Pittsburgh Steelers: 10 Most Positive Developments of the Steelers' Offseason
In a couple of months, we'll be drinking beer, eating wings and screaming at the television during Pittsburgh Steelers games.
Right now, however, it's still summer. So before the grind of training camp begins, let's chill out and reflect on the top 10 positive developments of the Steelers' offseason.
This ranked list should make for some feel-good summer reading by the beach.
10. Max Starks Signing
Max Starks is the Steelers' security blanket.
Even though their offensive line has become a lot younger and possibly a lot better, the Steelers can't say goodbye to the 30-year-old Starks.
The Steelers signed Starks to a one-year contract Tuesday, according to Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
But the Steelers don't need him to start. They need him for depth.
Marcus Gilbert, the Steelers' second-round draft pick in 2011, and Mike Adams, their second-round choice this season, figure to be the starting tackles.
If either of those guys gets hurt, or if Adams struggles as a rookie, Starks provides a better insurance policy than Jonathan Scott.
9. Leonard Pope Signing
The Steelers don't build their team with free agents. They almost never fail, however, to make a useful free-agent addition every offseason.
This year is no different.
Leonard Pope highlights the Steelers' 2012 free-agent signings. The 6'8" tight end should provide a visible target for Ben Roethlisberger in the red zone, where the Steelers struggled last season.
The Steelers were 18th in the NFL in red zone efficiency in 2011, according to Jamison Hensley of ESPN.com. They scored touchdowns on 50.9 percent of their trips inside the 20.
Pope is coming off his best season statistically. He had 24 catches for 247 yards, both career highs, for the Kansas City Chiefs last season. He caught 20 passes for Kansas City in 2009 and 23 for the Arizona Cardinals in 2007.
Pope won't necessarily be a focal point of the offense. Heath Miller remains the Steelers' starting tight end. However, Pope has played under new Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley every year since 2007. Haley was the Cardinals' offensive coordinator in 2007 and 2008, and he brought Pope with him when he became the Chiefs' head coach in 2009.
So Pope at least can serve as a Haley interpreter for the Steelers offense.
8. Addition by Subtraction
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was so blunt that it was almost funny when he assessed Chris Kemoeatu's play in December.
Tomlin said this after the Steelers guard committed three penalties, two holding and one illegal use of hands, during the Steelers' 14-3 win over the Browns in Week 14.
It wasn't just Kemoeatu's penalties that were hurting the Steelers. Pro Football Focus came up with a stat that measured total hurries, hits and sacks allowed per snap over the past three seasons. Kemoeatu was the NFL's worst guard in that category.
The Steelers had to purge their roster during the offseason to get under the salary cap. Some of those cuts were painful. Getting rid of Kemoeatu was a good move regardless of the salary cap.
Good riddance to punter Daniel Sepulveda as well.
The Steelers traded away their sixth-round pick in the 2007 draft to move up in the fourth round and draft Sepulveda, and they got only two full seasons out of him.
Sepulveda's career in Pittsburgh was marred by injuries. He missed the entire 2008 season and lasted just eight games in 2010 and 12 games in 2011.
The less Sepulveda played, the more successful the Steelers were.
They missed the playoffs in 2009 when he played a full season. They lost wild card games in 2007, when he played a full season, and 2011, when he played three-quarters of a season. They lost in the Super Bowl in 2010, when he played half a season. They won the Super Bowl in 2008, when he didn't play at all.
Coincidence? I think not.
7. Ben Roethlisberger's Going to Be a Father
So Ben Roethlisberger is going to be a father. What does changing diapers have to do with football?
Being a halfway decent father requires some level of maturity. The more mature Roethlisberger is, the less trouble he'll get into off the field.
Since his visit to Principal Goodell's office and suspension for what happened in Milledgeville, Ga., Roethlisberger seems more mature, at least in his dealings with the media.
That maturity is being tested with the arrival of new offensive coordinator Todd Haley.
If it were up to Roethlisberger, his buddy Bruce Arians would have remained offensive coordinator. But Big Ben didn't get what he wanted, and that's something grown-ups have to deal with every once in a while.
Now the 30-year-old Roethlisberger has to learn a new playbook. The mainstream media probably will have a story every time Roethlisberger looks at Haley the wrong way during training camp. But Roethlisberger is handling the transition and answering questions about it much better than the 2008 Roethlisberger would have.
To appreciate how far Roethlisberger has come in four years, take a look at this interview on NBC.
Besides, the challenges of being a father will make learning Haley's offense seem like, well, child's play.
6. Dick LeBeau's Staying
Guess who will be celebrating his 75th birthday in Denver on Sept. 9.
It will be Dick LeBeau trying to figure out how to stop Peyton Manning in the season opener, and he's the best man for the job.
The Steelers' defense ranked seventh in the NFL in 2002 when they finished 10-5-1 and lost in the divisional round of the playoffs. The unit slipped to ninth in 2003, and the Steelers went 6-10.
Then LeBeau became defensive coordinator in 2004, and the Steelers went 15-1 with the NFL's No. 1 defense. A year later, the quarter-century wait for One for the Thumb finally ended.
Since then, the Steelers have won one more Super Bowl and reached another one with LeBeau running the defense, and he'll be back for at least one more season, giving himself a chance to blow out those birthday candles after a Steelers win.
