Published August 27, 2012
The pass that expanded the legacy of Tim Tebow also raised one very gigantic question about the team that it came against.
Did the Denver Broncos' stunning 29-23 victory in the 2011 AFC Wild Card Playoffs, decided on a miraculous 80-yard touchdown connection from Tebow to Demaryius Thomas on the first play of overtime, signal the beginning of the end of the Pittsburgh Steelers reign of excellence?
In many ways, 2012 will be a year of major transition for the Black and Gold. Perhaps the franchise's most accomplished player during its most recent period of glory, wide receiver Hines Ward, announced his retirement in March after 14 sensational seasons with the organization. A pair of defensive stalwarts, linebacker James Farrior and end Aaron Smith, are also gone following long and storied runs. A revised offense now under the command of former Kansas City head coach Todd Haley is being installed with the team opting not to renew the contract of previous play-caller Bruce Arians.
The summer months have brought new trials as well. Three important players -- running back Rashard Mendenhall, nose tackle Casey Hampton and offensive tackle Max Starks -- are mending from ACL tears each sustained during a harsh January. Game-changing linebacker James Harrison has missed all of training camp while recovering from a scope on one of his 34-year-old knees.
More medical concerns have crept up during the preseason, with starting fullback David Johnson tearing his ACL in the opening game and prized rookie guard David DeCastro -- Pittsburgh's first-round choice in April's draft -- likely to spend his first year on the sidelines after suffering a serious knee injury later on.
And maybe most significantly, wide receiver Mike Wallace hasn't taken part in any offseason activities in protest over his failure to receive a long-term contract, leaving the altered offense without its best playmaker as the Steelers prepare for the upcoming campaign.
"I agree that there are some challenges, but I think there are challenges in every camp," head coach Mike Tomlin remarked. "I understand the perception from the outside that there are unanswered questions, but I've had that mentality about every camp I've been a part of. For me, there are questions every year."
The Steelers have certainly overcome adverse situations before during Tomlin's outstanding five-year tenure in charge, most notably a four-game suspension to star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to begin the 2010 season. Pittsburgh went 12-4 and reached the Super Bowl that year, then matched that victory total this past season to reach the playoffs for the fourth time under Tomlin's hand.
Though these latest hurdles won't be easy to clear, there are still plenty of reasons to believe the Steelers can remain near the top of the AFC heap. Most of the core components from the mostly successful ventures of the past two years are still in place, with Roethlisberger in the prime of his career and the traditionally stout defense showing few signs of decline despite advancing age and a few depletions. And Wallace is fully expected to end his holdout in time for the start of the regular season.
Moreover, the Steelers should be entering 2012 with a heightened sense of urgency after last year's early flameout.
"Last year we had an empty feeling at the end of the season," said backup quarterback Charlie Batch. "I think guys are ready, fired up and ready to go."
Below we take a capsule look at the 2012 edition of the Pittsburgh Steelers, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2011 RECORD: 12-4 (tied 1st, AFC North)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2011, lost to Denver in AFC Wild Card
COACH (RECORD): Mike Tomlin (55-25 in five seasons)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Todd Haley (first seasons with Steelers)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Dick LeBeau (14th season with Steelers, 11th as DC)
OFFENSIVE STAR: Ben Roethlisberger, QB (4077 passing yards, 21 TD, 14 INT)
DEFENSIVE STAR: Troy Polamalu, SS (91 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT)
2011 OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 12th overall (14th rushing, 10th passing), tied 21st scoring (20.3 ppg)
2011 DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 1st overall (8th rushing, 1st passing), 1st scoring (14.2 ppg)
KEY ADDITIONS: LT Mike Adams (2nd Round, Ohio State), RG David DeCastro (1st Round, Stanford), WR Chris Rainey (5th Round, Florida), TE Leonard Pope (from Chiefs), NT Alameda Ta'amu (4th Round, Washington), OLB Brandon Johnson (from Bengals)
KEY DEPARTURES: DE Aaron Smith (released), ILB James Farrior (released), CB William Gay (to Cardinals), P Daniel Sepulveda (free agent), QB Dennis Dixon (free agent), RB Mewelde Moore (to Colts), WR Hines Ward (retired), WR Arnaz Battle (released), OG Chris Kemoeatu (released), OT Jonathan Scott (to Lions), OT Jamon Meredith (to Buccaneers), NT Chris Hoke (retired), CB Bryant McFadden (released)
QB: Roethlisberger (4077 passing yards, 21 TD, 14 INT) may not be held in the highest regard by fantasy fanatics because he doesn't put up the insane passing numbers of some of his peers, but the burly quarterback's importance to the Steelers can't be truly quantified by statistics. He's won two Super Bowls and over 70 percent (80-33) of his starts since entering the NFL in 2004, while earning a reputation as one of the league's toughest players with an uncommon flair for coming up with big plays. The 30-year-old has still quietly eclipsed the 4,000-yard plateau in two of the last three seasons, though his 19 turnovers (14 INT, 5 fumbles) in 2011 were the third-highest total of his distinguished career. No major changes were made to Pittsburgh's reserve ranks in the offseason. Byron Leftwich is a good No. 2 when healthy, but he's missed all or parts of the last three seasons with various injuries. That's one reason why the team brought back Batch (208 passing yards, 1 INT) for a 15th NFL season, though the 37-year-old's value comes mostly from his leadership and the knowledge he brings.
