay, running back Mewelde Moore, and tackle Jamon Meredith.  Moore was a reliable third-down back and substitute.  The other two shouldn’t be missed.

Perhaps the biggest change will be philosophical, if new offensive coordinator Todd Haley follows through on reported plans to tilt the attack toward the run and keep quarterback Ben Roethlisberger from extending plays (and risking his legs) by running laterally outside the pocket.  Don’t be shocked if the chatter is aimed at throwing defenses off the trial, with the Steelers ultimately doing what they’ve already done.  If, however, the offense changes noticeably and struggles, don’t be shocked if friction surfaces between Roethlisberger and the man who is replacing Roethlisberger’s close friend, Bruce Arians.

CAMP BATTLES.

With defensive end Aaron Smith retired, a pair of former first-round picks will square off to replace him in the starting lineup.  Either Ziggy Hood, drafted in 2009, or Cameron Heyward, picked in 2011, will win the job.  The guy who finishes second will likely still see plenty of action.

The departure of cornerback William Gay to the Cardinals creates opportunities for players like Keenan Lewis, Curtis Brown, and Cortez Allen to win the spot across from Ike Taylor.

The recent return of tackle Max Starks sets up a three-way chase for two jobs.  Sort of.  If Starks can win once again the starting job at left tackle, Marcus Gilbert and rookie Mike Adams can battle it out on the right side.  Or perhaps Gilbert will be the left tackle, with Adams serving as the right tackle.  With Jonathan Scott released, it’s likely that two of those three men will start, with the odd man out swinging as necessary from right to left.

Starting running back Rashard Mendenhall’s availability for 2012 is still in question.  As a result, the running back depth chart could be subject to change based on training camp and the preseason.  Isaac Redman has done enough to merit having the job on a his-to-lose basis.  And there’s a decent chance he will.

PROSPECTS.

The Steelers have a habit of overachieving when expected to struggle, and struggling when expected to thrive.  This year, it’s hard to tell exactly what’s expected of a team that won the Super Bowl four years ago, made it back in 2010, and seemed to have the firepower to return in 2011.

If new offensive coordinator Todd Haley tries too hard to change the offense too much and it takes too long to work too well, it could be all too exciting when cameras are trained on Haley and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger during their sideline, um, discussions.

And if safety Troy Polamalu can’t stay healthy, the defense will struggle.  Which will put more pressure on the offense.  And, in turn, more pressure on the forced marriage between Haley and Roethlisberger.

Coach Mike Tomlin’s ability to get the most (and then some) out of his players and coaching staff keeps the Steelers in the top 10 to start the campaign.  But things could get interesting — in a bad way — if the Steelers encounter adversity that they can’t overcome.

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23 Responses to “PFT’s Preseason Power Rankings No. 6: Pittsburgh Steelers”
  1. randallflagg52 says: Jul 22, 2012 8:14 AM

    You listed Troy Polamalu as a safety, I think you should have listed him as a linebacker. After all he is great against the run, but get’s torched far too often to be considered a good safety.

    Easily the most overrated player in the NFL.

  2. pizzon says: Jul 22, 2012 8:21 AM

    this team will be fine, ownership and the coaching staff along with clubhouse leadership dont allow for distractions or nonsense. the media is and always has been riding the whole Ben vs Haley thing in hopes of starting controversay when there isnt any. Haley brings toughness and discipline so how is that a bad thing especially considering this is part of the culture that was already in place. the Steelers will be just fine when all is said and done expect to see them again at the top of their division and competing for another Lombardi.

  3. zack2482 says: Jul 22, 2012 8:22 AM

    Most of these rankings are not bad, but this one is curious. The Steelers won’t beat 3 out of the 4 NFC East teams this years schedule. Not to mention, this is the first time in a long, long time that this division isn’t just a two team race. It won’t be easy anymore.

    They are old and starting to look like a 3rd place team in the North. They are not making the playoffs this year. Did they forget that they lost to Tebow in the playoffs last year? Tebow!!

  4. maozedarmiento says: Jul 22, 2012 9:04 AM

    I think the Steelers are underrated. Kinda strange to say about a team ranked 6th.

    But this team reminds me of the Steelers team that won in 2008. Similarly losing in the playoffs the year before (in 2011 to the Broncos, and in 2007 to the Jaguars), they have gone under the radar the following year.

