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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.