Pittsburgh Steelers: The Top 10 Storylines Heading into 2012

Joshua HayesCorrespondent IIAugust 3, 2012

Pittsburgh Steelers: The Top 10 Storylines Heading into 2012

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    Every Pittsburgh Steelers season is like a journey through both black and gold, complete with a few dark moments, and hopefully, an abundance of bright spots, including shining stars, big wins and a certain luminescent trophy as the end destination.

    The 2012 NFL campaign quickly approaches for all 32 teams. The appeal of football, the modern American sports passion, for most fans is the gamut of emotions, each season acting like a novel whose chapters and characters present new surprises.

    Like every other pro football squad, the Steelers will entertain fans through a season filled to the brim with headlines, a mix of stories and angles that only add to the autumn intrigue.

    As fans pull out their jerseys, practice waving their Terrible Towels and stock up on all of the tailgate trimmings, here are the top 10 storylines that Steeler Nation can look forward to in 2012.

Honorable Mention: Can the Steelers Win Super Bowl XLVII?

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    Many readers are likely questioning how the odds of a Super Steelers Sunday do not rank atop the top stories headed into 2012. In reality, the pursuit of the playoffs and subsequent success in them are always the most important consideration of any season, particularly as it involves an outfit associated with perennial winning.

    So, why doesn't the storyline rank atop the list? 

    It has nothing to do with importance so much as obviousness.  All 32 teams enter training camp with a clean slate and the same top-end objective in mind, no matter how realistic or far-fetched those aspirations may seem.

    Luckily, the Black and Gold are among the franchises with clear championship talent, and the Men of Steel will surely look to show they have the "mettle" to bring a seventh Lombardi Trophy to the 'Burgh.  As Super Bowl odds are concerned, the Steelers are clearly in an elite class.

    Their chances vary depending with whom you converse, but there are two basic categories of analysts as it involves the 2012 Steelers: optimistic and pessimistic, each with a distinct view on the team.

    The optimists cite clear personnel improvements, giving the Steelers credit for improving the offensive line through the draft and making personnel moves in an effort to improve on an already winning product.

    The pessimists view change as a deterrent, at least in the early going, noting that many new faces will need time to congeal. Likewise, opposed to citing new faces as talented newcomers, they refer to them as inexperienced first-year players.

    Which side of the debate turns out to be correct will be determined in the coming months!

No. 10: Can the Team Avoid Major Distractions so Common in Today's NFL?

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    Aside from Mike Wallace's holdout and a few overblown offseason statements ("Rosetta Stone," anyone?), the Steelers offseason to date has been relatively quiet on the controversy front.

    James Harrison hasn't posed with any pistols, and to the best of my knowledge, hasn't encountered anybody on fire in desperate need of assistance.

    The police blotter hasn't lit up like a circuit board with black and gold lights.

    And, above all else, the team—unless your name is Wesley—has avoided even the smallest slaps on the wrist, sinner large-scale sanctions, having participated in no bounty schemes or any other off-color events ending with the suffix "gate" (Bountygate, Spygate, etc.).

    Yet, with new rules and regulations making it more difficult for prideful blue-collar defenders to do their duties as normal, particularly following an offseason where player deaths and lawsuits have created a hypersensitivity to all matters regarding safety, every rational Steelers fan knows the day is coming when Pittsburgh—or a key Pittsburgh player—is under the safety spotlight of scrutiny once again.

    Will it result in fines? Or a suspension? Certainly, it will be the talk of the water cooler.

    Who knows what officials will be governing the games we love but fully expect a season full of frustrating flags, inevitable finger-pointing by Big Brother and at least a few fever pitches regarding physicality.

    I don't want to say James Harrison has monopolized the corner market for odds of being the player under such a heavy microscope, but the countdown for No. 92 has truly already begun!

    With any luck, those issues—and no others—will be the lone sources of minor distraction this upcoming season.

No. 9: Will Both Fast Backs Make the Team, and What Will Be Their Impact?

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    "Wally Gator is a swinging alligator in the swamp.
    He's the greatest perculator when he really starts to romp."

    Those who remember the theme to the classic Hanna-Barbera cartoon are hoping that the romping references also applies to another classic gator, former Florida Gators stud runner Chris Rainey.