    With Baltimore losing T-Sizzle (and Ben Grubbs via free agency), I think the AFC North will be the Steelers division in 2012. They are my pick to make it to the Superbowl as well.

    Hopefully my Eagles maybe one day will learn how to play defense and get there themselves for the Keystone state Suberbowl showdown, but thats just wishful thinking.

    #Pittsburgtherealdynasty

  5. thedudesnotin says: Jul 22, 2012 9:18 AM

    I can forsee a 10-6 season for the Yinzers.

    May not be enough to get a wild card. Not sure why that would equate to as high as a 6 ranking. They are getting old, and yes they had a pretty good draft overall, but, I personally do not see them any higher then 16th.

    Just saying. No hating.

  6. r66x says: Jul 22, 2012 10:18 AM

    They need offensive line to be good to keep Ben healthy. Polamalu needs to stay healthy too. This rating may be a bit high but Steelers are always good.

    Don’t see them making the Super Bowl….Ravens, Patriots, Denver, Houston are all capable of beating them.

  7. mcdenn519 says: Jul 22, 2012 11:39 AM

    If they stay healthy, they’ll beat anybody. It always comes down to heath with them.

  8. electionconfidential says: Jul 22, 2012 11:44 AM

    Rooney is the only owner out there betting against the passing game. If Haley focuses on the run like Rooney wants him too they won’t make the playoffs or certainly not as division champions. You’ve got really good receivers and a very good QB… use ‘em!

  9. samoanjungle says: Jul 22, 2012 11:45 AM

    I can’t see them being 6th. Too much change in the offseason, too much loss of leadership and too many guys over 30.
    They should have a great passing game though.

  10. johntonioholmes says: Jul 22, 2012 1:01 PM

    randallflagg52

    Has never been and will never be another player like Polamalu.

    The only player I’ve ever seen who can lined up at corner, safety, linebacker and d-line and make an impact where ever he is.

    When he gets on the line, the offensive lineman go after him and not the ends or tackles.

  11. fbgal0504 says: Jul 22, 2012 1:16 PM

    And anyone saying if we run the ball we will lose?!?! See, were the steelers….we run the ball down our opponent’s throats, granted we have been missing that part of our game for a while, but that’s why we got Haley……and if it doesn’t work we throw the ball to our young money receivers…..we are versatile!!!! No one trick ponies in Pittsburgh!!!!!

  12. londonbengal says: Jul 22, 2012 1:17 PM

    I predict the AFC-N is gonna be another slugfest this year. They all have real good top-ten type defences, and like to run the ball.

    Wouldn’t surprise me if all 4 teams finish with 7 to 9 wins this year.

  13. runtheball says: Jul 22, 2012 2:12 PM

    Polamalu is a unique player the most overrated player is Ryan Clark. He is too slow to cover anyone. His specialty is the big hit, but with the emphasis on protecting defenseless receivers and helmet-to-helmet contact it is a useless skill. Right or wrong 98 times out of a 100, it will draw a flag.

    This ranking seems fair. They may start slow with the new pieces, but inexperience as a weakness is much better than a lack of speed.

  14. kuta82 says: Jul 22, 2012 2:27 PM

    6th is too for a team is going down defensively. They are good offensively but I hope Wallaces business problem don’t drag em down..New OC is not an issue because they are a veteran team plus they all participated in the offseason workouts. I think they will struggle to run the ball. Their Oline will start off slow if they decide to start both rookies..last but not the least this division the most toughest in the league..its no longer Baltimore and Steelers coz the Bengals are on the rise and they’ve always found ways to get in between. I think cincy and bal will be too much for them but I won’t be suprised if it ends up being a 3team fight again

  15. mj1818 says: Jul 22, 2012 5:09 PM

    I would actually say at this point that they aren’t old with the exception of a few players. They have young inexperienced and unproven players.

    Zack, which 3 of the 4 NFC east teams are you referring to? The eagles? They had a good year last year.. The redksins? Yah they might lose to them on any given Sunday.. Cowboys? They had a solid year last year at 8-8. You must be thinking of the other 5 teams that had 12+ wins.

  16. walkingtalking1 says: Jul 22, 2012 6:43 PM

    Florio, you suck!

  17. ravenseattheirownpoop says: Jul 22, 2012 7:25 PM

    Steelers will prove everyone wrong again as the get their 7th superbowl win. All the Ravens fans will be saying “I hate them but damn do I respect them”!

