Pittsburgh Steelers: 7 Questions for the 2012 Season
The agonizing wait for the 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers season, once measured in months, now can be measured in mere hours.
The Steelers will try to make their third straight playoff appearance for the first time since the turn of the century.
Not since Bill Cowher led the Steelers to six straight playoff appearances from 1992-1997 have the Steelers reached the postseason three straight times.
In 2006 and 2009, the Steelers missed the playoffs after coming off Super Bowl victories.
This year, their situation is more parallel to 2003.
The Steelers were stunned by the Patriots in the 2001 AFC championship game and suffered an overtime loss in the 2002 playoffs. Then in 2003, they flopped to 6-10.
As heartbreaking as that was, the heartbreak of 2010 and 2011 has been much more acute.
The Steelers could smell a championship in 2010, but lost in Super Bowl XLV. Then their 2011 season ended with an overtime loss much more sudden than their 2002 playoff OT loss.
Merely breaking the cycle of two playoff seasons, then a non-playoff season won't be enough for the Steelers in 2012.
In this era, it's championship or bust for the Steelers, and they face seven questions as they go for their seventh championship.
Is Ben Roethlisberger's Rotator Cuff Tear Really Not That Serious?
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The seven questions begin with No. 7.
Perhaps Roethlisberger is right and it won't be a problem. But what if the grind of the season makes that tear bigger? This could be a major hazard that's lurking under the radar.
We're used to seeing Roethlisberger play through dings and dents, even a high-ankle sprain. If his rotator cuff starts to hurt, he'll try to play through it. He just might not be as effective. As much as he tried to tough it out with the ankle injury in San Francisco last year, we know now that he shouldn't have played.
Baseball pitchers don't want the words "rotator cuff" anywhere near their names in print, because it's usually bad news. Quarterbacks, however, don't throw the football during a game as much as pitchers throw a baseball.
So maybe this rotator cuff tear really is nothing.
Perhaps what's more likely to keep Roethlisberger out of a game this season is the birth of his son. If his expected child is born on a game day, he has told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he won't miss the birth.
Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch both looked good in the preseason and are healthy, so that baby should be able to come out whenever he wants.
Will the Steelers' Offensive Line Be Better?
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A stronger offensive line would go a long way toward making Ben Roethlisberger's rotator cuff a non-factor, and it would help keep the rest of his body healthy.
Unfortunately, the 2012 draft won't rejuvenate the Steelers' offensive line like everyone thought it would.
Right guard David DeCastro is out for at least half of the season with a torn medial collateral ligament, and Mike Adams was a human turnstile at left tackle during the preseason.
There is hope, though, that Roethlisberger and the Steelers' running backs will be playing behind an improved offensive line.
Center Maurkice Pouncey is entering his third season after being named to the Pro Bowl in his first two. If he maintains his level of play, the Steelers are fine at center.
Assuming Willie Colon can stay healthy, and that's a big assumption, his preseason performance suggests he could have a solid season at left guard.
Marcus Gilbert will start at right tackle for the second straight year. Drafted in 2011, he couldn't work out with the Steelers before his rookie year because of the lockout. This year, he could benefit from full offseason activities and a year of on-the-job training at the position.
If Pouncey, Colon and Gilbert provide "above-the-line" performances, as Steelers coach Mike Tomlin would say, they can cover the weaknesses at left tackle and right guard.
Bleacher Report's Matt Miller labeled Starks with the terms "limited athlete" and "surprisingly weak" in his B/R 1,000 series. Right now, though, he's the best the Steelers can do at left tackle because of Adams' slow progress.
The Steelers would have been stronger at right guard if DeCastro wasn't hurt. But that's life. They'll just hope for the best with Ramon Foster.
Offensive line coach Sean Kugler values continuity on the offensive line. If Starks, Colon, Pouncey, Foster and Gilbert all remain healthy and start week-in, week-out, they could form a cohesive unit.
However, injuries or a disappointing performance from Colon, Pouncey or Gilbert could mean more of the same for the Steelers' offensive line.
Can the Steelers Run the Ball More Effectively?
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An improved offensive line might help, but running the ball is another way to better protect Ben Roethlisberger.
The more Roethlisberger hands the ball off, the less time he spends in the pocket vulnerable to sacks.
The Steelers' running backs just have to provide Roethlisberger a reason to give them the ball, and there's reason to believe they will.
The Steelers potentially have a three-headed monster at running back.
Isaac Redman showed he's capable of being the feature back with his 121 yards in the playoff loss at Denver and his 4.4 yards per carry last season. He also can get the tough yards in a short-yardage situation.
Jonathan Dwyer, who has improved by leaps and bounds, can run, catch passes out of the backfield and block. He could be a high-end version of Mewelde Moore, but unlike Moore, he's being looked at as a potential starter, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Chris Rainey, with his speed, has ability to change a game every time he touches the ball.
Then there's Rashard Mendenhall, who tore his ACL in Week 17 last season but has recovered enough to practice this week, according to NFL.com.
