32 Teams in 32 Days: Pittsburgh Steelers
The 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers finished the season at 8-8, and it was the franchises’ first season without a winning record since 2006. With some of their star players on both sides of the ball missing time due to injuries, Mike Tomlin’s squad could not take the AFC North division crown from the eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens. They couldn’t even take a wild-card spot from up-and-coming division rival Cincinnati. This season, several key veterans were released. Even with a younger roster though, can the Steelers make it back to the postseason?
Five Reasons to be Confident
1. Big Ben
Ben Roethlisberger made a few terrible mistakes last season (his pick in the Dallas game and two picks, including one returned for a score, in the all-important second Bengals game immediately come to mind) but he’s still one of the better signal-callers in the league. In 2011, he earned our eighth-best passing grade (+14.4) with a 21 TD to 14 INT ratio. Last year, his first under offensive coordinator Todd Haley, he was tied with Eli Manning for our sixth-best passing grade (+32.3) with a 26 TD to 8 INT ratio. With that initial season with Haley under his belt, there’s no reason to think Big Ben still won’t give his team a chance to win every Sunday he appears on the field.
2. Lawrence Timmons
Lawrence Timmons was the best overall graded player on the Steelers’ D last year and fourth-best overall graded ILB. He’s above-average in every category — one of the team’s most productive pass rushers (including six sacks and 10 QB hits) and cover players (three picks, never gave up a TD). The Steelers also wisely refused to use him at OLB this year with injuries to Lamar Woodley and the now-departed James Harrison, which seems wise considering how impactful he’s been playing in the middle of this defense. The Steelers can be content with at least one great player in their inside linebacker duo.
3. Starting Secondary
Despite numerous injuries to their starters, the Steelers still had a top-notch passing defense last season, mostly thanks to free safety Ryan Clark (ninth-best coverage grade among safeties). Before being lost for the season in Week 13, long-tenured No. 1 CB Ike Taylor was still playing at a high level, allowing only 44.1% of passes to be completed into his coverage while defending 10 passes. With Keenan Lewis departing in free agency, alongside Taylor will be 2011 fourth-round pick Cortez Allen. Last season’s Secret Superstar, Cortez proved his worth filling in for Taylor in four of the last five weeks, and he earned a +4.1 coverage grade in that period (though he did miss the Week 15 game vs. Dallas). And there’s Troy Polamalu, who only played in seven games due to injury but still made an impact. Of course, the depth of this group is concerning, but at least heading into the season the Steelers should once again have one of the best pass defenses.
4. Antonio Brown
While Antonio Brown can’t scare defenses as much as the departed Mike Wallace, he’s proven his worth to the offense as not just a wide out, but also as a special teams returner. The former sixth-round pick from 2010 also improved after his 2011 season (he signed a contract extension before 2012). In 2011, Brown caught 58.3% of passes thrown to him, averaged 5 yards after catch per reception, and caught two TDs. Last season he caught 67.3% of targets, averaged 5.5 YAC per catch, and caught five scoring passes. The talented Brown also would have had a TD pass on his resume if a wide open Baron Batch wouldn’t have dropped the ball.
5. Steve McLendon Starting at NT
Pro Bowl NT Casey Hampton was a first-round pick in 2001 and has manned the middle of the Steelers’ 3-4 defensive line ever since. But Father Time had caught up to Hampton — last year he earned a +0.5 run defense grade, but actually graded negatively in this area in nine games (including three red-graded performances). He also struggled to rush the passer, achieving only a single QB knockdown and a pair of hurries in 233 rushing attempts. Enter NT Steve McLendon, an undrafted free agent in 2009. McLendon saw no snaps his rookie year and only 22 snaps in 2010, but got on the stat sheet in 2011 with 220 snaps at NT and LE with 13 stops, two sacks, (which also count as stops) and three hurries. Then last season he made a greater impact on less snaps (139). Despite only rushing the passer 73 times, he picked up three sacks, two QB hits, and three hurries, along with a further five stops (not including the sacks). With Hampton being released, McLendon signed an extension this offseason and is now the starting NT. Look for him to make an impact.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1. Protecting Big Ben
Big Ben has been one of the NFL’s most abused QBs in recent years, and this season’s young offensive line leaves plenty of room for concern. Undrafted free agent Ramon Foster has been solid in pass protection at right guard the past two seasons, but he’s being moved to left guard now — can he continue to hold off interior pass rushers in this new spot? Last year’s second-round pick Mike Adams was put into the starting right tackle spot last season due to injuries and, outside of holding up well against sometimes-fearsome pass rusher Ryan Kerrigan, was a huge liability (seven sacks, three QB hits, 16 hurries conceded in less than 300 pass-blocking snaps). Adams endured a stabbing assault in the offseason (he’s seemingly recovered) and will now be asked to protect Ben’s blindside at left tackle, though there’s little reason to be optimistic. Another former second-round pick, Marcus Gilbert, was good in pass protection at right tackle last season, but saw only 143 pass-blocking snaps. The team’s first-round pick from 2012, David DeCastro, a highly-touted guard coming out of college, suffered a knee injury in last year’s preseason and only played three games at right guard — he struggled to protect his QB. And finally, while 2010 first-round pick Maurkice Pouncey performed admirably in the middle of last season (aside from the first Baltimore game), there are still plenty of reasons to be concerned about this unit going forward, especially considering how much pressure the Brian Orakpo-less Redskins put on them in the second preseason game.
