Pittsburgh Steelers: Injured Players Who Will Be Missed the Most
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Even when you're dubbed "Men of Steel," principles of physics still find a way to prove that no athlete is impervious to damage, no matter their mettle or metal!
From heads to ankles (or, in medical terms, concussions to sprains), the Black and Gold's "black and blue" athletes have comprised an alarming portion of the roster. Certainly, injuries aren't a new fad in Pittsburgh, but their frequency in recent months has become alarming. Bloodied (and broken) noses, contusions, bum ankles...adverse reactions due to sickle-cell traits?!
Most recently, David DeCastro's nearly catastrophic, but ultimately less severe than expected, knee injury has resulted in the guard being slated for a months-long hiatus that could effectively end his rookie season.
Of the Steelers, which injured players will the team most miss during the 2012 campaign? In other words, which star's absence from the lineup will be the most deflating to the team's goals of winning a seventh Lombardi Trophy in February?
Honorable Mentions: Ryan Clark and David Johnson
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Clark is not listed among the top five injured athletes with consideration to the fact that his status is due to a condition, not an injury.
The star safety suffers from a rare sickle cell trait, a blood disorder associated with abnormality of hemoglobin, an oxygen-carrying substance, in the red blood cells.
The last time he played in Denver, the Mile High City sank him a mile low. His body reacted violently to the thin air, and he became violently ill, ultimately losing his gall bladder and spleen due to oxygen deprivation.
It's obvious to state that Clark will never play at the venue again, which caused him to be among the many other players absent during a 29-23 overtime loss this past January.
His presence surely could have been a huge assistance to a defense whose secondary was clearly compromised. Though, few will debate the faulty game plan eroded away the league's top pass defense more than anything.
Tim Tebow struggled all season to sustain offense, making precise intermediate throws into passing lanes while accounting for safety coverage, so we...remove the problem by bringing the safety into the box far more often than...irk. I digress.
Clearly, the presence of Peyton Manning will demand a more conventional game plan. Key to beating the Broncos will be getting pressure on their new signal-caller, but the defensive backs will naturally have their hands full as well.
Ryan Clark, who is known for his huge hits and deterrent presence over the middle of the field, is very underrated as a stop gap in the secondary as his safety/linebacker/corner/coach peer, Troy Polamalu, serves as the ultimate hybrid X-factor.
Together in the backfield, the two have synergy. Apart, with Clark left to cover for Troy's absence, he's a great stopgap.
More than just a great counterpart to No. 43, Clark's absence in Denver to open the season will force the team to forfeit one of its greatest individual players, regardless of his merit with a peer. Statistics show Clark as the busiest Pittsburgh defender, recording over 100 tackles last season while being on the field for over 98 percent of the team's snaps.
Though it is just one game, it is a statement game. Clark's presence will be irreplaceable against a quarterback who can filet a defense, albeit his first "real" game back in action or not, particularly on a defense that could enter the contest even more handicapped. More on that later.
Regarding David Johnson, the loss is certainly significant for a team that hopes to implement a fullback into their plans, something fans had been pining for since before Bruce Arians' name became synonymous with the word exile.
Yet, just how significant will it be? Apparently, Johnson himself is confident that the team has a great second option ready to contribute. His name?
Johnson. Will Johnson.
According to Bleacher Report featured columnist Chris G., one of the 25 things Steelers fans have learned this preseason is that there could be a surprise "other" Johnson find.
Will will (Will...will...odd-sounding, no?) be the starting fullback, and David expressed his confidence:
He was pushing me all camp, making me better and to step up my game. I think he’ll be a great person for the job. The things he’s doing, it seems like he’s been playing it for years.
No. 5: Jason Worilds and Stevenson Sylvester
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Depth is everything in the NFL.
You never know when you will need it all, not only to facilitate the replacement of banged up bodies, but also for the ability to cycle through players in different packages and situations, as the Steelers have done for years with their linebacking corp.
The depth at linebacker is being tested.
Already, due to the loss of veterans and the injury curse that has somehow bestowed itself on the 'Burgh, the group is getting disconcertingly thin.
Jason Worilds, largely considered to be an ideal candidate to replace James Harrison in the future, was only recently reactivated from the PUP list.
The news isn't so glowing at the moment for Stevenson Sylvester, whose MCL tear will sideline him for three to four weeks.
Sylvester is needed to provide key depth at both inside and outside linebacker. While the team has 'backers in the wings, such as Sean Spence and Chris Carter who can fulfill needed roles, the changes at linebacker in the aftermath of James Farrior's departure were already a key focus of the upcoming campaign.
Steeler Nation hopes for a speedy, prompt recovery for these two capable, and moreover experienced, linebackers! The news of James Harrison's health in recent days certainly doesn't make other injuries in the linebacker corp any easier to accept.