RB: Haley's goal of obtaining a more balanced offense may be realized even with Mendenhall (928 rushing yards, 9 TD, 18 receptions) on the sidelines for the start of the season, as understudy Isaac Redman (479 rushing yards, 3 TD, 18 receptions) is a capable and physical inside runner who's been effective when called upon, as evidenced by the 17-carry, 121-yard output the former practice-squad resident delivered in Mendenhall's steed during last January's playoff loss. Mendenhall could be ready by early October after having a relatively smooth recovery from his knee surgery, which would add a two-time 1,000-yard rusher with a solid track record and ensure both backs staying fresh. Jonathan Dwyer (123 rushing yards), a powerfully built 2010 draft choice who's been slowed by injuries during his brief pro career, also factors into the mix after putting together a good preseason. Passing-down specialist Mewelde Moore's decision to join Arians in Indianapolis may open the door for Baron Batch, a seventh-round pick in last year's draft who missed all of his rookie season with an ACL tear of his own. The Texas Tech product's calling card is his receiving skills, having amassed 140 receptions in the Red Raiders' pass-happy offense as a collegian. The Steelers also landed the University of Florida's Chris Rainey in the fifth round of the most recent draft, with the 180-pound speedster ticketed for a role similar to how Haley used the similarly built Dexter McCluster in Kansas City. Johnson's injury leaves the Steelers without a proven lead blocker at fullback, where Will Johnson -- a beefed-up former college wide receiver signed after an impressive workout at West Virginia's spring Pro Day -- now tops the depth chart.
WR: Even with the crafty Ward no longer available to turn to in crunch time, the wide receiver position still rates as arguably the strongest area on the Pittsburgh roster. Wallace (72 receptions, 1193 yards, 8 TD) is one of the game's premier deep threats who's averaged nearly 19 yards per catch over his first three seasons, while third-year pro Antonio Brown hauled in 69 passes for 1,108 yards in a breakthrough sophomore campaign and was rewarded with a five-year, $42.5 million extension during camp, a move that didn't do much towards smoothing the tension between Wallace and the front office over his contract situation. No. 3 receiver Emmanuel Sanders (22 receptions, 2 TD) has been injury-prone over his first two seasons in the league, but gives the offense a potentially dynamic weapon out of the slot in multi-receiver looks, while veteran Jerricho Cotchery (16 receptions, 2 TD) is a trusty chain-mover who'll help replace the experience lost by Ward's retirement. Expect the multi-dimensional Rainey, a dangerous open-field runner, to be utilized some as a receiver in addition to his duties in the backfield and on returns. The only real question mark here is how quickly Wallace picks up the new system after skipping the majority of the offseason installation process.