2. Safety Depth
The Steelers have had a great safety duo in Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark, but injuries have recently broken this pair up. Entering the league in 2002, Clark had his first two diagnosed concussions last season against the Redskins and Chiefs, while Polamalu played only 402 snaps over seven games. Perhaps Clark’s two concussions won’t happen again, but it’s likely Polamalu does have to miss time this year. Last season, the Steelers sorely missed their seven-time Pro Bowl safety, especially in the Week 3 loss to the Raiders where fill-in Ryan Mundy (no longer with the team) missed four tackles (including on Darren McFadden’s long TD run) and gave up a TD pass. With journeyman Will Allen also moving on, the depth chart now includes Robert Golden, DaMon Cromartie-Smith, Ross Ventrone, and Shamarko Thomas. Golden, an undrafted 2012 free agent, entered the Dallas game and quickly conceded a TD pass to Jason Witten. Cromartie-Smith was signed as a free agent in 2010 but has yet to play a single snap on defense, as has Thomas, a fourth-round pick this offseason. That leaves ex-Patriot Ross Ventrone, who didn’t appear in a single game last season. When Polamalu inevitably goes down, or if the Steelers end up playing a postseason game in Denver (where Clark can’t play because of a medical condition), this secondary will become significantly more vulnerable.
3. Missing Heath Miller
Tight end Heath Miller has been a significant part of the Steelers’ offense since he was drafted in the first round in 2005. Losing him to a knee injury in Week 16 was devastating, especially since it affects his availability for this year. Miller is currently on the PUP list, but even when he comes back, will he be anywhere near as effective a receiver? He was the eighth-most targeted TE last season, fifth in receiving yards, and second in yards-after-catch — losing that production will be costly especially with Wallace’s departure. Two other Steeler tight ends (David Johnson and Matt Spaeth) are also currently nursing injuries. The Steelers seem content with 2012 seventh-round pick David Paulson, who played 316 snaps his rookie year. Paulson caught seven of eight passes last year but will need to step up this year, especially early.
4. Lack of Pass Rush
The Steelers have seemingly always had a great pass rush in recent years, but that evaporated this past season. Fearsome blitzers James Harrison (now a Bengal) and Lamarr Woodley struggled to maintain their reputations due to injuries, as did 2010 second-round pick Jason Worilds, even though he saw a few starts. ILB Timmons was actually their most productive pass rusher last season, while four of their top six productive pass rushers were DBs. Ziggy Hood helped in run defense this year but still failed getting pressure on opposing QBs (three sacks, three hits, and eight hurries in 495 attempts is not a good return on investment). The Steelers drafted Georgia OLB Jarvis Jones in the first round, but it appears as though he’ll be backing up the disappointing Worilds. With most of their 2008 championship team roster gone now, Dick LeBeau and company will need to get better production out of this group in 2013.
5. Who is the Running Back?
As in recent years, the Steelers lacked a consistent, effective run game — this was one of the reasons Big Ben attempted the most passes for a Steelers QB in the first five games of the season in their team’s history. Part of that was Rashard Mendenhall, who was still recovering from a late 2011 injury at the start of the season. Even when he returned, Mendenhall couldn’t get it done. The Steelers were left with a running back-by-committee consisting of speedy ex-Florida Gator Chris Rainey, Baron Batch, Isaac Redman, and Jonathan Dwyer. Dwyer and Redman had some good games, but in the end it wasn’t enough. The Steelers injury-plagued offensive line didn’t help much either, but performance was an issue as well — in the Cleveland game alone this group (excluding Batch) combined for six fumbles (though Rainey fumbled twice on catches). Gone are the disappointing Mendenhall as well as Rainey (due to an off-field incident), while ex-Cardinal LaRod Stephens-Howling and second-round pick Le’Veon Bell are the new additions. Stephens-Howling had some impressive games for RB-starved Arizona, but he isn’t a full-time runner and already suffered an MCL injury in the preseason, while Bell, who many were excited about, has also already had injury issues this preseason. The “ground-and-pound” days of the Yellow and Black seem so long ago.
What To Expect
It doesn’t look good for the Pittsburgh Steelers’ chances in the rugged AFC North this season. The Ravens will obviously be a stern test and so will the Bengals. The Cleveland Browns could also be a thorn in the Steelers’ side. Pittsburgh split their season with all three of these division rivals and, with all of the weaknesses evident in this team, that same division record or worse seems likely for 2013. But they still have Dick LeBeau, who had his defensive unit near the top despite numerous injuries last season. And they still have Ben Roethlisberger. With those two factors, they can still surprise the league this season.
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