Pros & Cons of Every Projected Pittsburgh Steelers Starter in 2012
As the Pittsburgh Steelers prepare for their first round of roster cuts this week, things have begun to come into focus for the way the roster will shake out. The starting lineup, at most positions, has never been in much dispute.
There are, however, a few jobs up for grabs for various reasons. Let’s take a look at how those will pan out and look at the pros and cons of the starting lineup as a whole.
Ben Roethlisberger, QB
Roethlisberger is an elite quarterback that knows how to make plays with his arm and his feet. He can buy time and extend plays when necessary by escaping the pocket and evading contact.
Roethlisberger is also very adept at running the no-huddle offense, something that seems to be a growing part of Todd Haley’s new playbook. That will help the Steelers and their elite receiving corps score points and win games.
Roethlisberger holds the ball too long at times, but it is a double-edged sword because he often makes plays by doing so.
The only other real con for Roethlisberger is that he takes too much of a pounding, but that also can be turned around since he rarely misses time with any ailment. He simply plays through it.
Isaac Redman, RB
Redman is a strong back with a very low center of gravity. He can survive contact and push through traffic to gain tough yards. He also has some deceptive speed and can occasionally turn the corner and gain yards around the end.
The best attribute Redman has is that he doesn’t need a hole to create yards. He simply needs a clean handoff. He has operated well behind a suspect line since coming into the league undrafted.
Redman has never carried the load of a starter before. He has one career start (last year’s playoff loss to Denver) to his name. That lack of experience could always hurt him, and it remains to be seen how well he’ll stand up to a pounding.
Redman is also one of those backs who does everything well but is spectacular at nothing. That’s not usually the pedigree for a starting running back, but Redman has made it work so far.
Will Johnson, FB
Just having a full-time lead blocker again will be a big change for this offense—and I think a positive one. Johnson has shown he can handle the job, too, and seems to be operating well with the offensive linemen to open holes.
Johnson also has a lower center of gravity and shows good toughness and tenacity. He doesn’t easily get thrown off and he doesn’t whiff regularly. As an inexperienced player, I would have expected a longer adjustment process, but he’s closed that gap.
Fullback is almost a lost art in the NFL and using a roster spot on one is concerning. I think the spot will be taken away from the tight end position, where previous lead blockers have been located.
As a player, Johnson is virtually nothing beyond a lead blocker. He really is the prototypical fullback. He may have some limited value as a runner, but that remains to be seen. I’m just not sure if the size of his role justifies a roster spot.
Antonio Brown, WR
Brown has stepped up this year and played like a true No. 1 receiver. I value him more than Mike Wallace because he is more versatile and brings more to the table. Besides excellent speed, he is the most elusive player on the team and can run any route necessary.
Brown’s best attribute is that he is very good after the catch and can evade tacklers in multiple ways. He’s a complete receiver in every regard.
Honestly, there are very few negative things that can be said about Brown. He rarely drops passes, although two in Buffalo showed a lack of attention to detail that is very unlike him.
Mike Wallace, WR
Getting Mike Wallace back will be good for the Steelers, as they will have one of their top play makers in the fold heading into the regular season. Wallace is a speedy receiver who can get deep fast and maximize Ben Roethlisberger’s tremendous arm strength.
He also is usually very sure handed and it will be interesting to see how he adapts to Todd Haley’s offense. We’ve seen Wallace’s agent looking for Larry Fitzgerald money, now we will see how he does playing in an offense that made Fitzgerald a big star.
The one knock on Wallace is that he is little more than a very good deep threat. He is mildly effective on the bubble screen, but that has been decreased in prominence under Haley.
Wallace has never proven an ability to go over the middle or to work well in short or intermediate routes. Until he does that, he’ll be less than a complete receiver. That could be what is preventing him from cashing in big somewhere.
Heath Miller, TE
Miller is an excellent blocker and receiver. One of the best things he brings to the table is his ability to be a difference maker in the red zone. That’s where the bulk of his starring roles come from, although he has been instrumental in other ways as well.
One thing he has done well is add support to the offensive line. He is often used in conjunction with young players. Mike Adams, who will probably play a big role along the line this year at some point, will need that help.
