Saturday, September 7, 2013

Working On A Dream: Pittsburgh Steelers Season Preview

The 2013 Pittsburgh Steelers are a drastically different group than the one that walked off Heinz Field after defeating Cleveland in a meaningless game to close out 2012. The Steelers team that will take the field on September 8, 2013 will have replaced veterans Charlie Batch, Byron Leftwich, Rashard Mendenhall, Jonathan Dwyer, Baron Batch, Mike Wallace, Leonard Pope, Max Starks, Willie Colon, Doug Legursky, Casey Hampton, James Harrison, Brandon Johnson, Stevenson Sylvester, Will Allen, Ryan Mundy, and Keenan Lewis. In addition to those players, 9 more that suited up for game action with the Steelers in 2012 are not part of the 2013 group: Chris Rainey, David Gilreath, Alameda Ta'amu, Marshall McFadden, Adrian Robinson, Justin King, Josh Victorian, DeMarcus Van Dyke, and Drew Butler. In total, 26 of the 67 players that donned a Steelers uniform in 2012 are not part of the 53-man opening day roster for 2013. There were a lot of players that were significant contributors in the past as part of the departed group, and with new players always comes uncertainty. Due to this, the Steelers have been "predicted" by the "experts" at anywhere between 6-10 and 12-4, depending on who you ask.

So where does that leave us? The 2013 group has proven to be a fluid bunch, even since the final cuts. The Steelers have made roster moves on the waiver wire, bringing in three veterans (OL Cody Wallace, CB Antwon Blake and P Zoltan Mesko) to plug some of the gaps in the roster. Two presumed starters (Le'Veon Bell and Heath Miller) are on the active roster but will not play in the opener against Tennessee because of injuries. Matt Spaeth, who was brought back as a stopgap at tight end in Miller's absence, is on the IR-Designated For Return list and is out at least half of the season. The roster will be a continually changing entity as the season progresses.

Ben Roethlisberger, Bruce Gradkowski, Landry Jones

Let's face it, if anyone other than Number 7 is under center, this team is in trouble. The team will go as Ben will go. In his 8-year career, Ben has 22 Fourth Quarter Comebacks and has engineered 29 Game-Winning Drives. That is good enough to rank him 4th amongst active quarterbacks in both categories. Last season, Ben threw interceptions late in both the Dallas and Cincinnati games that ultimately cost the Steelers the chance at victory. Last season was also a tale of two halves for Ben as he was putting up MVP-caliber numbers before the double-whammy of Antonio Brown's ankle injury and his rib injury derailed the passing game. If Ben is able to stay healthy all season and operate Todd Haley's offense as Haley wants it run, he could be in for a career year.

Running Back
Isaac Redman, Le'Veon Bell, Felix Jones, LaRod Stephens-Howling, Will Johnson (FB)

The position group with the most turnover has been the backfield with Mendenhall, Dwyer and Rainey replaced by Bell, Jones and LSH. The Steelers running game last season was the perfect storm of suckitude, ranking 31st in the league in runs up the middle yet running up the middle on 75% of their carries (the most in the league). The front office directly addressed this in the offseason, jettisoning offensive linemen that didn't have the quickness to pull, hiring a new offensive line coach to install the zone blocking scheme, and bringing in LaRod Stephens-Howling in free agency, Le'Veon Bell in the draft and Felix Jones via trade. The unit is certainly faster than it was last season, but with Bell's preseason injuries no one in the group has stepped up to take the reigns as the featured back.

Wide Receiver
Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery, Markus Wheaton, Derek Moye

The departure of Mike Wallace will hurt. Wallace had some of the best straight-line speed of any receiver in Steelers history. However, for the type of offense Todd Haley wants to run, Wallace was not a fit. Wallace did not have good feet and at times was agonizingly slow out of his breaks. Haley's offense is built around getting the ball out quickly into the hands of receivers that can make plays on the run. This was not Wallace's forte. Making plays with the ball in their hands is the forte of Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. Cotchery is a solid veteran who will see the field on third downs and running plays. Rookie Markus Wheaton has similar speed to Wallace but also can make moves in the open field to make defenders miss a la Brown and Sanders. Right now, Wheaton is not a better receiver than Wallace, but he will be a better fit for this offense. Moye (of Rochester High School and Penn State) ended last year on the practice squad and played his way onto the team in the preseason. He is the tallest of the group and could be used in red zone subpackages.

