"You are educated when you have the ability to listen to almost anything
without losing your temper or self-confidence." - Robert Frost

Thursday, September 6, 2012

2012 Steelers Season Preview

The 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers
Season Preview

 The Steelers organization hobbled into the 2012 off-season after an injured December and an embarrassing playoff loss to Tim Tebow and the Broncos.  Change began with the firing of offensive coordinator Bruce Arians (replaced by Todd Haley) and retirements of past pro bowlers Hines Ward, James Farrior and Aaron Smith.  And while the organization did its normal magic with the salary cap, free agency and draft, the lingering absence of Mike Wallace throughout camp kept negative attention on the team.

For all these reasons, the national media seems a bit down on the prospects of the Steelers repeating their 12-4 season a year ago.  Sports Illustrated has gone so far to degrade them to 8-8 and missing the playoffs.

I can’t deny there are real concerns with the roster this season that may or may not become so problematic to affect our record.  Preseason injuries to first round pick David DeCastro and third round pick Sean Spence highlight two positions that I think will be noticeably weak on game days:  offensive guard and right inside linebacker (“Buck”).  Spence was never projected to play strong side inside linebacker, but his loss further thins the group’s depth and will likely mean more snaps for Larry Foote.  While I have accepted Foote’s reacquisition in 2010 for depth purposes, I am greatly concerned at the idea of him getting 75% or more snap time on the defense.  Maybe Dick Lebeau will surprise me and scheme away from four linebackers at times, but history has shown him to sometimes be stubbornly loyal to slower veterans that understand his system.

At guard, the loss of Decastro means the reinsertion of Ramon Foster at right guard.  Foster was rated one of the lowest starters in the league by Pro Football Focus a year ago and I expect similar problems again.  Likewise, Willie Colon’s position switch to left guard as he attempts to come back from an Achilles tear is rife with uncertainty.  On some plays in preseason he looked woefully slow versus quicker 3-techniques.  The likely poor play at both guard spots will put pressure on Pouncey to try and do too much (like last year).  Overall, the middle of the offensive line is probably the weakest part of the team.

These are real concerns heading into week 1 of the season, before the grind starts to wear down and expose even more depth and roster issues.

Fortunately for the Steelers, this isn’t 1974 when being strong “up-the-middle” on offense and defense was almost a prerequisite for winning.  Today’s game is as much played outside the hash marks as in and on that front, the Steelers appear to have winning talent.

On offense, it will start and end with Ben Roethlisberger, his health, and his ability to run Todd Haley’s new system.  Last year the offense was woefully inconsistent with their ability to produce points.  Untimely turnovers, missed field goals and bad clock management contributed to an unheard of 16 trips into the red zone that produced zero points.  That’s a statistical anomaly that will not happen again, regardless of the offensive coordinator change (to put that into perspective the Steelers had only 18 trips into the red zone produce zero points in the THREE PREVIOUS SEASONS).

I fully expect some hiccups early in the season as Roethlisberger adjusts to the new play calling of Haley.  And with Wallace’s late arrival, there could be some mix ups in routes/passes.  But all signs point to a better offense and better points per possession than in 2011.  With Haley committing much needed practice time to the running game and screen game and with a healthy and talented stable of receivers, this should be an extremely balanced and potent attack that could hit stride following the team’s week 4 bye.

I can’t remember a time I was as positive about the skill positions as I am now with the Steelers.  Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Heath Miller, Rashard Mendenhall, Emmanuel Sanders, Isaac Redman, Chris Rainey, Jericho Cotchery, Wesley Saunders and Jon Dwyer all deserve touches.  All are legitimate NFL talents in my opinion.  All are under 30 except Cotchery (who just turned 30).  When people say the Steelers are “old”, it isn’t this group they are talking about.  While I understand both Wallace and Mendenhall aren’t under contract in 2013, that could benefit the Steelers this year as both look to increase their free agent value.

I am extremely anxious to see what Todd Haley does with all these “toys” and think the Steelers offense could be a much better unit than the nation media anticipates, even with the concerns on the offensive line.

The Steelers might need all the points they can get some weeks because the defense looks to be held together with duct tape, string and Dick Lebeau’s 74 year old mind.  The starting 11 on paper is still as strong a unit in the NFL.  While I have growing concerns with Larry Foote, this team is stacked with name recognition players:  Brett Keisel, James Harrison, Casey Hampton, Lamarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Clark, Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor.  And when these guys play together and have Lebeau’s guidance, good things normally happen.

It’s the other parts to the puzzle, the national “unknowns” that have question marks:

I am excited at the progress of the young cornerbacks:  Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown.  I am encouraged by undrafted Steve McLendon at nose tackle.  I am hopeful that first round picks Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward start providing some impact plays.  I am concerned at the backup OLB spots if Jason Worilds or Chris Carter have to play multiple games.  And I am downright scared if we lose Clark or Polamalu for an extended time.

Excited - Encouraged - Hopeful - Concerned - Scared

 I don’t know how many or how deep on that list we go this year, but I suspect we will face more than Steeler Nation wants to.  The key to our season and playoff success could be more a matter or when than if.

Last season, the team played only the first 4 games with James Harrison, Lamarr Woodley and Troy Polamalu healthy.  They generated a Lebeau-low of 15 turnovers.  And they still schemed a rather successful statistical season around that (4th in defensive passer rating, 8th in drive success rate, 3rd in points/possession).

Even with my hopes, concerns and fears, there is a part of me that says Lebeau and Tomlin will again easily scheme a top-10 defense.  That we’ll get enough mileage out of our 30-year old defenders and one or two young players will surprise more than anticipated.

And when you start putting together the likely statistical picture of this team, there is no way you get an 8-8 team like Peter King predicts.  There were too many negative, odd stats that should be corrected positively for the Steelers that will counterbalance the pessimisms the national media sees.

This team WILL score more in the red zone.  This team WILL generate more turnovers and not be minus 13 in turnover ratio.

Those two facts alone will make up a lot of other weaknesses.

All-in-all, the Steelers remain a title contender that when hitting on all cylinders is as balanced as any team in the NFL.  The top-end potential of the offense, defense and special teams is easily top-10 in all categories.  Key stats like passer rating differential, drive success rate and Football Outsiders DVOA continue to paint a picture of a solid and well put together team that will win more games than they lose.

Las Vegas likes us for 10 wins.  I say we finish one better at 11-5 and contend for a divisional championship and first round bye in the playoffs.  Mike Tomlin has overachieved in regular season win totals three out of the last four seasons and I see another successful campaign for him and the team.

Success in the playoffs will be much trickier to predict and I hope we can avoid health issues and/or a bad matchup that would lead to another embarrassing playoff exit.  The fact the regime of Tomlin/Roethlisberger has already lost to Del Rio/Gerrard and Fox/Tebow in the playoffs is bad enough.  When and if this team makes the playoffs, I will have higher standards regardless of peripheral issues.

It’s now time to sit back and let the story of the 2012 Steelers season write itself.  I’m excited and anxious as the season draws to its start.

Go Steelers!!!

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