Miller is another player without many cons to speak of. He is excellent in all respects. The biggest con is that he doesn’t get much credit outside of Pittsburgh for his work.
Beyond that, the only issues Miller has ever had is that he can often seek contact when running after the catch, which can be dangerous at times. This isn’t a major issue, however, so we’re getting nitpicky.
Max Starks, LT
Starks is a big man—if you don’t believe it, go to the Heinz History Center and check out his shoes on display there—and he plays well with that size. He’s been solid at left tackle for several years when healthy and Ben Roethlisberger works well with him.
Starks gets off the snap well and engages rushers quickly and with good technique. He’s not frequently penalized, which is a good sign, and he also can hold his blocks longer than many tackles. That’s important considering his quarterback.
Starks is great when healthy, but that health has been a major concern for a few years now. He’s coming off another major injury, but he seems to be strong and healthy at this point. ACL injuries are always tricky.
The other major con at this time is that Starks needs many more reps in this offense before he is comfortable with the blocking schemes and the plays. He looked a little lost at times against the Bills in his first game action since his injury. With a little time, that should go away.
Willie Colon, LG
For a player who never played guard at the collegiate or professional level, Colon has sure looked comfortable at the position. Since returning from his own injuries last season, he’s been very consistent and earned high marks from the coaches and his teammates.
Colon is big enough to play tackle and he’s got more mobility than a typical guard thanks to that experience. He’s shown an ability to pull and also a more consistent blocking performance than he showed on the outside.
Anytime you’re trying a player, especially a veteran, at an unfamiliar position, there’s some reason to be nervous. Several things can go wrong. While I don’t think that will happen here, it’s something that everyone must consider.
The only other knock I can find with Colon is that he has a history of taking very costly and very unnecessary penalties. That hasn’t happened so far, and it may be because Colon is more comfortable at guard, but it’s one more thing to watch out for heading into the regular season.
Maurkice Pouncey, C
Pouncey has been a Pro Bowl-level guy for two years now and has become very good at handling the great internal rushers of the AFC. He doesn’t make mistakes and rarely allows any opponent to get past him.
Pouncey is another in the long line of great Steelers centers, and this should be the year he puts everything together. His technique is unquestioned and he is likely one of the top two centers in the NFL.
Like many of his fellow linemen, the problem with Pouncey is that he isn’t always healthy. He’s suffered problems with high ankle sprains in each of his first two seasons.
So far, that seems to be behind him, but it must stay behind him or he risks getting the label of injury-prone. The Steelers can ill afford to lose him for any length of time given the other injuries already plaguing them along the line.
Ramon Foster, RG
This was to be David DeCastro’s spot, but with his MCL and knee injuries, it isn’t likely we will see him on the field before the latter part of 2012—if not beyond even that. Foster, who manned the spot in 2011, will return to the role.
Foster is underappreciated and is good enough to start in the NFL. He’s a decent pass blocker and teams well with Maurkice Pouncey and Marcus Gilbert to keep rushers off of the quarterback.
The deficiency comes in run blocking, where Foster isn’t always effective at opening the hole. A lot of this might be able to be made up for with Colon pulling from left guard, but Foster must improve at opening holes on his own.
He doesn’t engage rushers as well during running plays and struggles to hold his blocks and push into the second level. These are all things that are improving slowly, but as a starter he’ll need to become consistent almost immediately.
Marcus Gilbert, RT
After being forced into the lineup to replace an injured Willie Colon early in the 2011 season, Gilbert enjoyed a successful rookie campaign in which he steadily developed into a solid tackle.
The Steelers were confident enough to consider moving him to the left side, but eventually they settled on a different plan that allowed him to remain on the right. He does a nice job with edge rushers and holds his blocks consistently well.
There’s still a slight problem with consistency, particularly on running plays. Gilbert can get caught sometimes and he also can be beaten or fooled by a smart rusher. These are all improving and he’s already very good for a second-year starter, but it something to be careful of when Isaac Redman takes a handoff.
Ziggy Hood, DE
For all his detractors, Hood has actually developed into an excellent 3-4 defensive end with the capability of playing a 4-3 tackle spot if needed. He does a great job of creating pressure and can even get penetration with some regularity now.