    If good things come in small packages, the petite back with a punch hopes to prove the adage in 2012. 

    A great combination of instinctive running, great hands and unbelievable speed have Steelers fans dreaming of a dynamic playmaker. Hopefully, Rainey makes like the final line of the Wally Gator theme, which ends, "See 'ya later, Wally Gator!," running away from defenders and into the end zone.

    Between Chris Rainey and former rookie and current redemption-seeker Baron Batch, returning from an unfortunate season-ending knee injury during his rookie camp, the Men of Steel boast a pair of backs who can help them be true "Men of Thrill."

    Speed kills, but the Steelers are going to be looking for more. With a slight size advantage, reports from camp so far indicate that Batch is a much better all-purpose third-down back so far, showcasing blocking skills, great awareness and true elusiveness.

    Still, Rainey has had a number of impressive moments himself, begging the question: does the team dare not include either of these dynamic athletes on its final roster?

    Reports for either are absurdly promising. Each has fine hands, dynamic playmaking ability and all the skills to potentially be a Steelers sort of answer to Ray Rice. That's overstating it quite a bit so early, but promise rests on the shoulder of the speedy "youngins!"

    For how many key fourth-down grabs, Rice has tortured the Steelers late in games—the Black and Gold are long overdue for redemption.

    Moreover, having a fast back with great hands, something that the team lacked with blazing Willie Parker—for example, his 2008-09 AFC Championship Game drop that would have been an early touchdown—adds an entirely new dimension and threat to an offense already considered among the more dangerous (weapons-wise) in the NFL.

    Fast backs with great hands are also great weapons to have for a fanbase practically salivating at the mouth for more traditional-style screen passes. For years, the Steelers and Packers were the two best teams in football at running timely screen plays. Reports from camp indicate that the screen game has seen a great deal of focus.

    The ability to set up the screen pass to either of the two fast backs could turn into the ultimate of "giving an inch and taking a mile."

    And, with Antonio Brown focusing exclusively on receiving duties, despite ranking second in the AFC in yards per punt return last season, it will be interesting to see if the replacement returner comes from this pair.

No. 8: How Will the Running Backs Perform in Mendenhall's Absence?

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    Another key storyline falls under this umbrella category: Will Mendenhall return, and in what form?

    John Clay is clearly a player on the bubble as the likely backs to share the load in Mendenhall's absence are Isaac Redman with a touch of Jonathan Dwyer.

    Last season against the Titans, fans caught that fascinating glimmer of potential as the backs combined for one of the most successful running games of the season.

    While Redman saw most of the carries, Dwyer—who competes in camp to backup the starter at the beginning of ’12—made the most of his 11 handles, eclipsing the 100-yard benchmark. 

    The downside to Dwyer in the past was his penchant for being out of shape. However, early reports from camp are that of a runner who has met his goal of showing up in the best shape of his life or at least his Steelers life.

    Redman, a brute with surprising nimbleness and speed, has carried the ball incredibly well during his stints as a starter, and he has also shown a niche in catching passes underneath for important yardage. 

    He's a capable blocker when needed, but the bulk of his success this season will depend on his ability to carry a more steady, long-term load in the run game. 

    As a preview of coming attractions, Redman averaged over seven yards per carry in the final two games of last season at Cleveland and Denver, though, he was drastically underutilized, particularly against the Browns (the Steelers led late in the game, opposed to playing catchup).

    One important area of improvement for Isaac will be ball control, as he has struggled with fumbling the football. If Haley or Tomlin see the issue flaring up, Redman may just be carrying footballs everywhere he goes in his day to day life, like a teenager caring for a mock baby to pass home economics.

No. 7: Will the Team Exorcise Demons with a Shot at Early Redemption?

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    The Steelers 2011 season ended in a devastating playoff loss at Invesco Field, a.k.a. "Poor Man's Mile High." The team lost a stunner to Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos in overtime.

    To start 2012, the team couldn't have planned for a opportunity at exorcism. After all, vengeance is a dish best served BLACK AND GOLD!


    Item 1: Denver

    The Steelers will be without safety Ryan Clark once again due to his rare sickle-cell trait causing risk in the rarefied Colorado air, so the secondary will have to step up to create a better memory than the 30 yards per completion they gave up in last year's playoffs.

