Join Date: Sep 2012
Steelers Season Preview
The Pittsbugh Steelers have as strong a tradition of winning as any franchise in this league, and Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin, and Troy Polamalu have spent the past decade writing another great chapter in it. The team hopes last year was just a blip in their long string of success, and that father time hasn’t caught up with them yet. Roethlisberger is a 2-time Super Bowl winner with a 69% career winning-percentage, and he is still as good as ever. Polamalu has shown some signs of age, but if he can stay healthy for a year he can still be a difference-maker. The Steelers are going through a transitional period, with franchise stalwarts like Casey Hampton and James Harrison moving on, and will be putting a lot young players on the field. The Steelers have a great track record of developing young talent through the draft, and could get a big boost from their latest recruits.
Running the ball between the tackles has always been synonymous with Pittsburgh Steelers’ football. When Roethlisberger won his first Super Bowl, the team used Jerome Bettis to wear defenses out and set up the passing game. Lately, the Steelers have been moving towards a pass-happy offense, playing to the strengths of their personnel. With a makeshift offensive line and a revolving door at the running back position, the team has become very dependent on Roethlisberger’s ability to make plays under pressure.
This year, we can expect to see a movement back towards the classic Steeler offense. With a nice group of young blockers, their offensive line figures to be a strength, and rookie HB Le’Veon Bell is the kind of power runner the team has been missing. Last year, the Steelers were excited about teaming rookie guard David DeCastro up with all-pro center Maurkice Pouncey, but their first-round pick missed his rookie year with injury. With both of them now healthy, the Steelers have the making of a dominant interior offensive line. Veteran tackles Max Starks and Willie Colon have finally been shown the door, with a pair of young 2nd-round picks slated to take over the starting spots. Both Mike Adams and Marcus Gilbert have plenty to prove, but they have the talent to be standout players. At 6 foot 1, 245 pounds, Le’Veon Bell has the size to wear defenses down with power runs up the gut, but also has the nimble feet and moves to break some long runs. He could be a liability in the passing game, but that’s where veteran Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer and Larod Stephens-Howling fit in. Dwyer is a power back with good blocking ability, Stephens-Howling is a scatback who can catch passes out of the backfield, and Redman is a big back who can do a little of everything. All three are valuable backups, but none can handle the workhorse job Bell is expected to take on.
Number 1 Receiver: WR Antonio Brown
In his rookie year, Brown endeared himself to Steeler Nation by catching a 58-yard bomb from Roethlisberger off his helmet on 3rd and 29 with 2 minutes to against the Ravens in the playoffs. He followed that up with two strong seasons as a starting receiver, but was always overshadowed by Mike Williams. With their big-play receiver now residing in Miami, the team will be relying more heavily on Brown to be their go-to receiver. Brown is a more complete receiver, possessing better hands, route-running skills and a willingness to go over the middle, but he is also a 6th-round pick with only seven career touchdowns. Defensive coordinators will be scheming against him, and he will need to produce anyways.
After Brown, the Steelers don’t have a bad group of pass-catchers, but they no longer have big names like Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress, and Mike Wallace. Emmanuel Sanders has a nice chemistry with Roethlisberger, and could be in for a breakout year as a starter. Rookie Markus Wheaton is a player to watch, as his speed, agility and football smarts could make him a high-impact slot receiver early in his career. Veteran Jerricho Cotchery brings steady hands and route running to the table and will battle the rookie for playing time, but both should see plenty of opportunities. Of the team’s top four wide receivers, Cotchery (6’1’’) is the only one of the group who stands at 6 feet or taller, making the rash of injuries to the team’s big receivers a legitimate concern. Plaxico Burress is out for the season, while tight ends Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth will both be starting the season injured. Miller is one of the league’s most under-appreciated tight ends and his return should give the team a boost, but the team will be relying heavily on Rookie David Paulson, a 7th round pick, until then.
A New Backup in Town: QB Bruce Gradkowski
A Pittsburgh native, Gradkowski has found a great situation for himself by going back to his home town. Ben Roethlisberger seems to constantly be playing through some nagging injury, and the team was never too comfortable putting the game in the hands of Byron Leftwich or the aging Charlie Batch. Gradkowski had some success as a starter in Oakland, including a memorable win against the Steelers, and gives the Steelers a guy who can make some plays in the absence of their star QB. Roethlisberger is reportedly feeling great entering this year, and the changes to the offense may result in him taking less hits and staying healthy, but it makes a world of difference to have a backup that can step in and win games.
Is it possible to make the Hall of Fame twice? Dick Lebeau, who was inducted into Canton for his work as ballhawking defensive back in Detroit, has had quite the second career. At 75 years old, Lebeau will be entering his 10th consecutive season as the Steelers’ defensive coordinator - a reign of dominance that has caused some to call him the greatest defensive coordinator of all time. In Lebeau’s attacking 3-4 scheme, the Steelers have consistently had one of the league’s stingiest defenses. His exotic zone blitzes give quarterbacks and offensive coordinators headaches to this day, as they continue to result in turnovers and sacks. By controlling the trenches and putting pressure on quarterbacks to take risks against their aggressive secondary, the Steelers have built a true defensive dynasty under Lebeau.
