STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
One drive cost the Steelers the No. 1 seed in the 2011 AFC playoffs; a 92-yarder crafted by the Ravens in Heinz Field on November 6th that ended with a Baltimore touchdown with eight seconds left and a 23-20 loss for Pittsburgh. Despite winning 12 games for a second straight season, the team had to settle for a Wild Card berth. Playing on the road, where the Steelers suffered three of their four regular season losses, proved to be too much.
Truth be told, this wasn't a strong Pittsburgh team. QB Ben Roethlisberger fought through several injuries (sprained foot, broken thumb, high ankle sprain) and serious injuries to former Pro Bowl linebackers James Harrison (broken eye socket) and LaMarr Woodley (hamstring) greatly affected the pass rush, contributing to the defense's feeble total of 15 takeaways.
However, the main area of concern once again was the offensive line, which was nothing short of chaotic in 2011. With only two quality linemen, C Maurkice Pouncey and rookie RT Marcus Gilbert, Pittsburgh used 10 different starting lineups. The Steelers hope their first two draft picks, David DeCastro and Mike Adams, can make an immediate impact on an offensive line that has allowed at least 40 sacks for six consecutive seasons.
With the loss of key players including James Farrior, Chris Hoke, Hines Ward, Chris Kemoeatu, Max Starks, Aaron Smith and William Gay, there will be many changes this season. The Steelers will have to gradually work in younger players (as they did last season), especially considering their decision to virtually ignore the free agent market (as they did last season, as well).
Overall, the team's offense has become quite explosive in recent years, but will now have a new offensive coordinator in Todd Haley, who replaces Bruce Arians. The Steelers have a young and talented group of receivers, led by Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown. But, with Rashard Mendenhall trying to come back from a torn ACL, Isaac Redman must continue to prove that he is capable of starting and playing a full season as the lead running back. Otherwise, Pittsburgh's one-dimensional attack, coupled with an iffy front five, could send Roethlisberger to the trainer's table, or worse, the operating room.
For a team with three Super Bowl trips and two championships on its resume since 2005, the Steelers may not be in a true rebuilding mode, but it would be fair to characterize them as going through a changing of the guard.
Leonard Pope, TE (Chiefs)
Wherever Todd Haley lands, Pope follows, from Arizona to Kansas City and now Pittsburgh. If the Steelers revert to a more conservative offense, as has been suggested, he would complement Heath Miller in two-tight end formations.
David DeCastro, G, Stanford (Round 1, 24th overall)
The best interior lineman in the draft, he'll likely play right guard, moving Ramon Foster to left guard.
Mike Adams, OT, Ohio State (Round 2, 56th overall)
An inconsistent college career, plus he tested positive for marijuana. Still, the Steelers have a future starter on their hands if they can keep him focused.
Alameda Ta'amu, DT, Washington (Round 4, 109th overall)
Can hold down the middle in a 3-4 or a 4-3 defense. He'll need to with the loss of Chris Hoke and Casey Hampton.
Chris Rainey, RB, Florida (Round 5, 159th overall)
One of the true speedsters in this year's draft, his strength may be as a receiver out of the backfield. He could be Todd Haley's new Dexter McCluster.
James Farrior, LB (FA)
Someone needs to step up and replace the 187 tackles and eight sacks he racked up over the past two seasons. Larry Foote will get the first crack at the assignment.
Hines Ward, WR (Retired)
The long-time fixture on offense lost his starting job last November and quickly became an afterthought.
Chris Hoke, DT (Retired)
A classic role player most of his career, but the type of unsung 3-4 lineman that the Steelers defense is built upon.
In 2010, in just his second season as head coach of the Chiefs, Todd Haley directed an offense that led the NFL in rushing. Now the Steelers' offensive coordinator, Haley will try to invigorate a running game that faltered last year, ranking 14th in the league at 118.9 yards per game.
Although the ranking wasn't awful, leading rusher Rashard Mendenhall managed only 928 yards before suffering a torn knee ligament in the regular season finale. The Steelers feel good about Isaac Redman's ability to carry the rushing load (he averaged 4.4 yards per rush compared to Mendenhall's 4.1), and they like what they've seen of backups Jonathan Dwyer and John Clay. If fifth-rounder Chris Rainey, or Baron Batch who missed his entire rookie season, can complement Redman's power running with good receiving skills, Pittsburgh may not have to rush Mendenhall back prematurely.
CHANGE IS THE ONLY CONSTANT
"There's always going to be changes," coach Mike Tomlin said at the end of last season. "I am not going to sit here and pretend like there's not going to be changes." Not even Tomlin could have imagined the changes in store for Pittsburgh's offensive line, where the only set spot is center Maurkice Pouncey. Willie Colon or 2012 second-rounder Mike Adams is likely to start at right tackle since Tomlin confirmed that Marcus Gilbert will move to left tackle, replacing Max Starks. Doug Legursky won the left guard spot near midseason but is recovering from shoulder surgery. That opens the door for 2012 first-rounder David DeCastro to start at right guard, moving Ramon Foster to left guard. Should Foster, who is a below-average run blocker, end up faltering, Trai Essex could get the call.
ACL INJURIES ON A TEAR
The Steelers sustained an inordinate number of ACL injuries last season, an alarming trend that began in training camp with rookie running back Baron Batch, who landed on injured reserve. He was soon joined by offensive tackle Max Starks, nose tackle Casey Hampton and eventually fellow running back Rashard Mendenhall. Were these simply fluke injuries or the result of insufficient preparation and conditioning?
While some injuries cannot be avoided, there are preventative measures players can take to reduce their risk of ACL injuries, including training drills that require balance, power and agility.
Meanwhile, critics of Todd Haley's training methods have to wonder if the injury bug will only worsen for Pittsburgh in 2012. After all, Haley's Chiefs had ACL issues of their own, losing tight end Tony Moeaki, strong safety Eric Berry and running back Jamaal Charles.
RISING: Isaac Redman was deserving of more carries even before Rashard Mendenhall tore his ACL in the final regular season game. More of a power runner, Redman could be a top-10 running back in 2012.
DECLINING: Mike Wallace was spectacular the first half of the season, but a dud the second half when Antonio Brown came on strong.
SLEEPER: Emmanuel Sanders had injury problems but finished strong as the No. 3 receiver. If Wallace's contract issues linger, Sanders could benefit.
SUPERSLEEPER: Rashard Mendenhall is expected to return at some point in 2012, but when that will happen is in question.
James Harrison, LB
Co-leader in sacks with 9.0, despite missing five games due
LaMarr Woodley, LB
No misprint; he was the co-leader in sacks with 9.0, despite missing six games with a hamstring injury.
Troy Polamalu, S
Led team in takeaways, third in tackles in an "off" year.
RotoWire Rank: 7