    The bad news is that Tim Tebow is replaced with Peyton Manning.  The good news is that this should cause the defense to come into play with a more sound and stable strategy.

    With any luck, Manning's typical accuracy will not be regained so early in the campaign; a few "welcome back" shots virtue of sustained pressure could cause Peyton's return to be somewhat sour.

     

    Item 2: Tebow.

    Or, more accurately, the New York Jets.

    The Steelers will be favored to defeat Gang Green, but they'll be as determined to bring Tim Tebow to his knees in a totally new way during his spots on the field.

    Hopefully, the team will get off to a 2-0 start early, sending a clear message that the struggles of last year are over and a new campaign is officially well underway.

No. 6: Can the Defense Return to Form? (So to Speak!)

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    Returning to form is a strange goal for a unit that still ranked atop the NFL in yards surrendered, which is the statistic used to rank defenses. Indeed, the Steelers were the No. 1 defense in football last season, but any fan with two eyes and some attention to detail knows they took a step backward.

    Turnovers were at a premium, often the difference of a fraction of an inch or a split second.  How many times did Troy Polamalu, who had a wonderful campaign in spite of nay-sayers' best efforts to state otherwise, come ever so close to completely destroying the best laid plans of opposing offenses, particularly in the backfield?

    The defense had trouble pressuring opposing passers. This was partly due to injuries, particularly those sustained by James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley. Woodley's absence was always harshly felt. Yet, there was an even bigger reason that sacks were hard to come by...

    The team was not its normal self upfront, surprisingly handled by a number of offensive lines and giving up 100-yard rushers with more frequency and...for the first time in a long while... four yards per carry!

    Likewise, the front four couldn't manage into the backfield on their own, particularly on passing downs, and they struggled to open up the customary lanes for linebackers to harass backfields—a Dick LeBeau defensive staple. 

    A great deal of the dropoff along the defensive front centered around the keystone position of the 3-4 defense, nose tackle.

    Casey Hampton struggled more than in any previous season, and Steve McClendon, though he filled in admirably, certainly wasn't able to provide the same type of consistent dominance Steelers fans have grown accustomed to from their center on the defense.

    A true key to a return to form will again center around nose tackle, where questions include:

    —Will Casey Hampton be healthy enough to play...and, if so, can he do so successfully?

    —If not, will Steve McClendon grow from last year if he indeed starts?

    —Can potential draft steal Alameda Ta'amu steal some reps or- to the surprised delight of all- make an immediate impact in a starting role?

    Outside of nose tackle, the other position of change on the defense will be opposite Ike Taylor at corner. Keenan Lewis is the current favorite to line up on the other side, and fans hope his superior man coverage skills and heightened physical presence make him a more consistent defensive back than William Gay.

    While those key factors have the Steel City crossing its fingers, the defense should perform well in all other phases, provided one thing goes well: HEALTH.

    A healthy Woodley and Harrison will assist in the unit returning to the top of the league in sacks and pressures.

    The league's best defender, in my opinion, returns—Troy Polamalu!

    The loss of Farrior hurts, but his best days were behind him. The introduction of Larry Foote as a full-time starter, and Sean Spence on select downs will equate to better pass coverage at the linebacker position, which will also translate to more flexibility in the formations and blitz packages the team is able to effectively utilize.

    Particularly, Spence is a great option for sub packages, which should result in less strain upfront, allowing the unit to achieve better pressure from more exotic playcalling.

    Lawrence Timmons will see a better balance of coverage and rush duties, and a return to 2010 form for the potential Pro Bowl linebacker is expected by the higher percentage of Steelers fans.

    Yada. Yada. Yada. The basic news is, expect the Steelers defense to do what it has always done.

No. 5: Will Mike Wallace Return, and What Are the Team's Options in His Absence?

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    The topic has been beaten like a dead horse. I wouldn't rank it as high as fifth if it weren't the hottest current topic involving the team. 

    Nevertheless, a ranking any lower would be unrealistic, and the decisions made by No. 17 in the coming days will be the biggest storyline from now, and quite possibly, into the early season.