He seems to have benefited this preseason from a more athletic nose tackle as well. Hood continues to get better every season and has done a great job of opening holes for LaMarr Woodley to rush through.
Hood doesn’t have many cons, particularly in this 3-4 scheme that relies little on ends being able to generate big plays. His technique isn’t flawless and he sometimes gets a bit sloppy, but that’s the only major pitfall he seems to have at this point.
Brett Keisel, DE
The former seventh-round pick had become a star in this town. Keisel is a tenacious player who almost never makes a mistake. He doesn’t stack up big plays, but he occupies multiple blockers to create mismatches that James Harrison can exploit.
Another major pro for Keisel is that he’s a great leader and his spirit has become part of the soul of this defense, particularly as it has gotten younger at key spots. If he played in a system that offered more big play opportunities, he’d probably earn Pro Bowl honors.
Keisel is very steady and stable, but he has shown a few injury cracks in recent seasons and is now suffering from a slight high ankle sprain. While he should be fine going forward, his health is something the Steelers will need to monitor.
The good news is that Cameron Heyward can step in when needed to spell him. That should give everyone piece of mind.
Steve McLendon, NT
McLendon is very athletic for the position, and he plays with a strength and speed that most do not expect from a nose tackle. He has used his talent to create more big plays from the position and add a new element to this defense.
McLendon is certainly playing well in anticipation of keeping the job permanently and he’s risen to the occasion. That’s something Mike Tomlin values in his players, and it is a huge pro for the young leader.
McLendon has sewn up some of the potential holes in his game, and he seems to be set moving forward. The only thing I have some concern about is that his speed could get him into trouble if he gets fooled on a play. That’s highly unlikely, but again I’m being very picky with cons.
The only other issue I can find is inexperience, but that is something that he will solve very quickly against some of the AFC’s tough opponents.
LaMarr Woodley, OLB
Woodley seems stronger now and fully healthy after a nagging hamstring injury sidelined him a lot in 2011. The most encouraging thing about Woodley’s play so far is that he and Ziggy Hood seem to have become a two-headed monster on their side of the defense.
Woodley is a sure tackler who is equally as powerful in rushing and pass defense. He’s an excellent pass rusher who can break through blocks and bring down a quarterback.
Woodley has seemed a tad slower this year, although I’m not sure that isn’t just an illusion. Until I see further real evidence of it, I’m going to hold judgement.
Beyond that, there’s really nothing for him to prove except that he can remain healthy. Given that 2011 was the first time he suffered a major, lengthy injury, it can be written off as something that won’t repeat going forward.
James Harrison, OLB
Harrison gains a lot of success through the fear he generates as a pass rusher. He is a very hard hitter and he can penetrate the backfield quickly and shut a play down before it can even develop.
Harrison, like Woodley, is also good at reading a quarterback and diagnosing the play. He’s a leader for this team as well and should once again team with Woodley for a big season of sacks.
The only problem looming is health. Harrison is on the bad side of 30 and his physicality has taken a toll on his body. His knee has become a constant issue and one that could keep him out the first week or two of the regular season.
Beyond that, Harrison must simply stay in Roger Goodell’s good graces. That isn’t going to be easy, but Harrison must try to avoid a suspension or any more costly fines and penalties.
Lawrence Timmons, ILB
Timmons is a very versatile player who showed an ability to move outside when necessary last season. Hopefully he’ll get to stay inside all year and he should enjoy a breakout campaign.
In 2011, we finally got to see Timmons shine as a run stuffer. He hasn’t completely developed a consistency against the pass, but he shuts down running backs well and he takes up a lot of space in the middle of the defense.
Timmons needs to become more consistent as a pass rusher, particularly now that James Farrior is gone. He will likely draw the inside blitz roles and will need to execute to take away the middle of the field and keep quarterbacks on their heels.
Beyond consistency, Timmons simply needs to continue to improve overall. He’s a very good player, but he’s still just shy of being Pro Bowl caliber. That should come with a full season on the inside.
Larry Foote, ILB
Foote is back in a starting role after a few years either out of town or as a backup. He’s come into this season looking stronger than ever and he continues to be a force against the pass. That should suit him well in James Farrior’s old spot.
Foote is solid and doesn’t make a ton of mistakes. He is also a good teacher and leader and is a sure tackler most of the time. He’s not the player he was five years ago, but he is plenty good enough to start.
