It’s hard to believe the 2012 NFL season is already upon us, with the Steelers’ first preseason game tomorrow night against the Eagles. Those of us who are Steeler fans are itching to see what our boys are made of after the devastating playoff loss to Denver. We had always assumed that getting “Tebowed” was something that happened to other people, not us. Boy, were we wrong.
The main headline in training camp at this point is whether speedster Mike Wallace will play this year, as he is holding out in hopes of a lucrative contract, which the Steelers’ management has said is off the table until he signs his tender. He is arguably the fastest player in the league, and our offense quite simply would not be the same without him.
I can best describe myself as hopeful. While we no doubt are fielding a good team with a lot of strong points, there are some unanswered questions. What I am certain of and uncertain of are basically as follows:
1. Coach Tomlin will remain a force to be reckoned with as a coach. I mean, have you ever seen anyone able to keep his cool like this guy can? He has never panicked about anything, he has an incredible work ethic which he instills in his players, and he maintains an alpha presence on the sidelines that they legitimately respect. This calm was what allowed us to drive down the field in the final minute of the Super Bowl in 2009 and win the game.
2. Ben Roethlisberger will remind us why we have made him a franchise quarterback. The guy just wings it. Every freaking game. His protection will completely collapse, and he will still find a way to elude a gazillion sacks and throw a touchdown. How did he does this? Or this? Or this? In a franchise where uncertainty on the offensive line has been the norm for about half a decade now, the guy doesn’t let this stuff affect him at all. He thrives with his back against the wall. Thus, given the fact that the Steelers have beefed up the offensive line this offseason, who knows how much more effective he will be? Of course he could also falter with the boredom!
3. It’s still the Steel Curtain. Many commentators believe that age has caught up with the Steelers’ once (and still)-feared defense. They kind of looked like it at the end of last year. However, injuries played a big role in that. On the d-line, there is concern with the retirement of Aaron Smith, and Casey Hampton is aging. However, he is still a major force, and the line is anchored by Brett Keisel and His Beard, with Steve McLendon and Ziggy Hood providing awesome young talent. The linebackers lost the invaluable veteran leadership of James Farrior, but Larry Foote has stepped up, and recovered from their injuries is the unstoppable trio of Lawrence Timmons, James Harrison, and Lamarr Woodley. Ike Taylor and William Gay have proven mostly reliable cornerbacks. Ryan Clark is a hard-hitting free safety whose absence in last year’s playoffs proved costly. And as always, Troy Polamalu plays other-worldly, though not quite as well as at one time. Still, not every year will be 2008. And Dick Lebeau continues to lead the defense, with his incredible play calling and poise.
1. How will the offense fair under its new coordinator, Todd Haley? Bruce Arians (not exactly a fan favorite, but close to Roethlisberger) has departed, and he’s been replaced by Todd Haley, the former Kansas City head coach, and before that the offensive coordinator in Arizona who nearly defeated us in the Super Bowl. It rumored early on that there was bad blood between him and Ben Roethlisberger, but fortunately, that appears to be overblown. It is also rumored that he prefers a run-heavy offense, and wants to “rein in” on Ben. We’ll see if this is the case. First-year coaches can have trouble. However, many Super Bowl winners have had coordinators and even head coaches in their first year.
2. How will the Mike Wallace drama affect the passing game? With Mike Wallace refusing to sign his tender and holding out, this opens up many questions about how the receiving corps could be affected. Wallace is faster than a speeding bullet (I know, I know), and has become better in short and medium yardage situations as well. Hines Ward, a true Pittsburgh legend has retired, which means that all are hoping that Jerricho Cotchery will step up and take the veteran leadership role. Antonio Brown has signed a large deal. He has made numerous clutch catches, including this one and this one. However, I wonder if some of this success has come from opponents concentrating on Mike Wallace, leaving him open. Emmanuel Sanders is injury-prone. Rumor is that Todd Haley favors heavy use of the tight end, which could lead to further utilization of Heath Miller, in my opinion the most underappreciated Steeler. I really, really hope the Wallace thing sorts itself out.
3. The running game. This one could spell trouble. Again, word is that Todd Haley will use them a good bit more than Arians. And with the draft of numerous new offensive linemen, particularly David Decastro, there is hope that more holes will open up. However, Rashard Mendenhall continues to recover from an injury sustained against Cleveland on New Year’s Day, and may not return until mid season. Isaac Redman remains to be judged whether he can carry the load as the starter for an entire season. We released Mewelde Moore, in my opinion a very underrated third down back. It’s hard to make any judgments about Barron Batch, Jonathan Dwyer, or John Clay. Hopefully they blossom. But this is really sketchy to me.
While I am concerned about the issues on offense, the Steelers’ defense will keep the team’s head on the ground, and the resiliency they have shown in the past may come in handy this time, combined with the toughness of Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin. While we may not win the Super Bowl, I see no reason to think we won’t be a playoff team, possibly as a wild card, as I am wondering if this may be Cincinnati’s year to win the AFC North. I think the Steelers’ puzzle is mostly put together.