Mendenhall, a 2008 first-round draft pick, has more of a pedigree than undrafted Redman, Dwyer (sixth-round pick) and Rainey (fifth-round pick).
However, the Steelers should be in no hurry to bring back Mendenhall. He averaged 3.8 yards per carry in the first 14 games last season, then picked up the pace against the lowly Rams and Browns before getting hurt. He gets too fancy trying to find holes and can be frustrating to watch at times.
The Redman-Dwyer-Rainey troika deserves a chance to show what it can do.
Is James Harrison OK?
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James Harrison's knee problem is a getting a little unsettling.
Harrison had arthroscopic knee surgery Aug. 15 after the knee prevented him from practicing during the spring and in training camp. He returned to practice Monday, but the knee flared up again and he took part in only half of Wednesday's practice, according to Steel City Insider, and missed practice Thursday and Friday, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The Post-Gazette also says Harrison is not expected to play in Sunday's season opener at Denver.
It would be nice to think Harrison's knee just needs a little more time to heal and he'll be ready to go in Week 2.
Bill Parise, Harrison's agent, referred to Harrison's injury as "this little knee thing," according to the Beaver County Times.
But Harrison is 34. His body can't recover as quickly as that of a 24-year-old.
This could turn into a situation in which we're asking every week if this is the week Harrison comes back. If it comes to that, it means Chris Carter and Jason Worilds aren't getting the job done at right outside linebacker.
Carter and Worilds are largely unproven. If their pass rushing comes anywhere near Harrison's level, the Steelers will be in good shape while they await Harrison's return. If not, LaMarr Woodley will see a lot of double-teams, and opposing quarterbacks will get way too comfortable in the pocket.
Will the Steelers Force More Turnovers?
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The answer to the previous question will help provide the answer to this question.
If James Harrison returns in Pro Bowl form, and LaMarr Woodley can avoid the hamstring trouble that plagued him last season, the Steelers' pass rush should be chugging on all cylinders. That can lead to strip sacks and quarterbacks being forced into bad throws.
The Steelers forced just 15 turnovers in 2011, one of just eight teams all-time to take the ball away 15 or fewer times, according to Pro Football Reference.
Despite that, the Steelers went 12-4 last season. They won't be so fortunate this season if they continue to force fewer than one turnover per game.
If Ike Taylor actually has learned to catch the ball and his preseason pick-six wasn't a fluke, that could provide the Steelers with a few more turnovers.
It's more likely the Steelers will need Troy Polamalu to return to his pilfering ways. He had just two interceptions last season despite playing in every game. He picked off seven passes in 2010 and 2008, and the Steelers went to the Super Bowl both times.
The Steelers forced eight turnovers during the preseason. If they can just do it when it counts, maybe we'll be looking at what a 12-4 team can do with the added benefit of takeaways.
Can the Steelers' 30-Somethings Hold Up?
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If James Harrison recovers from his injury and starts, the 34-year-old is one of seven players north of 30 who could start on defense for the Steelers.
Casey Hampton is 35. Brett Keisel will turn 34 on Sept. 19. Ryan Clark will turn 33 on Oct. 12. Ike Taylor and Larry Foote are 32. Troy Polamalu is 31.
Steve McLendon, 26, had a strong preseason at nose tackle and makes Hampton the most replaceable of the 30-somethings. Ziggy Hood, 25, can be a force on the defensive line if his play corresponds to his improved conditioning.
Second-year outside linebacker Chris Carter likely will have a chance to show what he's got replacing Harrison in Week 1. Outside linebacker Jason Worilds and inside linebacker Stevenson Sylvester, both drafted in 2010, have to get healthy and begin making an impact.
The Steelers have little depth at safety behind Polamalu and Clark. At cornerback, Keenan Lewis and Cortez Allen both are still developing and are capable of being the starters if Taylor is hurt or experiences a sudden decline.
If the next generation of Steelers defenders doesn't start to carry more of the load, the key to keeping the elder statesmen fresh will be for the offense to win the time of possession battle and limit the defense's time on the field.
The defense can get itself off the field, too, by forcing more turnovers.
Can the Steelers Fill the Leadership Void?
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It turns out these seven questions will begin and end, sort of, with No. 7.
Hines Ward, James Farrior and Aaron Smith no longer are in the Steelers' locker room. Their veteran leadership must be replaced.
Ben Roethlisberger and Brett Keisel were named team captains this week, according to Steelers.com.
Roethlisberger is shown in this photo comforting Eagles head coach Andy Reid, whose son died this summer. That shows a common decency that he didn't always have in his younger years, and his refusal to miss his son's birth if it's on a game day shows how much he has matured.
The 30-year-old quarterback could be on the precipice of becoming a vocal leader.
Ryan Clark and James Harrison, though not named captains, have been outspoken at times and have the potential to be vocal leaders. They just have to harness their bluster in a way that motivates their teammates.
Perhaps locker-room leadership is overrated, but with fiery Todd Haley as offensive coordinator and Mike Wallace clearly playing with dollar signs in his eyes, strong personalities might be needed to keep everyone striving toward a common goal.