The Pittsburgh Steelers sport a talented roster with a championship pedigree, and the abundance of skill at key positions in the Steel City is demonstrated by the number of athletes to be selected for the Pro Bowl.
Since the start of the Mike Tomlin coaching era in 2007, the Black and Gold have proudly boasted a dozen such players, including:
Offense: Ben Roethlisberger, Heath Miller, Maurkice Pouncey and Mike Wallace.
Defense: Troy Polamalu, James Farrior, Casey Hampton, James Harrison, Lamarr Woodley, Brett Keisel.
Special teams: Antonio Brown
Of important note, the Pro Bowl Steelers have not included head coach Mike Tomlin or his staff members. Typically, a head coach losing his respective conference championship game has resulted in the consolation prize of readying the troops for the NFL All-Star Game equivalent.
Fortunately, in the time that he has patrolled the Pittsburgh sidelines, Tomlin's teams have owned home field, turning it into a true postseason advantage in an era that has seen more road team playoff success than ever before. In two AFC Championship Games at Heinz Field, fans have left violently torquing Terrible Towels and boisterously cheering another historical milestone.
So far, getting to the conference title tilt has meant winning it for Mike "mince no words" Tomlin, so the one Man of Steel whose trip to the Hawaii is predicated on big game failure shouldn't be planning on reserving those tickets anytime soon.
Interestingly, the acclaimed Steelers defense has stolen the local show over the last five seasons with a total of 13 selections across six players, led by Troy Polamalu's four appearances and followed by a trio of honors for James Harrison. Of those to be chosen, only James Farrior is no longer on the roster.
Until recently, only Big Ben, running back Willie Parker and tight end Heath Miller had represented the offense under Tomlin, but that all changed last season when the offense—albeit not on the scoreboard—began to see increased statistical production from a pair of young, rocket-fuel receivers. Along with Maurkice Pouncey's second consecutive honors, Antonio Brown (included, despite qualifying on special teams) and Mike Wallace's honorable campaigns evened the half-decade count between offense and defense to six players per side, though the offensive players have totaled eight selections.
That leads to a few interesting questions regarding the upcoming 2012 season:
Will the defense see a return to form as it concerns individual performances? Though the unit ranked atop the NFL in fewest yards allowed, only Troy Polamalu was selected for the Pro Bowl. Among former Pro Bowlers on the roster (Hampton, Farrior, Harrison, Woodley), the majority saw a decrease in many meaningful statistics. This includes Lawrence Timmons, who was absolutely robbed of a selection following his sublime 2010 season.
Can the offensive stars continue their Pro Bowl performances in a new offense, and can they make this translate into points, particularly in the red zone? While questions remain regarding Mike Wallace's availability, many fans feel the potential emergence of Emmanuel Sanders across from Antonio Brown should be another factor that compels Mike back to the team. Also, any number of other Pro Bowl candidates return: Big Ben (obviously), Heath Miller, Antonio Brown and some potential surprises—Jericho Cotchery and any number of offensive linemen.
Steelers fans should lick their chops at the prospect of the offensive line featuring more than just a Pro Bowl center as its keystone piece. If the offensive line can dominate to that degree, this should translate into more stability both in the run game and pass protection, both goals for a team desirous of controlling the clock and keeping its quarterback upright.
And, frankly, let's not forget how efficient play action passing makes a quarterback's stat line!
So, among the likely opening day starters along the offensive line, which linemen will make the Pro Bowl? And, more over, if they do qualify (cough! Here's looking at you, Pouncey!), will they be able to play?
MIKE ADAMS (T)
|MARCUS GILBERT (T)||10%|
|DAVID DECASTRO (G)||35%|
|WILLIE COLON (G)||5%|
Maurkice Pouney is a two-time consecutive selection who is a near shoo-in for the spot if he is able to stay healthy (and, as demonstrated in the past, even possibly despite injury).
Meanwhile, on the outside of the line, Max Starks resigned with Pittsburgh today, a one-year deal that leaves the option open for competition at left tackle, though it is likely his presence will be for occasional relief, albeit for the line's lack of professional experience or its bad luck with health in recent years. Only in the case of a serious injury (or disappointing performance) to Adams or Gilbert will Starks get the nod. Though he held down the fort nicely last season, nobody confuses him with Pro Bowl material currently.