The Steelers have gone through more than one generation of great defensive players during Lebeau’s tenure, and may soon be moving on to the third generation. Players like NT Casey Hampton, OLB James Harrison, ILB James Farrior, DE Aaron Smith, and CB Keenan Lewis are now gone, and players like SS Troy Polamalu, FS Ryan Clark, CB Ike Taylor, ILB Larry Foote, and DE Brett Keisel are getting into their mid-30s. The Steelers need to get another year of strong play from that group, and need their young players to step into more prominent roles.
Player Spotlight: ILB Lawrence Timmons
Entering his seventh season, the Steelers’ 2007 first-round pick may be ready to become the face of the defense. Timmons excels as a blitzer and in pass coverage, making him the ultimate weapon for Lebeau’s in his zone blitz scheme.ILB Larry Foote shouldn’t be used as more than a 2-down run-stopper at this point in his career, but his chemistry and compatibility with Timmons make him valuable. Timmons recorded 106 tackles, 6 sacks, and 3 interceptions last year and could be even better this year.
Rookie to Watch: OLB Jarvis Jones
The last time the Steelers lost their starting weakside linebacker, they saw James Harrison seamlessly step in for Joey Porter and win a Defensive Player of the Year award. Jarvis Jones was one of college football’s most dominating players, but slid into the middle of the first round of the draft because of his poor measurables. It may have been a blessing in disguise, as he will be entering a situation that will give him the opportunity to be great. Jones’ ability to get to the quarterback should translate, and his feel for getting into passing lanes will make him a good coverage linebacker. Few rookies are as NFL-ready as Jones, and he could end up starting the entirety of the season.
Across from him will be OLB Lamarr Woodley, a seasoned pass-rusher coming off a down season. Woodley appeared out of a shape last year, but is only 28 and should be able to come back strong. If either Jones or Woodley struggles, Jason Worilds is an intriguing young pass-rusher who will be pushing for playing time.
Key Player: NT Steve McLendon
For the first time since 2000, the Steelers will begin the season with someone not named Casey Hampton as their starting nose tackle. Hampton dominated the trenches for over a decade, but his decline in play led to playing time for McLendon, who made the most of it. McLendon was signed and released 11 times by the Steelers in his first 18 months in the league, but can now rest soundly after showing he can be an effective run anchor and a disruptive interior presence. The Steelers also drafted Alameda Ta’Amu, a 350-pound mammoth nose tackle, who could get some playing time when the Steelers really want to stop the run. But make no mistake, the Steelers are expecting McLendon to step into the starting role with authority.
The Steelers are also in the process of rotating some youth in at defensive end. At 34, Brett Keisel may no longer be an every down player. The Steelers recognized this day would come, and spent two first round picks on defensive ends who fit nicely into their 3-4 front. Ziggy Hood hasn’t been a standout, but has proven to be a solid starter. Cameron Heyward has looked good as a reserve, and could see an increase in playing time this year. The defensive linemen in Lebeau’s 3-4 are expected to give a workmanlike effort without the possibility of much glory, but they set the stage for the playmaking linebackers.
Fighting Father Time - Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor & Ryan Clark
WIth three key members of their secondary on the wrong side of 30, the Steelers have to be wondering how many more years of quality play they can get out of these guys. For now, they are hoping for one more good year. Polamalu’s reckless style of play may have finally caught up with him, as injuries have kept him off the field and limited his productivity. Of course, a bounce-back year would certainly not be surprising from one of the great defensive players of his era. Polamalu is probably the most important player on this defense, and what he brings to the table in his 11th year could potentially decide the fate of the Steelers’ season. At his best, Polamalu is a one-man wrecking crew that seems to be everywhere at once. When off the field, the Steelers’ defense lacks punch and playmaking in the secondary. Ryan Clark is a steady player who hasn’t shown much effects from age, but he has always had some physical limitations. His game is more predicated on fundamentals, sound tackling, and good instincts, and his steady presence has been a great complement to Polamalu’s risk-taking style.
Ike Taylor is a wonder at 33 years old, as he has seemingly not lost a step and continues to be an excellent starting cornerback. The team will be counting on him again this year, as he will be in charge of covering opposing teams’ top receiving options. Stepping into the starting lineup will be Cortez Allen, whose strong play in his sophomore season has the team expecting big things from him. Randall *** knows the defense well and gives them another reliable option at corner, while Curtis Brown and Demarcus Van Dyke present good upside but have a lot still to prove. Two of the most intriguing young players on this defense are safeties Shamarko Thomas and Damon Cromartie-Smith. Thomas is bringing back memories of a young Polamalu with the way he runs around and hits people all over the field, and could be ready to contribute now. Cromartie-Smith is cousins with Antonio Cromartie and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and has the size, athleticism and range you look for in a free safety. In a few years, these two could be the Steelers’ starting safety duo.
K: Shaun Suisham
P: Drew Butler
PR: Antonio Brown
KR: Emmanuel Sanders, Larod Stephens-Howling
Antonio Brown is a very dangerous punt returner who is great at shaking tacklers, while Stephens-Howling and Sanders both present strong options in the kick return game. The Steelers kicking game isn’t a point of strength, and will hopefully not cost the team any wins.
Most years, the AFC North is a two-horse race between the Steelers and Ravens, but the division promises to be tougher this year. With every division game potentially being a tough contest, the Steelers will have to take care of business in their winnable non-division games. Road trips to play the Raiders and Jets should be easy wins, while home games against teams like the Titans, Dolphins and Bills give the Steelers a good opportunity to rack up some wins. Trips to Minnesota, New England and Green Bay will test just how good this team can be.