Tight End
Heath Miller, David Johnson, David Paulson, Michael Palmer

The tight end position is still a bit up in the air entering Week 1 and will be until Heath Miller returns to action. The Steelers used OL Kelvin Beachum in a few sets as the tight end during their third preseason game and it worked great. Using an offensive linemen as a tight end is something the Ravens and Bengals have done recently and Haley has used the strategy before in Kansas City. David Johnson's return from injury gives the Steelers at least someone who is a capable blocker at the position. David Paulson has great hands and could be a wild card in the offense this year, but he isn't a player you want protecting Ben against a pass rush. Palmer earned his way onto the roster with good catches, blocking and special teams play in the preseason. He is a seasoned veteran that can do everything.

Offensive Line
Mike Adams, Marcus Gilbert, David DeCastro, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, Kelvin Beachum, Guy Whimper, Cody Wallace

For better or worse, the Steelers young and athletic offensive line is in place heading into the 2013 season. The zone blocking scheme has been installed and with Adams-Foster-Pouncey-DeCastro-Gilbert in place, it will be all systems go against Tennessee. The line had some poor performances at the outset of the preseason, but looked increasingly better against Kansas City and in limited action against Carolina. The line play will improve the longer this unit is able to stay together, but that remains in question as Marcus Gilbert has ended both of his professional seasons on the IR and the backups on the team aren't exactly confidence-inspiring.

Defensive Line
Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood, Steve McLendon, Cam Heyward, Al Woods, Hebron Fangupo

Keisel is the veteran of the group and is the most consistent of the down linemen. However, his status as one of the team's star players has been built up by the publicity around his beard more than his play. He is a good player, but does not command double-teams the way Aaron Smith did in his prime. Hood and Heyward were both first round picks who are coming to the ends of their rookie contracts. Both of them have shown flashes in the past but will need to be much more consistent in generating pressure and in gap control against the run this season. McLendon steps in at nose tackle for Casey Hampton and is a slimmer but more athletic player. While Hampton was a plug in the middle of the defense, McLendon is capable of generating pressure up the middle and getting penetration to break up run plays. Against the outside zone schemes that many teams are running, McLendon's style of play should better match up against the opponents the Steelers face.

Outside Linebackers
LaMarr Woodley, Jason Worlids, Jarvis Jones, Chris Carter

LaMarr Woodley takes over the helm as the primary pass rusher for the Steelers this season and while he will stay at left outside linebacker, he will be called upon to produce more than last season when he was hampered by hamstring injuries. Worlids will start the season as the right outside linebacker, but first round pick Jarvis Jones is waiting in the wings. When asked about Jones' playing time in the opener, Coach said emphatically, "Jones is gonna play." And Jones deserves it. He was all around the ball in the preseason and looked every bit like the dominant player he was at Georgia that led the nation in sacks last season. It's only a matter of time before Jones takes over the starting role and Worlids is reduced to a situational rotation. Chris Carter is still on the roster despite not having recorded a sack in his 2 years with the team.

Inside Linebackers
Lawrence Timmons, Larry Foote, Kion Wilson, Vince Williams

Timmons is entering his prime and might be the most under-rated defensive player in the league. While he isn't talked about much amongst the elite players, he had the second highest Win Probability Added rating amongst all defensive players according to Advanced NFL Stats last season. Timmons' WPA led all linebackers and was second only to JJ Watt among defensive players. Foote is a solid veteran who is great against the run but can be a liability in pass coverage if he has to cover a back or tight end one-on-one. Wilson and Williams both made splashes on defense and special teams in the preseason, earning their way onto the team through a fierce competition of talented players at inside linebacker. Wilson's ability on special teams makes him invaluable on gameday and Williams was a 6th round pick who was the captain of Florida State's defense last year and could be the heir apparent to Foote on the inside.

