After a season in which they battled back and forth with the Baltimore Ravens for the AFC North crown, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2011 season will always be remembered for the highlight of Denver’s Demaryius Thomas sprinting toward the end zone to seal the AFC Wildcard win in overtime.
That shouldn’t, however, take away from another stellar season in Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin Era and, with the addition of new offensive co-ordinator Todd Haley, the offense has a chance to be even more explosive in 2012.
Today’s 32 in 32 looks at the reasons for Steelers fans to be confident of their team again rising to the top of the AFC North, and some reasons for them to be concerned that they might be losing ground with the top teams in the conference.
Five Reasons to be Confident
1) Big Ben
With all the praise being passed around to quarterbacks these days, Ben Roethlisberger almost seems to have been forgotten. Despite this, the two-time Super Bowl winning signal caller remains in the upper echelon of players at his position, and finished 2011 as our seventh highest graded quarterback. The season started with a poor performance in Baltimore, where he threw three interceptions and fumbled twice. Through the rest of the year, however, he graded below -0.7 just once, and had seven games with a grade of +1.8 or better. His ability to keep the play alive has helped Pittsburgh to many a victory during his tenure under center and if he can stay on the field–he’s missed at least one game in each of the past three seasons–he can help propel them to the postseason once again.
2) Brett Keisel
The main man along the Steelers’ defensive line last season was Brett Keisel, and that’s only partly to do with his facial hair. Over the four years since we began grading, he’s never finished lower than 16th among 3-4 defensive ends but this past season was by far his best. Finishing the season with a grade of +26.6, Keisel was even better as a pass rusher than he was against the run, finishing the year with three sacks, five hits and 23 hurries to go along with six batted passes. With concerns and question marks at the other two positions on the defensive line, a similar level of play from the 10-year veteran would be welcomed in Pittsburgh.
3) Outside ‘Backers
The early news after outside linebacker James Harrison’s recent knee scope has the Steelers optimistic that the 34-year-old will be good to go come Week 1. That’s good news as, despite missing five games last season through injury and suspension, Harrison was still good enough to finish as the sixth best player at his position. Finishing the season with nine sacks, 11 hits and 26 hurries, he showed himself to be as good as ever as a pass rusher. Opposite Harrison, Lamarr Woodley was solid enough to come in as our 12th best 3-4 outside linebacker last season, despite not having as good a pass rushing year as 2009 and 2010. He too missed time last season, but the good news for Steelers fans is that the coaches have indicated they don’t plan to move Lawrence Timmons back outside to cover any injuries this time round. That helps both inside and outside linebacker positions as Timmons, our highest graded inside linebacker in 2010, didn’t take to the move outside at all, grading negatively in every game at the position.
4) Redman Ready to Carry the Load
For some teams, losing their starting running back could be catastrophic. Fortunately in Pittsburgh they have a backup more than capable of filling in for injured starter Rashard Mendenhall while he recovers from the knee injury suffered in Week 17 last season. Isaac Redman finished 2011 as our 14th-ranked running back, averaging 4.4 yards per carry while forcing 20 missed tackles on just 110 carries. His power is illustrated by his impressive 3.1 yards after contact average and while he may not be among the elite running backs in the league, he’s really not too far off the level of Mendenhall. The Steelers offense shouldn’t struggle too much in Mendenhall’s absence and, despite giving them an injury scare of his own during training camp, Redman should be good to go before the season begins.
5) Antonio Brown
With all the drama of the Mike Wallace holdout (we’ll get to that later), Pittsburgh opted to re-sign their other budding young receiver, Antonio Brown, to a new contract recently. Not bad for a player who didn’t emerge as a receiver until Week 7 of last season but when he did, Brown was good enough to make a big impression. The shifty playmaker averaged 15.9 yards per catch in 2011, including an average of 5 yards after the catch, and had at least one reception of 19 yards or more in every game from Week 7 through the playoff loss in Denver. To top it all off, he’s a pretty good punt returner too, averaging 10.8 yards per return including one 60-yard return for a touchdown at home to the Cincinnati Bengals.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1) When does Mike Wallace show up?