Among the tackle, another year of experience for Gilbert should help his game to continue to improve, but the slightly higher odds go to Adams. I feel the season will unveil Adams as a huge steal in the second round of the draft, bearing out his superior scouting report to last year's pick, Gilbert.
Inside, Colon's move to guard should be a fine transition for a former tackle who many fans have clamored about the team moving to the interior of the line. Yet if there is one draftee from April who has the best odds of showcasing his supreme gifts, it is Stanford's David DeCastro, who will have fans watching in awe all season long; I promise.
At quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger has twice made the Pro Bowl, though last season's selection did not particularly correlate with his final numbers. No. 7 has been far more efficient in former seasons, and the Steelers are hoping he can get back to the average yards per pass and touchdown:interception ratio that will propel him from the list of Tier 1B quarterbacks and into Tier 1A.
Consider Ben's two Pro Bowl seasons against each other, along with a non-Pro Bowl campaign, and you will see how his honors last year were a bit deceptive:
2007*: 32 TD, 11 INT, 104.1 QBR
2008: 4,328 YD, 26 TD, 12 INT, 8.6 YPA, 100.5 QBR
2011*: 4,077 TD, 21 TD, 14 INT, 7.9 YPA, 90.1 QBR
*-Pro Bowl qualifying seasons
In his first season being honors, Ben threw touchdowns on over seven percent of his passes; last season, the number dipped to four percent, largely due to inefficiency in the red zone and lack of a play action threat in many games.
Fortunately, with an improved line, my predicted return of Mike Wallace, and continued development with his weapons (including red zone weapons Miller and Cotchery), I suspect Ben is on track for a career season and another Pro Bowl.
In predicting the stats for every offensive skill player this coming season, I projected Ben's line to look as follows across an estimated 15 games:
325-of-493 (comp/att); 4,250 yds; 66%, 8.6 ypa, 27 TD, 10 INT, 28 sacks
Below, I list my projections for the receivers and running backs:
Isaac Redman: 240 att; 1,056 yds; 4.4 yds/att; 10 TD
Jonathan Dwyer: 65 att; 227 yds; 3.5 yds/att; 2 TD
Rashard Mendenhall: 70 att; 266 yds; 3.8 yds/att; 2 TD
Baron Batch and/or Chris Rainey: 48 att; 220 yds; 4.6 yds/att; 2 TD; 33 rec; 380 yds; 5 TD
Mike Wallace: 69 rec; 1,180 yds, 17.1 yds/rec; 8 TD
Antonio Brown: 78 rec; 1,180 yds; 15.1 yds/rec; 6 TD
Emmanuel Sanders: 24 rec; 300 yds; 12.5 yds/rec; TD
Jericho Cotchery: 43 rec; 620 yds; 14.4 yds/rec; 3 TD
Heath Miller: 50 rec; 620 yds; 12.4 yds/rec; 5 TD
So, among the nine listed skill players above, which have the highest Pro Bowl odds?
Isaac Redman promised to see the bulk of carries, being the lone truly experienced back on the roster in light of the current injury to Mendenhall and relative youth at the position. While the runner's combination of brute force and finesse caught the eye of Steeler Nation last season, particularly in averaging over seven yards per carry in his final two games, it seems unlikely—even behind an improved line—that he'll qualify for the Pro Bowl. He should narrowly eclipse the century mark, but with such depth at the position, he'll wisely share carries with a few other potential playmakers.
Both Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown have a solid shot at honors, provided that the former gets on the field in the near future and is ready to contribute immediately. Logically, it only hurts him not to show up and produce.
Last year, Brown finished with more catches and yards despite his production started later in the season than his peers, but he only found the end zone twice, opposed to eight scores for No. 17.
This season, with his dedication exclusively on receiving, I suspect that touchdown gap to be closed, though not fully. Despite similar stats, only one of these players made it to the Pro Bowl last year. I'm 80 percent certain one or the other will make it again, but odds of both seems slim. As such, dividing 80 percent by two and tacking on a few extra percent provides me with the chances for each receiver. Slight odds favor the receiver who is currently playing.
Finishing out the receiving class, Emmanuel Sanders and Jericho Cotchery are extreme long shots, unless Mike Wallace opts not to play. Then, all bets are off. But, assuming he comes to his senses, the focus for these two receivers should be the ring that comes one week later. Increased production from either will help facilitate that dream into becoming a reality.