Ike Taylor, Cortez Allen, William Gay, Curtis Brown, Antwon Blake

As long as this group stays healthy, the Steelers should not have to worry much about their pass defense. Ike is Ike. He is not going to come down with many interceptions, but his positional play is going to be solid. On the other side, many fans wanted to keep Keenan Lewis after the year he had last year, but Cortez Allen was banging at the door and after forcing 5 turnovers in the last 2 games, the second corner spot became Allen's to lose. An injury slowed Cortez in the beginning of the preseason but he is back in full for Week 1. The Steelers brought back William Gay, everyone's favorite whipping boy, to play the slot corner role. Gay should only see the field on 3rd downs and is much better playing in the slot than he is on the outside. Brown and Blake are both special teams aces but leave a bit to be desired in coverage. Blake was brought in off waivers to help bolster the special teams.

Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, Damon Cromartie-Smith, Robert Golden, Shamarko Thomas

If preseason is any indication, Troy Polamalu seems to be back to full health. If this is the case, the Steelers defense has a chance to return to its 2010 form when they were one of the most fearsome in the league. Polamalu's playmaking ability from stopping plays in the backfield to picking off balls has been badly missed the last two years as he has battled injuries and the defense has suffered. Ryan Clark has picked up some of the load but still looks for hits more than the ball. Golden saw some time with the team last season and has the athleticism to man up on receivers or play deep as a safety. Shamarknado was a 4th round pick and has primarily been used as a nickel back to cover slot receivers during the preseason and the Steelers may work him onto the field in "big dime" situations. Cromartie-Smith earned his roster spot through special teams play and atoning for a mental mistake with an interception.

Shaun Suisham (K), Zoltan Mesko (P), Greg Warren (LS)

Suisham had one of the best years of any Steelers kicker ever last year, only missing once from inside of 50 yards, converting over 90% of his kicks. Mesko was added to the roster off waivers after having punted for New England for the last three years. Mesko has averaged 44.2 yards per kick in his career and has experience kicking in bad weather conditions.

All in all, the Steelers have veteran starters across the board that are experienced and can carry this team to great things in 2012. The risk, and the danger, come with the young backups that could be liabilities if they are forced into extended action due to injuries. There is more uncertainty this year than in any other year of the Ben Roethlisberger era, but if one thing is certain in the NFL in 2013 it is that any team with a quality quarterback can make a run at the Super Bowl. The Steelers certainly have that and the defense will be good enough to keep them in games. If the defense can get back to creating pressure on opposing passers and generating turnovers, the Steelers are perfectly capable of a 12-4 season. If the team is wracked by injuries and winds up starting a slew of rookies and second-year players with minimal NFL experience, then 6-10 could happen as well. The glass-half-full types will tell you about how the Steelers starters could go toe-to-toe with anyone in the league while the glass-half-empty types will bemoan the lack of depth. As long as Ben Roethlisberger is under center, the Steelers will have a chance to compete for the AFC North crown. As teams have been proving since 2005, all you have to do is get into the playoffs, at which point anything can happen. No team has ever won a Super Bowl in September, and the fabric of the league changes every four weeks. The teams that will be good in September might not be good in December. For the first time in a very long time, however, the Steelers enter the season with a mostly healthy starting lineup. As it stands right now, this team is a work in progress. There is no guarantee that it will contend for a Super Bowl. But there is also no guarantee that it won't be right in the thick of the playoff race. If there is one thing that has always been true about the Steelers and about Pittsburgh in general, it is that we perform the best when we are counted out, when we are seen as the underdogs, when we have a chip on our shoulder. This 2013 Steelers team isn't the favorites to win anything, yet the talent is here and if it all comes together we could be right in the thick of another thrilling season.

2012 is in the past. 2013 is upon us.

Buckle up.

Here we go.

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