Speaking of Mike Wallace, talk continues to be that he will report to Steelers training camp soon. Until he does, however, it’s fair to ponder how the Steelers’ offense would fair without him and, despite the emergence of Antonio Brown, Wallace is a huge part of what Pittsburgh wants to do. His speed alone is enough to beat many defensive backs, as his 95-yard touchdown reception against the Arizona Cardinals last year showed. Coming off a season where he averaged 16.3 yards per catch and reeled in eight touchdowns, it’s easy to see why he wants a big contract, however missing time when Pittsburgh has a new offensive coordinator in Todd Haley hurts both Wallace and the Steelers. Until he reports, the Steelers are minus their No. 1 receiver and the best deep threat on the roster.
Another recent story in Pittsburgh has been Ziggy Hood’s offseason dedication, swapping 18 pounds of fat for 20 pounds of muscle. An improved Hood would be a massive boost to the Steelers’ defense as the player we’ve seen the past two seasons simply hasn’t been up to the task after a rookie season that showed some promise on limited snaps. Until we see that improvement though, Hood’s starting position on the defensive line will continue to be a concern. Graded as our worst and third worst 3-4 defensive end in 2011 and 2010 respectively, Hood hasn’t looked like a player capable of filling Aaron Smith’s shoes. Can he turn the corner in 2012?
3) Opposite Ike
Ike Taylor is locked into one starting spot in the Steelers’ secondary but there are questions a plenty with the rest of the cornerbacks. William Gay’s departure has opened up a starting role that looks likely to be filled by Keenan Lewis. A third-round pick in 2009, Lewis was the team’s nickel back last season and his performance there doesn’t exactly fill you with confidence. Giving up a completion on 61.2% of passes thrown into his coverage, he allowed an average of 10.7 yards per catch and gave up two touchdowns. On the plus side, he got his hands on six passes, including one interception. Also on the roster we have Cortez Allen, last season’s fourth-round draft pick who only saw the field for 61 snaps but managed to allow a completion percentage of 81.8% when he did, and rarely used special teamers Anthony Madison and Curtis Brown. Brown was a third-round pick a year ago who failed to play a single snap on defense before a knee injury ended his season late in the year. Adding it all up, outside of Taylor, there is a real lack of experience at the position, leaving the Steelers to hope at least two of the younger players can step up in a big way in 2012.
4) Questions Along the OL
At PFF, we were glad to see Pittsburgh move to address the problems on their offensive line by using first- and second-round draft picks on right guard David Decastro and left tackle Mike Adams. The line, however, is still full of question marks as we head into the season. Adams appears to be locked in a battle with Max Starks to start on the left, especially after his scary preseason debut, while Marcus Gilbert, who had an up and down rookie season looks to be locked in on the right. Inside, former right tackle Willie Colon returns from injury with a move to left guard, while the other guard spot is manned by the rookie Decastro. Finally at center we have Maurkice Pouncey who, just like in his rookie season, was also very up and down throughout 2011. That’s an awful lot of new additions and position changes for one unit, but time will tell if the 2012 version of the offensive line can improve on a poor 2011.
5) Inside Linebacker
The good news for Pittsburgh fans is that Lawrence Timmons should stay at inside linebacker throughout the 2012 season, a position where he graded out as our best player in 2010. Next to him, Larry Foote replaces James Farrior, which isn’t so great when you realise Foote finished last season with a negative grade for both run defense and in coverage. A 10-year veteran, Foote missed six tackles last season while giving up a reception on 15 of the 17 passes thrown into his coverage. There’s not much of a drop off from Farrior, who also struggled last year, but don’t expect Foote to shine in a starting role.
What to Expect
There are some obvious question marks on the Pittsburg roster, and after comments last year about an ageing defense they haven’t become much younger on that side of the ball, but the fact remains that the Steelers will likely continue to push for a division title in 2012. With an offense that features explosive playmakers at wide receiver and a two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback, they are still a match for any team in the league on their day. While the Bengals joined the Steelers and Ravens in making the playoffs from the tough AFC North last season, look for the supremacy in the division to come down to Baltimore and Pittsburgh once again.