Heath Miller's lone Pro Bowl year saw the tight end finish with 76 catches (25 higher than his second-best effort), nearly 800 yards and six touchdowns. While being a well-rounded, blue-collar athlete at the position causes salivation in the Steel City, it barely blips on the radar elsewhere... sadly! With totals comparable to last year, I predict Heath could be on the outside of the Pro Bowl picture looking in, though an increase in touchdowns due to red zone targeting should help his cause a bit.
|BARON BATCH OR CHRIS RAINEY (RB)||3%|
|CHRIS RAINEY (ST)||25%|
|EMMANUEL SANDERS (w/ Wallace, then w/o)||2%/20%|
As for the defense, they are a unit that led the league in total yards surrendered last season, anchored by the top-ranked backfield in the NFL. However, things fell apart in the postseason, the defensive front surrendered four yards per carry and the unit sent only one player to the Pro Bowl.
Not surprisingly, it was Pro Bowl safety, surrogate linebacker/corner/lineman and chaos-creator Troy Polamalu whose season statistics could have been far more gaudy if a total of approximately 12inches across the entire campaign had worked out more in his favor.
Despite a season of almost, No. 43 wasn't ALMOST a Pro Bowl player in 2011; he was one.
Many wonder if the Steelers defense, rife with new faces (or at least new starters) will be able to continue their dominance of the millennium to-date.
This first hinges on the keystone of the defensive front, nose tackle. Casey Hampton has restructured and re-signed, much to the surprise of many in Steelers Country, though his performance in 2012 will be a gamble at best. Whether it is Steve McClendon or potential and seeming draft steal Alameda Ta'amu anchoring the center of the defensive line will likely be a key question in parts or all of the upcoming season.
Whether Hampton starts at 75 percent (a generous estimate) of his former dominance, McClendon attempts to improve on his experiences from last season or raw rookie Ta'amu tries to flash his huge upside, odds are not great that the defensive tackle position will yield a third Pro Bowler (Hampton, twice) under coach Tomlin.
At defensive end, Brett Keisel (a quiet former Pro Bowler) and Evander "Ziggy" Hood are the likely starters. "The Beard" has been nothing but solid on the edge, finding his way to the occasional passer and containing the run. Last season, the yards per carry allowed decreased dramatically with Hood in the lineup.
In the backfield, Troy Polamalu is a near shoo-in for honors if his physical style of play doesn't result in injury. Ryan Clark will continue to live in the shadow of No. 43 at safety, revered as a hard hitter but not getting quite his due credit as a stop gap in the deep passing game, nor as the perfectly kindred backfield spirit to Polamalu's unpredictable style. Corner Ike Taylor will not get the interceptions that persuade Pro Bowl voters to give away their check mark, though he will continue to give the 'Burgh consistently superb coverage against the league's best receivers. Taylor's role will be equally important as a teacher, as Keenan Lewis or Cortez Allen will look to blossom in the opposite corner role.
If the defense is going to reload its typical two to three member Pro Bowl party in 2012, it will likely make hay at linebacker. Lamarr Woodley was just getting hot before injuries ended his promising campaign, and James Harrison hopes to return to form, finishing last year with 59 tackles after having fewer than 98 only once in the prior four seasons. Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons round out the linebackers.
Last year, the defensive gameplan was a bit restricted by the slowing of age for James Farrior. Struggling in pass coverage, the defense lost a bit of its playcalling flexibility, with rounded inside linebackers picking up the slack for Farrior's declining skills. Truth be told, many of the player assignments became predictable in 2011. With the acquisition of rookie Sean Spence, the Steelers hope they have the next great linebacker to enter the equivalent of "The Professional Linebackers Institute."
If the speedy Spence can learn the game plan and develop into a trustworthy force in relief, particularly with covering the intermediate pass, it will take pressure off of other defenders and allow them more liberty within the game plan. Particularly, mixing up the assignments should help the inside linebackers (who are more commonly in pass coverage) and Lawrence Timmons to return to his 2010 form, where he was snubbed of Pro Bowl honors despite 135 tackle and nine passes defensed.
|KEENAN LEWIS OR CORTEZ ALLEN||10%|
As for the nose tackle, the incumbent starter and the length of time that they're entrenched in the role is wildly unpredictable at the moment, making Pro Bowls odds near impossible to project.