No. 4: Rashard Mendenhall
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For feasibly the first month, and likely beyond, Rashard Mendenhall's services will not be available to the Steelers as a result of continued rehabilitation from a devastating knee injury in the 2011 regular-season finale.
While with the team's incumbent backs, Redman, Dwyer, Batch, Ford and Rainey, it would appear that enough talent exists to continue on successfully until the time of Mendenhall's return.
Yet, Redman's ankle injury, Ford's recent hamstring, Rainey's visits to the turf and Batch's knee injury last season are all indicative of just how volatile things could become if another starting back gets dinged or worse.
If Redman goes down, sure, we have Dwyer. Then what? Nothing certain exists beyond the thin line of health that the team could comfortably start right now; that's for sure!
While there's great reason to be optimistic about the ability of the healthy backs to produce, the high hopes dim a little as the offensive line continued to get pummeled by the injury bug.
Plus, there's no complete assurance in any of the listed backs of a reliable workhorse across a string of weeks. Odds are high that Redman or Dwyer, who I personally prefer as the starter if only to avoid further potential aggravation of Redman's groin (and hip...and ankle... sigh!), will satiate fans' high expectations.
However, if and when Rashard returns in capable form, the team needs to gradually get him back into game shape with the goal of his reclamation as the starter. The offense may click well enough, but it will not be as good without him as it could be with him.
How soon we forget that Mendenhall was a 1,300-yard runner who scored 13 touchdowns in 2009, as well as a century-mark rusher and huge playoff contributor during the team's run to Super Bowl XLV. And, let's be honest, it was all behind a (politely) mediocre offensive line.
Behind relatively subpar blocking, Mendenhall was often criticized for his hesitation in the backfield, but he mostly ran straight ahead for positive yardage. And those "backfield delays" that evoked the ire of so many fans often turned into nifty and elusive feats of fancy, showcasing Rashard's gifted combination of footwork, speed and power.
Also, whereas the other backs on the roster are showing up on injury reports with an odd frequency this preseason, Rashard was ready to play in 47 consecutive games spanning three seasons before his unfortunate crisis in Cleveland.
With so many positive attributes for a runner molded into one back, fans should be far more hopeful about a near return to form by Mendy, who is absolutely the best all-around back on the team whose presence will be more missed than people realize.
No. 3: James Harrison
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Steve McLendon has effectively shown off all preseason, going into rampant "beast mode" (I've never seen the copyright, Seattle fans!) and dominating at the heavily inspected nose tackle position.
As such, Casey Hampton, who many fans have raised a curious eyebrow over, considering his late-season knee injury and curious 2011 performance, doesn't make the "most missed" list. At least, not right now.
Yet, no beast can replace the one who dons the No. 92! He is "the Silverback" of the Pittsburgh defense, the facet of fear and intimidation upfront that has perennially existed through generations of Steelers football.
Deebo has been dinged up lately far beyond his fair share. From a broken orbital bone to back problems to a testy knee, life for James Harrison has been one aggravating nag after another, and that's not even accounting for his very public facade regarding the NFL's player safety initiatives.
Thankfully, according to Alan Robinson of the Tribune-Review, Harrison has stated that he expects to be ready to play come opening night in Denver, despite recent arthroscopic knee surgery.
That's great news, particularly considering that the combination of an able-bodied Harrison and Lamarr Woodley makes one of the most fearsome one-two punches at linebacker in the league.
Together, they create havoc in offensive backfields. From both outside linebacker positions, the stress that their relentless rush puts on the opposite edges of an offensive line causes synergistic wear and tear, a strain that inevitably opens holes in the trenches for all defenders to feast!
Apart, the results diminish.
While he is expected to play, the Steelers will be wise not to rush anything or force the issue. If costing Harrison a game or two early saves him from lingering issues later, it will be well worth investing in that future.
Though everyone in their right mind knows that he'll suit up at less than 100 percent, my only hope is that it doesn't cost him down the road. NFL stars will themselves into the lineup. With his physical brand of play, what are the true odds that the injury-plagued and aging linebacker gets through all 16 games unscathed?
I'd say slim to none. Though, I'm optimistic for a great season; I'll be among the fans feeling his absence at some point in 2012.
No. 2: David DeCastro
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David DeCastro's knee injury was absolutely, irrefutably NOT what the Pittsburgh Steelers needed in any way, shape or form.
It's certainly not anywhere near time to hit the panic button as viable solutions are available, but if anybody wishes to click on any of the expletives listed on their "frustration soundboard," it would be acceptable over the falling of the team's top draft selection.
To put it banally...Crap!
With their approach to the draft, the franchise sent a clear message about its purposefulness (and recognition for need) in dramatically improving the offensive line! To some degree, the extent of those plans is tempered, though hopefully not defunct.
Without insinuating any predictions about the future, the reality is that delaying the progress of DeCastro by a year is quite deflating. Likewise, nobody can truly predict what form a player will return in after such a debilitating injury, particularly at a position that demands so much wear and tear along the joints.
