The 2013 NFL preseason is in the books, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are only a week away from going live in the regular season. It has been a preseason that has caused Steelers fans to shake their heads in derision.
Typically, the goal of the preseason is to answer questions about the roster and specific personnel. Sometimes there are position battles. Other times, it's about a player's health. However, the goal is always for clarity.
That's not the case this preseason. As the Steelers put a bow on the exhibition portion of the season, they still have many questions that remain unanswered. Questions that should they remain a mystery, will almost certainly cost them a spot in the playoffs this year.
So, let's take a look at the 10 burning questions for the Steelers as we begin the 2013-14 NFL season.
This offensive line has had flashes of very good and very bad this preseason. And while no quarterback can do more with less than Roethlisberger, the lack of depth makes this unit one injury away from a disaster.
It is prudent to point out that while this offensive line has looked abysmal for significant stretches, that doesn't automatically preclude this team from winning. Quite the contrary.
In particular, when the Steelers beat the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL, they were almost universally lauded as having the worst offensive line of any Super Bowl winning team of all time.
There is a real possibility that the combination of youth, along with the new zone-blocking could equal dynamic long runs and a potent passing game. If so, the answer to this question is a resounding yes.
However, the abject lack of talent beyond the starters is terrifying. This group is an injury or two away from being among the bottom of the league.
The answer to this query should have been Le’Veon Bell. He was a second-round pick in 2012 after a stellar career at Michigan State. But a preseason injury has derailed the start to his rookie campaign.
Next up was to be Jonathan Dwyer. He was the Steelers leading rusher last season with 623 yards. But his preseason has been a nightmare, with momentous struggles in pass support. If you cannot pass protect, your value takes a big hit on this team.
That really leaves the job open to one of three backs. The veteran Isaac Redman, or one of two newcomers LaRod Stephens-Howling and Felix Jones. Jones got a long look in the final preseason game, but was less than spectacular. Stephens-Howling missed some of the preseason with injury, but when he has been on the field, has shown the best fit in the offense.
In the final analysis, this will be a platoon situation. Redman will be first on the depth chart, and get the bulk of the early carries. However, until Bell returns, and assuming Dwyer doesn't make the team, Stephens-Howling and Jones will get their fair share of looks.
With such a mix of running styles, I expect to see the Steelers use the back that fits the situation best, at least until Bell is back to full speed.
In 2012, the Steelers had a dreadful minus-10 in turnover ratio. The good news is they were an even worse minus-13 in 2011. That's an improvement, right? However, if this team wants to get better, they need to turn that negative number back into the positive that Steelers fans are used to.
But, where will they come from? The three key players in this mix are Troy Polamalu, Lawrence Timmons and Cortez Allen. These three are the top athletes on this roster and have the potential to create havoc against opposing offenses.
Timmons in particular shows promise with his overall game. He can force fumbles as a pass-rusher and run-stuffer, but is also adept at dropping into coverage where his excellent instincts should allow him to haul in a few interceptions.
The key to Allen and Polamalu getting their plays will be the pass rush by the front seven. Allen has excellent ball skills and can take advantage of rushed throws, while Polamalu is a tremendous read-and-react type of player in center field.
This trio will be counted on to drive this defense and provide the spark this unit has lacked the past two years.
Traditionally, the Steelers have not been a team to plug rookies into the game plan. But at the start of preseason, this class looked like they were going to break the mold.
Le'Veon Bell looked like he was going to be the feature back this team has been lacking. However, an injury has sidelined him for an indeterminate amount of time, so enthusiasm has been tempered.
Some other members of this rookie class have a real chance to make a difference early. Jarvis Jones will be part of the outside linebacker rotation and has the requisite skills to be a great pass-rusher.
Wide receiver Markus Wheaton and safety Shamarko Thomas are the other two rookies in this class with a real shot to step up and help this team win. While neither will be starters both have genuine potential if not this year, almost certainly down the road.
Numerous NFL pundits have written off the Steelers before the season even starts. The Baltimore Ravens are the defending champs, and everyone and their dog are on either the Cincinnati Bengals or the Cleveland Browns bandwagon.
But make no mistake, a team led by an elite quarterback with a smothering defense can win. And they will find a way to win. The Steelers may not be the best team in the AFC North, but there is no way this team is the worst.
All four teams in the AFC North have questions on their rosters. The difference between 11-5 and 5-11 this season for any of these teams could be a key injury or two. On paper the talent is stacked in the AFC North, so it may come down to a little bit of luck for whichever team finds itself on top.
When Heath Miller was lost to a nasty knee injury at the end of last season, there was a collective gasp among the entire Steelers organization. Miller was without a doubt the team's most consistent and trusted offensive weapon for Ben Roethlisberger.