    If you feel the pressing need to refresh yourself on the situation, you can read about the state of his holdout, factors that influence his return and options in his absence here.

    Obviously, the team would have a difficult time completely replacing his production if he continues to hold out. However, the good news is that the Black and Gold have as much depth at wideout as any position.

    Notice to Mr. Wallace: suck it up. Come to camp.

No. 4: Talent or Inexperience: Which Form Will the New-Look Offensive Line Take?

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    Will Pittsburgh's top two draft steals perform like their scouting reports, or will they fall short of expectations, like so many naysayers would love to accurately predict?

    Haters...

    Instead of youth and talent, some prefer to look at it as inexperience. I have one work as a rebuttal regarding whether the line will improve next season:

    Kemoeatu.

    The offensive line's performance will be largely dictated by health, but aside from that element of good or bad luck, signs seem to be pointing up!

    The last two key O-linemen drafted by the 'Burgh showcase their eye for capable talent, returning to get even better in 2012. At center, the stalwart All-Pro Maurkice Pouncey returns, and Marcus Gilbert will also gain on his valuable rookie experience at tackle, continuing to develop as a standout in the trenches.

    So, what about those newest draft picks for the trenches?

    Mike Adams was considered a second-round draft steal, and many scouting reports indicate a first-round talent whose natural gifts exceed those of last year's premium pick—Gilbert. There's no reason to believe that game experience, professional coaching and focus will not allow Adams to ultimately flourish.

    Clearly, the biggest improvement will be at guard, which happens to be the area of the line most central to a consistently successful running game. Willie Colon's move to guard is a shift conducive to the former tackle's natural skill, particularly his size and brawn.

    Likewise, David DeCastro comes to the Steel City with promises of an All-Pro career; many speculate that he could very well be the second coming of Alan Faneca.

No. 3: Can the Steelers Get Back Atop the AFC North?

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    The image of Torrey Smith's long touchdown grab at Heinz Field during Baltimore's Sunday night showdown in the Steel City last season plays over and over in the minds of Steelers fans like a torture track. If the play were a song sold as a single, the album cover might have been titled, What Could Have Been.

    Instead of a potential bye week and AFC North championship, the Steelers left their home field in disbelief as the Ravens swept the regular-season series.

    The window of opportunity is closing in Baltimore, where a certain Steelers once promised quarterback Joe Flacco would never win a Super Bowl. He came within a Lee Evans drop, so to speak, of the big game last season. The Black and Gold certainly hope it gets no closer in 2012.

    Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are in their twilight. It's likely now, and not next year, for the Ravens, who hope the loss of Terrell Suggs for a significant part of the year doesn't hinder their ability to beat good teams. 

    Playing a first-place schedule, the Ravens get the Patriots and Texans early in the campaign—an added benefit to a Steelers team that wants to pass Baltimore once again for division supremacy.

    Still, with a core of great talent, including tackle Haloti Ngata and running back Ray Rice, the Steelers will have their hands full during a three-week stint that includes two games against their arch-rivals.

    Sandwiched in the middle is a trap game against the Browns, who drafted Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden to help give life to an anemic (and helpless...and hopeless...and hapless...) offense in recent seasons.

    The Browns showed last year that they can't be taken lightly, giving the Steelers fits in both games. Yet, hopefully, they're still a year or more away from real contention.

    Finally, the Bengals enter 2012 with a confidence that nobody knew they had last season, serving as the surprise story in the AFC and arguably the NFL—along with the 49ers

    If Cincinnati had a problematic area last season, it was their secondary, clearly impacted by the loss of Jonathan Joseph. They answered the call in the offseason, acquiring Jason Allen and Terence Newman, along with drafting Dre Kirkpatrick in the first round.

    The improved defensive backfield, along with the rest of a solid roster, should make the Bengals formidable once again in a three-way AFC North race, particularly if playmaker A.J. Green makes the same sick plays as last season, and Andy Dalton works hard to avoid the much-discussed sophomore slump that many teams and signal-callers experience.

    Whether they can actually pass both the Steelers and Ravens for the division is probably a bit of a stretch, considering they didn't beat one winning opponent last season.

    If the Bengals want to contend in the AFC North or beyond, they'll have to make their mark against quality clubs, and it starts Week 1 in Baltimore.