  18. jr4real says: Jul 22, 2012 8:52 PM

    Even as a Steelers fan i think this ranking may be too high. But Florio loves the Steelers so i don’t mind it!

    But which teams in the NFCE are really going to beat them?

    Giants and Eagle could but I give it a split.

    Redskins: RG3 maybe can put points up but even with a good D they may struggle with Pitt O.

    Thats all the teams right?……

  19. joerevs300 says: Jul 22, 2012 10:54 PM

    I don’t see an in-between on this season.

    Either the Steelers offense will thrive under Haley, the defense will stay (relatively) healthy, and the Ravens will struggle without Suggs, etc. and they’ll go 12-4/11-5 and win the AFC North.

    Or the whole offensive experiment blows up in their face, losing nearly their entire starting DL and father time catches up with Harrison and Polamalu, the Bengals continue their improvement and they end up 6-10/7-9, much to the joy of NFL fans not part of Steeler Nation.

    So 10-6 and a possible WC birth seems about right as another poster said.

  20. steeelfann says: Jul 23, 2012 8:00 AM

    The Steelers could go either way. Remember, Harrison and Woodley hardly played together last year when healthy.

    Their middle 3 on the offensive line, Colon-Pouncy-DeCastro could be really something. Colon was one of the most effective tackles in the NFL before missing basically the last 2 seasons. He is fresh. He is going to be a nasty guard. Pouncy is a 2-time pro-bowler in 2 years, and DeCastro may be one of the NFL’s best guards by year end. Adams has the athletic ability they have missed for years at Left Tackle.

    If Harrison and Polamalu are healthy all year, i would say watch out. If not, hard to say.

  21. holeinone09 says: Jul 23, 2012 12:54 PM

    Can’t argue too much either way about the ranking. Haley’s impact will be interesting to watch, but I think overall it will be more positive than negative. Both the OL and DL will be major things to watch this season. The OL has the potential to be much better, but the 2 high draft choices are yet unproven. If the line gives Ben time to let plays develop for passes and opens up better holes for the run game, they can be scary on offense. While it is tough to lose the caliber of player like Smith (although he was injured a lot the past 3 seasons) and Hampton for some time this year, at least by Hood and Heyward have some experience. Losing Farrior won’t be that big a deal except for leadership, but they have enough other leaders on defense. If Woodley, Harrison and Troy can stay healthy, it will have a major impact.

    Getting excited about the season, and the chance to payback the Ravens and Denver.

  22. clashpoint says: Jul 24, 2012 12:52 AM

    I don’t get all this “oh they are too old” thinking.

    Offense:
    On the offensive line, the oldest players are Colon and Starks, and both should be right about in their prime. Their center is a 3rd year player and two time pro-bowler. Right tackle is 2nd year and one guard will be a rookies. Lots of youth. Their WRs are one 4th year, two 3rd years and cotchery who is in his 8th I believe. RBs are all young, except mendenhall who is in his prime.

    Defense:
    Of their top six linemen, two are older, and four are 4th year or less. LBs are a bit older, but Woodley and Timmons are right in their prime, and all the back-ups are young. At corner, only Taylor is old, the others are all very young. Safety is the only position that’s older and it’s stocked by a pro-bowler in Polamalu and a slightly older guy in Clark. Expect rookies there next year.

    They’ve had three straight really good rookie crops, including this one, that have supplied a lot of new players. This is not an old team, across the board. I’d say this just about the right ranking, although considering their off-seasons they could well be ranked higher than the ravens who after all finished with the exact same record as the Steelers last year.

  23. steviesteeler says: Jul 24, 2012 2:12 PM

    THE NFC EAST???? Really? Every year this is the most overated division in football. On paper it looks great then they collapse. After all the “Coughlin needs to be fired” is over the Giants come out of nowhere so maybe they beat the Steelers.
    “Steelers are getting old.” where are they old? They have one of the youngest offenses in the league with many players that haven’t hit their prime yet and the D will be much younger on the line and corners especially in the nickel. They have two linbackers, one corner, and two safeties that are semi-old… That leaves 6 young players with 5 vets. I LOVE THIS MIXTURE!
    And finally, when did the AFC North get 2 more good teams? The two Ohio teams have too many young players to be considered good yet. They haven’t proved anything. How can a person say the Steelers are too old to be good but the Ravens arent?
    I like the ranking and I think they have a big early season advantage since no teams will have game film on their new offense. It will be week 6 before teams can figure them out.

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