The age is a concern. It’s been awhile since Foote played as many downs as he’s likely to this yea, and only time will tell if he can still take the punishment. I’m also a bit concerned with consistency. Foote struggled with it as a backup, but he’s been much better so far in 2012.
Foote’s effectiveness in run stuffing has diminished a little and that will be a concern going forward, but he could be spelled by rookie Sean Spence to help quell that problem.
Ike Taylor, CB
Taylor is a very consistent cover corner who can defend the top receivers in the NFL. He plays smart and stays with even the fastest receivers, and he keeps plays in front of him. He has great field awareness and is rarely fooled or beaten.
Taylor’s biggest calling card is his ability to defend passes in close quarters and keep receivers out of the play. He plays within himself and doesn’t make too many costly penalties and rarely gets nailed for interference.
The biggest knock on Taylor has always been his inability to intercept passes and create turnovers. He has worked hard through the offseason to become better at this and to create more with his hands.
That work has shown in the preseason, but it will remain to be seen whether or not he can do that over 16 regular contests. Still, the Steelers simply need him to take away the top target.
Keenan Lewis, CB
This was the spot I worried over the most. I’m giving it to Lewis because I feel that he is the more veteran, complete corner. I don’t know if he holds off Cortez Allen for a full season, but he certainly has earned the right to open the season as the starter.
Lewis is also a good cover corner who can stay with fast receivers. He generates some big plays as well and brings that to the table to combat Ike Taylor’s poor hands. That’s important as the Steelers try to create more turnovers in 2012.
Lewis isn’t as consistent as you’d like from a starter and still suffers from a few lapses in coverage and technique. He can get fooled with a good double move, but he is closing that gap.
The big challenge for Lewis is simply to prove he can move from a successful 2011 in the nickel to a successful 2012 on the outside against top competition. He’s been solid so far, but there’s still work to be done.
Troy Polamalu, SS
Is there a more dangerous player in the NFL? Polamalu can do so many different things and he is one of the few players in the NFL that opposing teams must plan around and account for on every snap.
Polamalu is great a creating turnovers and he can also get into the backfield to disrupt running plays or shut down a passing play thanks to excellent speed and great instincts.
Those instincts aren’t perfect, however. More and more, teams are trying to disguise their plays and mix up what they do to throw him off. It has worked at times.
The other concern is that Polamalu is not the best in coverage and can sometimes get outmatched against a fast receiver downfield. He’s much better at being the monster that can’t be predicted.
Ryan Clark, FS
Clark, like James Harrison, is a vicious hitter who has become very good at taking away tight ends and slot receivers. This is important as the league continues to evolve into a passing one that utilizes those players differently than in the past.
Clark is good in coverage and he routinely does well pulling double duty while Troy Polamalu ad libs all over the field. That chemistry has been essential for a Pittsburgh team that uses safeties different than anyone else.
Clark’s heavy-hitting play has never been a problem, but I worry that it could lead to injuries down the line. Clark isn’t getting any younger and eventually that style will catch up to any player.
Beyond that, Clark isn’t a player with many issues.
Shaun Suisham, PK
Suisham has developed a lot over the past offseason and he’s becoming a consistent kicker who seems to handle the strange conditions of Heinz Field very well.
He’s improved his leg strength, and his accuracy continues to be better now that he’s with the Steelers.
The accuracy numbers beyond 40 yards continue to be a question mark. Suisham will have to continue to prove his strength is not a fluke and that he can maintain his accuracy to at least 45 or 50 yards.
Beyond that, I still worry about the consistency. The Steelers will likely keep Suisham over Daniel Hrapmann, but they may want to keep him on speed dial in case things head south.
Drew Butler, P
Butler has come in as an undrafted rookie and completely dominated. He’s been booming punts throughout camp and had a wonderful game in Buffalo to really put an exclamation point on his preseason.
The best thing about Butler is that he has a very strong leg and that he can place punts with great accuracy. That’s something that will help create field position problems for offenses that the Steelers defense can exploit.
Besides the fact that he’s young, Butler has looked very good. He’s not experienced, but there’s not much more that the punters can see than what he’s already experienced in the preseason.
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