No. 2: How Will Big Ben Respond to His "Tweaks and Twinges?"

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    When team president Art Rooney said he felt Ben Roethlisberger needed to "tweak" his game, a natural debate grew wings in Western, Pa.:

    "How could he expect Ben to change the way he quarterbacks?!" vs. "I've been saying this for years! Why didn't somebody explain this to No. 7 a whole lot earlier, before he lost playing time and suffered so many injuries?"

    Speaking of injuries, the Steel City is also alerted to another Ben "twinge," this time a rotator cuff injury that the quarterback insists only results in soreness and won't affect his play.

    As it concerns health and the franchise QB, and NFL team is a nervous wreck, particularly those with signal-callers whose pedigree is proven. Nobody wants to see a repeat of Anklegate, the severe ankle injury that effectively ended the Steelers' Super Bowl dreams last season. 

    That's a fact, and Bruce Arians' game plans and management's use of Big Ben helped NOTHING.

    If it lowers his risk, let's wish Ben a happy tweaking!  Either way, Ben will play with pain sometime during the campaign as an extension of his identity, whether it be caused by a bum leg, sore shoulder, or broken and bloodied nose.

    Whether to focus on a quicker release to beat defenses or to preserve his body and prolong his career, the idea of limiting exposure to hits and making quicker decisions with the football became a battle cry that most in the Steel City could at least reasonably understand.

    Will we see the same fast delivery and rhythmic passing game that torched the league's worst defense in New England? Or, will Ben brush off the suggestions, considering that he's a champion as a byproduct of his very successful existing habits?

    The truth absolutely lies somewhere in the middle. No matter what, a gunslinger exists in Ben, a Favre 2.0 (the version that turns off the bad risks in the biggest moments...well, mostly), and nobody wants to go even a quarter without seeing Ben's biggest assets—his ability to throw on the run to a receiver- result in big plays downfield.

    Roethlisberger and his receivers are the best in the game at making plays outside the pocket, their chemistry together and Ben's knowledge of the route trees making long coverages almost impossible for d-backs. It will be interesting to see how this is impacted by the Wallace situation.

No. 1: How Will the New Offense Perform?

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    Dear Mr. Haley,

    I hope you like microscopes, Mr. Todd Haley. From now until January, and hopefully beyond, you will be the magnified object beneath millions of microscopes, those being the eyes of scrutinizing Steelers fans who want to see so many things from you.

    The magnification will be extreme. Trim your nose hairs!

    Everything from your conversations with Big Ben to your very first third down call of the season to the first turnover by the new offense to... to...well, to infinity, sir.

    Everything offense-related from here to infinity will be the litmus test by which the mad "football scientists," sort of armchair experts in the scientific field of the pigskin that rightfully comprise the smartest fanbase in the game, will measure your worth.

    Let's move from the science lab to the classroom.

    You may be a great teacher, but everyone knows the reality in education today is standardized testing, and the only way a teacher is truly considered great is when the kids pass the exam. Those tests are cold, hard numbers.

    Just like offensive stats. The stat sheet is your scantron card, sir.

    Can you increase the unit's scoring production from its anemic 21st ranking of last season?

    Can you help bolster the offense's touchdown percentage in the red zone?

    Can you foster a balance of effective running and passing?

    Can you win games when the defense plays...just alright?

    Can you show us that your strategy isn't really a Rosetta Stone proposition?  (And, by the way, sorry about all of that. Sometimes, we tend to find cues and really overuse them, practically to the point of self-embarrassment—but minus the shame!)

    Can you work in harmony with others and use your fiery ire to promote improvement?

    Can you use your talent effectively?

    Can you run more screens other than the type that is called "bubble?"

    Can you give us the world in pursuit and help lead us to a seventh championship?

    It's Super Bowl or bust in this town, Todd. We only expect everything you have, and then some. Oh, and that "then some" is the idea of everything you have being super successful.

    The good news is that I think you're the perfect man for the job, Mr. Haley. Best wishes from someone who is incredibly grateful that your name doesn't rhyme with "Shmarians."

    Sincerely,

    Joshua Hayes

    P.S.: I love sprint-option passes.

    P.P.S.: Get Heath Miller back to the Pro Bowl. Period.