A spin-off to this positive offseason development for the Steelers is that linebackers coach Keith Butler turned down the chance to become the Colts' defensive coordinator so he could remain the heir apparent to LeBeau, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via CBSSports.com. Butler has been the Steelers' linebackers coach since 2003.
LeBeau won't be easy to replace, but at least the Steelers have a succession plan.
5. Jerricho Cotchery's Staying
Wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery drew interest from other teams as a free agent this offseason but decided to stay with the Steelers.
Now let's see what he can do with Hines Ward out of his way on the depth chart.
Cotchery had only 16 catches for the Steelers last season, but they all came in the last nine games when Ward's role diminished. Cotchery also had a 31-yard touchdown catch in the playoff loss at Denver.
Cotchery is currently in line to be the Steelers' No. 4 receiver, but that's assuming the Steelers and Mike Wallace end their contract dispute at some point and that Emmanuel Sanders remains healthy.
If one or both of those things don't happen, the 30-year-old Cotchery is capable of being one of the Steelers' top three receivers.
4. Nobody Signed Mike Wallace
This prolonged contract stalemate between the Steelers and Mike Wallace makes it easy to forget how fortunate the Steelers are that Wallace isn't with another team.
Any NFL team with a first-round draft pick could have signed Wallace during the restricted free-agency period. No team wanted to give up its first-round pick for him, so Wallace plays for the Steelers in 2012 or he doesn't play at all.
It's highly unlikely that Wallace will report to training camp on July 25. He hasn't signed his one-year, $2.74 million tender because he wants a long-term deal.
He could hold out for the first 10 weeks of the season and still be credited with enough service time to become an unrestricted free agent in 2013, according to Pro Football Talk.
Suppose Wallace does that and the Steelers only have him for the last seven games of the season. That means the Steelers would have him for their two games against Baltimore, although after such a long layoff he'd be more like Rusty Wallace when the Ravens come to Pittsburgh in Week 11.
Even in that worst-case scenario, Wallace would arrive for the stretch run of the regular season that includes five of the Steelers' six division games. Fitting him into the offense at that point could upset team chemistry, but he'd be a nice shot in the arm if the offense needs it.
3. Todd Haley Hiring
The Steelers needed to do something about their offense. New offensive coordinator Todd Haley should provide the necessary shake-up.
What was wrong with the Steelers' offense in 2011?
In five of their games, the Steelers barely scored enough points to beat teams with losing records. Here's a look at those games:
As painful and infamous as the playoff loss in Denver was, the Steelers were fortunate just to make it that far. If a couple of those nail-biters had gone the other way, the Steelers would have been home watching Tim Tebow.
Is Haley the answer? Let's look at his resume.
The Arizona Cardinals hired him as offensive coordinator in 2007 after two straight 5-11 seasons. They improved to 8-8 that season, including a win over the Steelers, and went from 19th in points scored to seventh.
In 2008, the Cardinals reached the Super Bowl after improving to third in points scored under Haley. The Cardinals' defense was 28th in points allowed. This was a 9-7 team that scored 427 points in the regular season and allowed 426.
It was Haley's offense that carried the Cardinals to within Santonio Holmes' shoelace of the Lombardi Trophy.
Haley might bruise a few egos along the way, but considering his accomplishments, why wouldn't the Steelers want this guy to run their offense?
2. The Draft
When Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert and head coach Mike Tomlin woke up on the morning of April 26, it's doubtful they realized how dramatically their offensive line would change over the next 48 hours.
But that's how the draft worked out.
David DeCastro is expected to start at right guard and tackle Mike Adams has a chance to earn a starting job. If both players start, the Steelers' last three drafts will have produced four starters on their offensive line.
If DeCastro and Adams both live up to their expectations, the Steelers' offensive line could become a strength for the first time since they won Super Bowl XL.
Ben Roethlisberger was sacked just 23 times that season, but since then he has been sacked more than any other quarterback in the NFL.
The Steelers might get not just starters but also offensive line depth from their 2012 draft.
Colbert said he's been impressed with seventh-round pick Kelvin Beachum, according to Scott Brown at Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Beachum has moved from tackle to guard, but Colbert says at some point he could even play center.
With that kind of versatility, the Steelers will have to find a spot on their roster for Beachum.
The more new blood on the offensive line, the better.
1. Kirby Wilson's Recovery
In January, Steelers running backs coach Kirby Wilson was fighting for his life.
In July, Wilson told WPXI Channel 11 in Pittsburgh, "I can't wait for training camp."
Wilson suffered burns on almost half of his body as well as smoke inhalation in a fire at his home Jan. 6, two days before the Steelers' AFC Wild Card game in Denver. He was hospitalized for three months, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and required multiple surgeries.
Yet somehow the 50-year-old Wilson returned to work in time to help the Steelers with draft preparations in April and took part in all the team's offseason practices. He used a golf cart to get around and screamed at the running backs as if nothing ever happened to his lungs.
Wilson is expected to make a full recovery.
So when the Steelers return to Denver on Sept. 9, all indications are that this time, Wilson will make the trip.
After all Wilson has been through, Peyton Manning doesn't seem so scary.