6 Questions That Remain Unanswered for the Pittsburgh Steelers After Week 1
The team will continue to attempt to answer them during this Sunday's afternoon tilt with the New York Jets (1-0).
Here's a look at six of the most burning questions that the black and gold boys haven't answered after one week of action.
What's Wrong with the Defense?
This is perhaps the most important question to answer emphatically in Week 2. The Steelers defense was called old last year after one game and responded by becoming the top-ranked unit in the NFL.
Well, this year, they look even older after one week. The blitz doesn't generate enough pressure (particular given that the Broncos do not have one of the league's elite offensive lines), they cannot get off the field without giving up points and they were winded after one drive of no-huddle football by Peyton Manning.
This has the potential to define the season. The Steelers opted to improve their offensive line first in the draft and didn't have the money to spend on free agent improvements. Next season, they may have to work hard on this side of the ball or risk fielding a unit that can't keep up.
For 2012, the best fixes I can think of are to abandon starting Casey Hampton completely and go with the more athletic and youthful Steve McLendon. Let Hampton relieve on important running downs or for some late-game pressure.
In addition, the Steelers need to bring more pressure from their inside linebackers. A return to health by outside star James Harrison should help the pass rush, but guys like Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons need to get more involved with bringing down the quarterback.
Until the defense can fix the pressure issue, they'll never be able to take the heat off an underwhelming secondary.
Is the Offensive Line Really Improved?
I'm tempted to give this group a pass because they lost two players on the right side to minor injuries on this night. That's a rare thing and probably contributed to some of the problems, but then I realized that injuries are part of the season and that good teams overcome them.
Mike Adams and Doug Legursky couldn't overcome anything on Sunday night. Legursky is much more suited to play center. He lacks the combination of quickness and physicality to survive at guard. Adams needs more seasoning than anyone thought.
Beyond that, Willie Colon's chief accomplishment at left guard was that he didn't get hurt. He committed some more ridiculous penalties, a trademark problem for him, that sapped momentum from a couple drives. His blocking was acceptable in the passing game but suspect in the running game.
Max Starks stood out as a solid performer and handled solo duty on the left side very well after Gilbert went down.
This unit still has a lot of work to do and I was particularly disappointed in the way they finished. They looked tired and like they'd given up in allowing three sacks on the final drive. That cannot happen at any time, but is especially disconcerting at the end of the first game.
Keenan Lewis or Cortez Allen?
The battle throughout the preseason was neck and neck, with both guys having an outstanding set of performances. Coming into the Denver game, the question was more about who was the better of two good players.
Now the question might be more of which player can do the least amount of damage on the outside as a starter. The Denver game was poorly played by the entire secondary and highlights the larger problem of depth at free safety, where Ryan Mundy showed again that he is not an NFL-caliber player.
But at corner, there were more problems than solutions. Lewis was alternately decent and awful. His pass interference penalty that set the Broncos up near the Pittsburgh goal line was unnecessary and flagrant. He also interfered on a 3rd-and-goal play but escaped the call.
Allen had a couple of instances of blown coverage and overall was pedestrian. The fact that the Steelers didn't use a high draft pick on a cornerback haunted them in this game. Ike Taylor was asked to do too much, and it showed against a top quarterback.
The Jets bring in a set of receivers who can do some serious damage. If Allen and Lewis can't both pull it together in a hurry, the Steelers could find themselves at 0-2 this time next week.
How Are the Special Teams Units?
This game didn't feature a lot of punts and the kickoffs in Denver traditionally go through the end zone or the uprights. What we did see was pretty inconclusive.
Shaun Suisham looks solid. The same can be said of rookie Drew Butler. Seeing them at Heinz Field will be instructive this weekend, but I didn't have any major questions about them as the season began anyway. The coverage and return units, both of which Mike Tomlin was unimpressed with during the preseason (and which prompted a coaching change there), were only so-so.
This question may go largely unanswered for awhile. It will take a few games to get a solid body of work together. If the Steelers can prove that they can be consistent here, these units have a chance to positively impact the season record. They also could go the other way. It's really up to them.
I do like the mix of Antonio Brown and Chris Rainey as primary returners. That will keep both guys fresh and will give the coverage guys a lot of different looks.
What's with the Rushing Attack?
This is at least a positive question. The Steelers came out of the preseason with an excellent stable of young running backs that all had shown the ability to contribute regularly to the backfield rotation.
After one week, we are still really no closer to seeing exactly how carries are going to be split. Rashard Mendenhall isn't back yet either, so this question will be at least partially incomplete for awhile.
The Steelers don't routinely make trades, but a healthy return by Mendenhall could allow them to move an effective runner to a team in need for draft picks or secondary help to bolster a weak unit. It's something they should at least consider after getting burned by Peyton Manning last Sunday.
The real question centers on who the true primary back is: Jonathan Dwyer or Isaac Redman. Redman is nominally the starter, but Dwyer ran better behind a patchwork line at several points during the game. Redman was effective as well, but Dwyer might be a little better at pushing after contact.
It's a good question to have, but one we nonetheless have no answer to yet. For me, the best thing would be to split their carries dead even until one rises above the other.
How Good Is This Team, Really?
The Steelers didn't earn a good grade in their Week 1 performance, but there are several variables that hurt that grade, and the fact that only one true game is now in the books.
There's plenty of time for a big improvement, but one will have to happen for this team to contend. The Steelers we saw on Sunday night were of the 7-9 or 8-8 variety, not the 12-4 or 13-3 ilk. This week's contest with the Jets will add another set of performances with which we can begin assembling a real analysis of this team.
The biggest issues right now are health- and effort-based. The health should get a boost from James Harrison, Ramon Foster and Marcus Gilbert all returning or possibly returning to action this week. Harrison's return, which is still questionable, is of particular importance because his replacement (Chris Carter) has been an utter disaster.
The effort-based problems are more concerning. The Steelers wore down quickly against Denver, especially on defense. They got mentally whipped by Peyton Manning. The offensive line seemed to quit at the end, something I'm sure set Mike Tomlin off in the locker room.
A mixture of age and coaching is at play. How that mixture is handled will determine success or failure this year. There's a delicate balance that can be achieved, but it requires a lot of very good and very difficult decisions. The Steelers made the tough choices in the offseason. They need to do it again.
After a Week 1 drubbing last season in Baltimore, the Steelers finished 12-3. If they can do that again, this poor game will be forgotten once again. But the coaches are on alert right now. All is not yet well with Pittsburgh.
Don't push that panic button folks. I have complete faith in Mike Tomlin, his staff and the leaders of this team to sort of most of this stuff before they take the field on this Sunday afternoon.