After an offseason of veteran purging and offensive line revamping, the 2012 version of the Pittsburgh Steelers heads to training camp in Latrobe on Wednesday. Gone are familiar faces such as Hines Ward, James Farrior, Aaron Smith, Chris Kemeoatu, William Gay, and Chris Hoke, all jettisoned in the offseason as part of a salary cap-induced youth movement. Offensive Coordinator Bruce Arians “retired” and was replaced by Todd Haley, and the Steelers welcome a highly-regarded draft class to assume many of the roles previously manned by now-departed veterans. A look at what to watch for as the Steelers hit the ground at Latrobe:
1. Ben Roethlisberger, meet Todd Haley.
Ben Roethlisberger’s buddy Steelers’ offensive coordinator Bruce Arians was forced to retire (quickly un-retiring to be the Colts’ offensive coordinator) this offseason and was replaced by Todd Haley. Ben has been engaging in his usual dramatic antics, suggesting that Haley’s playbook is tough to learn and lamenting the fact that Haley hadn’t reached out to him more quickly after being hired. At the end of the day, however, Ben is a competitor and once he gets his “Bruce Arians Memorial Whining” out of the way, he and Haley figure to work together effectively. With the Steelers’ top 4 WR’s returning, as well as a rebuilt and improved offensive line, the Steelers’ offense figures to improve on its 2011 performance in which the Steelers finished tied for 21st in scoring.
2. A revamped offensive line. There will be no bigger change on the Pittsburgh Steelers this year than on the offensive line. Chris Kemeoatu was cut in the offseason, Willie Colon returns from his second straight lost season and has been moved inside to LG, and the Steelers’ top two draft choices, David DeCastro and Mike Adams, will be in the mix to start and/or receive immediate playing time at RG and LT, respectively. Max Starks was resigned last week to play LT in the event that Adams does not win the job in camp. When the Steelers start the season back in Denver this September, the offensive line will look like this:
I anticipate that Starks will be the LT, at least to start the season, and that DeCastro will start from day one. The offensive line has been somewhere between shaky and horrendous for the past five years, but the return of Colon and the drafting of DeCastro and Adams give the Steelers optimism that a long-time weakness will become a strenght.
3. Running back by committee. With Rashard Mendenhall almost certain to start the season on the PUP-list (which would knock him out for the first six games), the question of who will carry the ball for the Steelers becomes decision number one for Haley. Isaac Redman figures to get the bulk of the carries in Mendenhall’s absence. Redman is a solid backup who is a strong runner with who gives great effort, but he is limited, lacking top end speed and elusiveness. Chris Rainey, the Steelers’ 5th round draft choice out of Florida, is the exact opposite of Redman, operating best in space and who figures to be used very similarly to how Dexter McCluster was used by Haley in Kansas City. Jonathan Dwyer and John Clay also return, likely battling for one spot on the roster. Dwyer showed flashes in 2011, including a 107-yard performance in Week 5 against Tennessee, but his conditioning, dedication, and ability to stay healthy are always question marks. Last year’s training camp sensation, Baron Batch, looks to replace Mewelde Moore as the 3rd down back, and as long as his surgically-repaired ACL holds up, Batch will have every chance to be the 3rd down back and in the mix for carries.
4. Will Mike Wallace sign? After releasing Jonathan Scott last week, the Steelers are approximately $6 million under the salary cap. This includes the $2.74 million tender given to Wallace, thus the Steelers have, in essence, $8.75 million to use for the 2012 season. Some of this space will go to David DeCastro (terms of his contract are still unknown), but even with that deal the Steelers should be able to absord a cap hit of $5-6 million for Wallace. Given the creativity of Steelers’ capologist Omar Khan, and given the manner by which cap hits can be manipulated through the use of roster bonuses, the Steelers have the cap space to give Wallace a large chunk of up-front, guaranteed money that’s cap hit is spread over several years. Wallace received no offers as an RFA, thus he lacks any real leverage to hold out into the 2012 season. Mike Wallace will be a Steeler in 2012. The only question is whether he is locked up on a longterm contract or if he signs his one-year tender and plays out his contract and becomes a UFA after the season. Given the Steelers’ propensity for locking up core players longterm, the smart money is on Wallace being a Steeler for a long time.
5. CB position available. With the departures of William Gay and Bryant McFadden, the Steelers have an opening at LCB. Keenan Lewis heads into camp as the favorite for the spot, as he bounced back from two disappointing seasons to play well as the 3rd CB in 2011. Lewis has started only one game in the NFL, but has the size and man coverage skills the Steelers prefer in the corners, but he’s not particularly fast for the position and can be inconsistent. Last year’s 4th round pick out of The Citadel, Cortez Allen, will challenge Lewis for the starting spot. Allen lacks experience playing against top competition, but he possesses excellent cover skills, good speed, and possesses good size for the position. Curtis Brown will also be in the mix, but he is likely behind both Lewis and Allen.
6. Replacing James Farrior. With James Farrior now retired, Larry Foote will likely assume Farrior’s role at the BUCK linebacker spot in Dick LeBeau’s defense. Foote has played in the Steelers’ defense for 9 of his 10 NFL seasons and is well-schooled in the complex schemes of the defense. Foote is solid against the run but struggles in coverage, a skill not improving as he enters his 11th NFL season. Stevenson Sylvester will compete with Foote for the spot. Sylvester has played less than 50 real snaps as an NFL linebacker, so it’s difficult to assess his chances, but he’s better than Foote in coverage but less stout at the point of attack. Mortty Ivy and Brandon Johnson will also figure to get looks at the spot as camp unfolds.
It’s been a strange summer in Pittsburgh. Between the resurgence of the Pirates, the scandal at Penn State, and the Penguins’ failed pursuit of Zach Parise, the Steelers have been something of an afterthought since the draft. This all will change starting on Wednesday, and we will keep you informed of what matters as the Steelers get ready for the 2012 season.