The picture of when will become more clear if head coach Mike Tomlin activates Miller for the start of the season, or left on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. If Miller is left on the PUP, Week 7 is the earliest the Steelers will see him. If not, many theorize that Miller would be ready to hit the field no later than Week 5.
What will all this mean for the Steelers offense? Miller is Roethlisberger's most trusted target, but this preseason you can see he is gelling well with Miller's replacement, David Paulson and his bevy of speedy outside receivers.
It would be great if Miller were around early in the season, but if not it won't be the end of the world. There's no reason to believe this team won't win without him, but having him on the field sure makes it easier.
I know that for most Steelers fans the answer to this is a resounding no. Nevertheless, it is the topic every year. The Steelers have been running a base 3-4 defense for over 20 years, one of the longest runs of the scheme in the NFL. But the changing face of the NFL, not to mention college football, might mean it's time for a change.
The Steelers have already made some subtle changes to the roles of the defensive line this offseason. Traditionally, the front three have a singular purpose; eat up blocks. This permits the four linebackers behind them to react and fill, making the vast majority of the plays.
But this offseason, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is asking his defensive ends to do more as pass-rushers. This allows the Steelers defense to be more exotic in their blitz and coverage packages. The problem is, none of the defensive ends on this roster have shown any propensity to rush the quarterback. In fact the number of pass-rushing 3-4 defensive ends are incredibly rare.
If this little experiment doesn't pay dividends, the Steelers might want to consider ushering in a new defensive philosophy. Not saying there is anything wrong with the 3-4, but there are times when change is good.
Sometimes, it's hard to believe that Troy Polamalu is 32 years old. It doesn't feel like just over 10 years ago that everyone was passing around that video clip of Polamalu leveling Aaron Lockett on punt coverage while he was in college.
That type of intensity and physical play is what helped Polamalu be selected in the first round of the 2003 NFL draft and what has helped him to make his name in the league.
But one has to wonder if all that punishment he has delivered is starting to take its toll on his body. In 2012 he only played in seven games, and in 2009 he was only healthy enough for five games.
I suppose another way to word this burning question would be whether or not Polamalu can last the entire 2013 NFL season. I don't see that he can, and I don't think the Steelers staff think so either. The Steelers have given significant reps to backup safeties Robert Golden and Da'Mon Cromartie-Smith this preseason.
The Steelers also drafted a young man who reminds many of Polamalu. Shamarko Thomas hasn't been able to get a lot of reps so far, but his style of play mimics Polamalu. Whenever the transition takes place, it looks to be smooth.
As far as a prediction, I give Polamalu three seasons. His body has taken a beating the past 10 seasons. When guys like him start to fall off, it is usually a very fast collapse. Whenever Polamalu does decide to hang it up, he will go down as one of the four or five greatest defensive backs in franchise history.
When James Harrison left via free agency, it was about money. It's always about money. Harrison wanted it, and the Steelers didn't have it. But this is the Steelers, so it's just next man up at outside linebacker, right?
So far, not so much. LaMarr Woodley has been invisible this preseason, and Jason Worilds hasn't fared much better. The Steelers spent a first-round pick on a pass-rusher in Jarvis Jones, but even he hasn't been the explosive rusher Harrison was.
I am not typically one to second guess personnel moves, especially those made largely because of money. I am not a salary-cap expert and never will be. But I do know Harrison was one of the two or three best defensive players on this team the past six seasons, and it appears he will be missed this year.
I understand why he wasn't signed. The NFL is a business first and foremost. The Steelers are one team that rarely caves to demands of free agents. I just can't help but think if this defense is slow out of the gates, there won't be questions as to why the Steelers didn't find the money to keep Harrison.
When the Steelers drafted Sean Spence in the third round of the 2012 NFL draft, I was elated. He was one of the most exciting inside linebackers in all of college football that season. His speed and explosion popped off the screen every time I watched him play.
So, when Spence went down with a gruesome knee injury in the preseason, it was crushing. So much potential is seemingly gone along with any hope of a career in the NFL.
Reports of Spence's recovery have been convoluted and confusing ever since. For every source that speculates he will never play again, another says he's going to make a full recovery for the 2014 season.
I continue to believe the Steelers see Spence as the long-term answer at inside linebacker and that's why they haven't done an injury settlement with him. A healthy Spence lined up next to Lawrence Timmons would be the best interior duo in the AFC.
How this relates to this season is all about Vince Williams and Chris Carter. Both have flashed this preseason, and I am guessing how they perform will play a huge part on the future of Spence with the Steelers and maybe with the NFL altogether.