The guard is projected to be out three to five months (optimistically) with a torn MCL, a dislocated kneecap and an injury to his patella tendon.
The "next Faneca" is most likely the "next year Faneca," we hope. The Steelers had utilized depth and versatility to overcome a rash of O-line injuries in recent seasons.
Still, it's an extreme gut blow—though, by no means a fatal blow—that the squad loses the first of its draft selections geared toward developing a line of "specialists," players engineered for expertise at their particular position instead of capable of any spot.
For now, Steelers Country also crosses its fingers that Willie Colon and Ramon Foster just keep on being "this-year guards." After all, the team's dreams of a line of skilled players for particular positions took a huge hit, but an attack on their depth in the trenches could be a truly fatal blow for the season.
Do not let my optimism cloud the fact that DeCastro's injury is a huge hit for a team that recommitted to this exact unit in the offseason for multiple reasons, not limited to improvement in the run game.
DeCastro's guard play was one of the most compelling arguments as to why the ground attack would improve, as run blocking is a true strength of the Stanford standout's game.
Minus "future Faneca," the fact is that the offensive line's improvement won't be as substantial as anticipated. Their saving grace will be the implementation of players at positions that better suit their strengths, with Colon as the primary example. Unless, of course, anyone else gets injured.
Then, it could be deja' vu for the hogs in the Steel City.
No. 1: Ben Roethlisberger and/or Troy Polamalu
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Though neither "quarterback" of the Pittsburgh Steelers is currently at risk for missing games, it is a near certainty that at least one of the team's two best players will miss playing time in 2012.
Odds heavily favor an injury to one of these crucial athletes, and when it happens, nobody can dispute the absence of Big Ben or Troy as the most deeply felt along the roster.
In the last six seasons, Polamalu has lost 21 games due to injury, which equates to an average of approximately 3-4 contests per season. Even on a per-average basis, the absence of No. 43, the quarterback of the defense (at least in spirit) and most important on-field, all-around contributor, for 20 percent or more of a season has a huge impact.
More than anything, even disregarding the numbers, Polamalu's style of play—a physical brand that scoffs in the face of modern change—is conducive to injury.
Nobody should want the star safety to change a thing; his style has profound positive impact that far outweighs the risks he chooses to take! Yet, one must accept the sobering reality that a 16-game contribution is unlikely, considering he's only gotten through an entire year twice since 2006: 2008 and 2011.
By his own admission, the totals could be greater, as Polamalu has lied about concussion symptoms (via ESPN) to stay in games.
When you get your bell rung they consider that a concussion -- I wouldn't ... If that is considered a concussion, I'd say any football player at least records 50 to 100 concussions a year.
Ben Roethlisberger was tasked with tweaking his style by Art Rooney during the offseason, an objective that the championship quarterback and his offensive coordinator are surely addressing this preseason.
Altogether, No. 7 has looked crisp and mostly decisive, though nobody can expect the raw gunslinger that rests on Ben's heart to completely keep his pistols in their holsters.
Unfortunately, that personal style also has a cost, which effectively shoots Ben in his own gunslinger's foot.
With every play as an opportunity to make good on offense, Roethlisberger has a hard time conceding before his fight against the odds—even in the most dire straits—reaches a conclusion.
This has resulted in many hair-rising and physics-defying escapes, in addition to a number of explosive downfield plays that help Ben maintain a high-average yards per attempt.
There have been other results that are not so glamorous. It's an element of his style, even tweaked, that has to be accepted. From being hauled off on a gurney in the 2008 season finale to last year's ankle injury, Ben has shown that it is difficult to get through 16 games unscathed as a physical field general.
Since 2005, Ben has started every regular-season game only once, missing a single game on four occasions and multiple games once, discounting the 2010 season for obvious reasons.
If fans conducted a poll of the team's best player, Roethlisberger and Polamalu would rank first and second in total votes, and I have little doubt that any other player who would come close to their portion of the selections. Simply, they're the most important players on the team.
Is it any coincidence that the one season in which they both started every game, despite No. 7's injury during Monday Night Football in Washington, that the Steelers won the Super Bowl? If it is, their mutual presence in either phase of the game assisted greatly in pursuit of a sixth championship.
When they are lost, their loss is felt dramatically. The Steelers, ever the professional franchise, find a way to get by even in the toughest of times, winning games even without their most important athletes. Still, those victories are made much harder with the absence of either man.
Over one two-year stretch, the Men of Steel were 14-4 with Polamalu in the lineup. Without him? 5-7
The good news is that history shows the team will continue to fight valiantly in pursuit of victory no matter the challenge. Sure, one or both players have lost playing time in five of the past six years, but the Steelers have made the playoffs in four of those campaigns.
After all, that is what great teams do.