Defense Key for Early-Season Success for Pittsburgh Steelers

Chris Gazze@ChrisG_PITCorrespondent ISeptember 5, 2013

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 09:  Troy Polamalu #43 of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs a play during the game against the San Diego Chargers on December 9, 2012 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
Joe Sargent/Getty Images

The NFL season officially kicked off on Thursday night, much to the delight of football fans everywhere. But for the city of Pittsburgh, the real show starts on Sunday afternoon.

The Steelers will be looking for a strong start to their 2013 season as they open with the Tennessee Titans at Heinz Field on Sunday afternoon. It will be the first step in a long journey to what they hope will be an AFC North title and a return trip to the playoffs.

There is plenty to be excited about. Ben Roethlisberger looks comfortable in the updated offense, and the young offensive line is poised for a breakout season. While the potential is there for the offense to be improved, it will likely experience some early-season growing pains.

Problems along the offensive line will be the primary reason that the offense does not live up to its potential early in the season. Even though it is comprised of a talented group of players with plenty of upside, they are inexperienced and need time to jell.

Mike Adams and Marcus Gilbert will be the primary concerns, particularly when they are forced to match up one-on-one against speed rushers. Neither player is fleet of foot. They will have problems in pass protection.

Without a true blocking tight end healthy right now, the Steelers may have to lean on Kelvin Beachum to provide outside help. It will certainly limit the Steelers in the passing game, but it will help keep Roethlisberger’s jersey clean.

On the interior, David DeCastro flashed the ability to dominate defensive linemen. But he will have to continue to develop consistency. Ramon Foster was his steady self throughout the preseason.

Instead, it is the Steelers' Pro Bowl center who is the concern.

Maurkice Pouncey wasn’t just bad at various points throughout the preseason—he was downright terrible. He failed to get his hands on defenders, got overpowered by other linemen and was called for multiple penalties.

While the offensive line will get most of the criticism—and rightly so—the offense will have other issues early on.

Roethlisberger will have to develop timing with his receivers, particularly Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery, as well as find ways to integrate his newer options—David Paulson and Will Johnson—into the equation.

They will also have to deal with the absence of Heath Miller and find new ways to reach the end zone without him or Mike Wallace in the lineup.

Of course, all of this could change if the Steelers can develop a strong ground attack. But with Isaac Redman starting, they will be limited. The return of talented—but unproven—Le’Veon Bell will be a welcomed addition.

All of these issues, whether they are big or small, will add up and could mean low point production over the first few weeks of the season. But do not expect things to be bad for long; the talent should eventually take over.

Until then, look for the defense to be the key to the early-season wins. Luckily for the Steelers, the defense appears primed for a strong season.

Two of the primary reasons are Troy Polamalu and LaMarr Woodley.

Pittsburgh’s star defensive players have struggled through injuries and spent too much time on the sideline last season. They are healthy entering 2013 and have shown that they can still be productive players.

Polamalu has been excellent near the line of scrimmage and will continue to be a presence there, particularly when the Steelers face some strong running games over the first four weeks of the season. He will really need to make his presence felt against Chris Johnson and Adrian Peterson.

Making plays behind the line of scrimmage will be big for not just Polamalu, but also Woodley.

Woodley showed some of the burst and power that made him one of the most feared pass-rushers in the league a couple of years ago.

The lack of pressure from Woodley is one of the main reasons the Steelers have failed to get to the quarterback and force turnovers over the last two seasons. Now that he is back in shape and at full strength, the defense is no longer just good—it can become a feared unit once again.

In addition to Polamalu and Woodley, new starters Steve McLendon and Cortez Allen have the potential to be disruptive forces and develop into two of the better defenders on the Steelers’ roster.

McLendon is good against the run, but he also has the ability to collapse the middle of the offensive line, which will get pressure in the quarterback’s face. This is important since Larry Foote is not a dynamic pass-rusher and Dick LeBeau often will use Lawrence Timmons to drop into coverage rather than rush the passer.

Allen may be the Steelers' second-best playmaker in the secondary behind Polamalu. He will be a threat to not just make plays on the ball, but also to create turnovers.

Some of his best opportunities will come on passing downs when Cameron Heyward and Jarvis Jones should be rotated into the defense, where they can use their skills to get to hurry the quarterback into poor throws and possibly force turnovers.

Not only should the defense keep the opponent’s point production down, but it can help set up the offense for scores by forcing turnovers and giving the offense good field position.

Keeping the opposition from the end zone will help keep the Steelers in position to win the game and with Roethlisberger under center, anything can happen. But without a strong defensive effort to start the year, it could be a slow start for the Steelers.