It was back to Steelers football this past Sunday. A relatively balanced offensive attack paired with an aggressive defense was the perfect recipe for a blowout win.
What made the win even more impressive was that they did so without six starters. The offensive line was without Chris Kemoeatu and Jonathan Scott and running back Rashard Mendenhall only dressed so the Steelers could meet their gameday roster requirement.
Aaron Smith and Casey Hampton were absent from the defensive line, while star linebacker James Harrison missed the first of what should be several weeks following surgery to repair a fractured orbital bone.
All of a sudden, the defense got younger and the line went back to the future with the return of Max Starks.
Were the answers to all of the questions surrounding the Steelers as simple as a small roster turnover? On the surface, it seems the changes were for the good.
But should they be permanent changes?
Here is a look at which starters may have lost their jobs due to injury.
Kemoeatu has had knee issues that have bothered him since before training camp and will likely linger throughout the entire season.
Many fans were excited to see him out of the lineup given his lackluster play this season.
The problem is that he is replaced with Doug Legursky.
Legursky is a smart lineman, but is undersized and is often overmatched by larger and stronger defensive linemen.
At times, this leads to the middle of the line collapsing on Ben Roethlisberger. Maurkice Pouncey will sometimes break his assignment to provide help, which just leaves another free rusher.
However, Legursky will then put a great play together such as his pull block, which helped create room for Jonathan Dwyer’s 76-yard run last week.
These plays do not happen enough to outweigh the negative ones.
When he returns to health, Kemoeatu should return to his starting left guard position.
When Scott was initially injured, there was a great level of concern given the lack of depth behind him.
This forced Trai Essex into the starting lineup.
While Essex is not the worst tackle in the league, he lacks athleticism and struggles against speed rushers. That is not exactly a good combination for a tackle protecting the quarterback’s blind side.
But the Steelers front office finally came through and made a move that they should have made weeks ago. They re-signed Starks.
Starks seemed to have rejuvenated the offensive line. They only allowed one sack last week, and Roethlisberger was rarely under pressure.
Even the ground game looked more competent than usual.
Scott did play last week after Marcus Gilbert left with a shoulder injury and performed well. It was just not well enough to return to the starting lineup.
Starks should continue to man left tackle, while a healthy Gilbert should maintain his starting position at right tackle.
Anytime you lose the plug in the center of your defense there is concern. The good news for the Steelers is that they have an excellent backup.
Chris Hoke has been here before.
In 2004, Hoke started 10 games at nose tackle and helped lead the Steelers to the top rushing defense in the league.
Seven years later he has maintained his high standard of play.
Hoke was a major part of Pittsburgh’s success against Chris Johnson last week. He finished the game with two tackles for a loss and a quarterback pressure.
Despite his success, Hoke is a player the Steelers like to come off the bench, and he should continue in his role as top backup to starter Casey Hampton.
Unlike Hampton, Smith wasn’t replaced by an old veteran, but instead the young, talented Ziggy Hood.
Hood improved his play over the last two months of the 2010 season and was dominant at times.
Though he is not the run-stuffer that Smith is, Hood is a well-rounded player who is developing into a nice pass-rusher at end.
He has more than earned playing time, and the injury to Smith has finally given him another shot.
Over the years, Smith has been the ultimate competitor and had established himself as the top 3-4 defensive end in the league.
Sadly, those days are over.
The injuries that Smith has sustained over the years looked to have caught up to him, as he is not the same player who we have all become accustomed to.
Smith has been physically been dominated at the point of attack and was one of the major reasons the rush defense has suffered over the first two weeks.
It is clear that the job at left defensive end should now go to Hood.
Harrison still has not looked to be in game shape following multiple offseason back surgeries.
Even so, he was slowly improving and beginning to make some of the plays that have earned him Defensive Player of the Year honors.
With an injury to Jason Worilds, Lawrence Timmons had the opportunity at outside linebacker, and after one week, no one will mistake him for a healthy Harrison.
Quite simply, Harrison is the Steelers best option when healthy.
If they can get by over the next few weeks without him, Harrison may not only come back healthy from his eye surgery, but also in better shape with his back.
There is no question that Harrison should return to his starting role, though it may be wise for the Steelers to spell him more often with Worilds when he returns to full health.
Quite possibly the most controversial player on the roster, Mendenhall has fallen out of favor with fans, and maybe the coaches, with his lack of production this season.
Mendenhall has spent more time dancing in the backfield looking for the big play rather than quickly hitting the limited holes available to him.
Last year, Mendenhall proved that he could succeed with poor run blocking in front of him, but the offensive line is worse this year.
The lack of blocking has had a hit on Mendenhall’s production. He only has 58 carries for 173 yards and a miniscule 3.0 yards per carry average.
The stats would not look as bad if he did not take so many carries with no gains and losses while looking for the perfect spot to run.
That is why there has been so many calling for Isaac Redman to get more playing time.
Redman had been very successful in limited playing time with his best game of 2011 coming against the Seattle Seahawks when he rumbled for 49 yards on 10 carries.
He matched that production this past Sunday in his first start, but it took him 15 carries.
The encouraging sign from Redman is that he moved the defense forward virtually every play.
That is why his 3.3 yard average is not so bad. He was consistently gaining at least three yards and there were very few carries for no gain.
Redman may not have the pedigree that Mendenhall has, but he is running harder right now.
If Mendenhall can return to the form that he was in against the New York Jets in the playoffs last season, the Steelers would be in great shape.
At this point, though, Mendenhall is not there, and while he should return to his starting role when healthy, Redman should get more opportunities.
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