TE: One of the Steelers' most consistent performers, Heath Miller (51 receptions, 2 TD) provides Roethlisberger with another fine option in the passing game and doubles as a tenacious blocker on running downs. The often- overlooked tight end's production has dwindled the past two years following a 76-catch, 789-yard season in 2009, but that's in part due to the team being forced to use him extensively as a pass blocker to compensate for the line's protection issues at times. Miller's new backup will be ex-Chief Leonard Pope (24 receptions, 1 TD), an inviting target at 6-foot-8 with plenty of familiarity with Haley, having previously played for the latter in past stops in Kansas City and Arizona. Second-year man Weslye Saunders made a good contribution as a blocker after making the roster as an undrafted rookie last year, but will sit out the season's first four games for testing positive for a banned supplement. That could enable 2012 seventh-round choice David Paulson (Oregon) to survive final cuts.
OL: General manager Kevin Colbert made addressing an offensive line that's allowed 42 sacks or more in six straight seasons a top priority in the draft, snaring Stanford All-American DeCastro in the first round and talented Ohio State tackle Mike Adams in the second. The rookie duo had been slated to work as instant starters at right guard and left tackle, respectively, but that proposed plan has hit some snags with DeCastro probably headed to injured reserve and Adams, a first-rounder on ability who slipped to the 56th overall pick because of off-field red flags and work ethic concerns, struggling badly in the preseason. The Steelers still aren't in dire straits, though, as Starks is a serviceable left tackle who's manned the position when healthy since 2008 and Ramon Foster did a credible job as a 13-game starter at right guard a year ago. The rest of the interior should be in good shape, provided Willie Colon can avoid the injuries that have limited the converted right tackle to just one game over the last two years and he can make a smooth transition to left guard. 2010 first-rounder Maurkice Pouncey has already established himself as one of the league's better centers, having been named to the Pro Bowl in each of his first two seasons. Colon's switch was made due to Pittsburgh's faith in second-year right tackle Marcus Gilbert, who handled himself well in 13 starts as a rookie and possesses the athleticism to possibly handle the left side as well. The depth takes a hit with DeCastro's untimely injury, but backup center Doug Legursky was adequate in 10 starts subbing at all three inside spots last season and eighth-year man Trai Essex has considerable experience at both guard and tackle.
DL: Excellent work in the trenches by a seasoned and skilled three-man front has had Pittsburgh annually ranked among the NFL's top teams in stopping the run during the ageless Dick LeBeau's long and highly successful reign as defensive coordinator, and that's expected to be the case once again despite the group getting a bit long in the tooth. With creeky knees and turning 35 in September, Hampton (31 tackles) can no longer be counted upon to be anything beyond a rotational player, but the five-time Pro Bowl selection doesn't have to be anything more with the development of former practice-squadder Steve McLendon (13 tackles, 1 sack) and the addition of rookie Alameda Ta'amu (Washington), a 348-pound clogger taken in the fourth round of this last draft. Eleventh-year pro Brett Keisel (48 tackles, 3 sacks) continues to play at a high level from his right end post, but the bearded vet may see his snaps reduced as well with 2011 first-round pick Cameron Heyward (11 tackles, 1 sack) appearing ready for a more prominent role. On the other side, the team believes returning starter Ziggy Hood (31 tackles, 1.5 sacks) is on the verge of a breakout after showing sporadic flashes of stardom his first two seasons. There's also potential in projected reserve Al Woods, a failed fourth-round choice of the Saints in 2010 who's bounced around the league the last couple of years.
LB: The backbone of Pittsburgh's fierce defense during Tomlin's tenure, the linebacker corps enters 2012 with more questions than in past years. Harrison (59 tackles, 9 sacks) remains one of the sport's elite pass rushers -- and most notorious head-hunters -- but missed five games last year with an eye injury and a brief suspension and may not be ready for the start of this season due to his troublesome knee. Counterpart LaMarr Woodley (39 tackles, 9 sacks) has amassed 44 sacks over the last four seasons, but a hamstring problem limited him to 10 contests in 2011, and top outside reserve Jason Worilds (38 tackles, 3 sacks) has been out all of camp after undergoing wrist surgery. The Steelers got younger at inside linebacker by parting ways with the declining Farrior following 10 quality seasons, though not by much. The battle-tested Larry Foote (47 tackles, 1.5 sacks) will assume that spot, but the 32-year-old is viewed only as a stopgap until the team deems 2012 third- rounder Sean Spence ready to assume that post. The former Miami-Florida standout has drawn high marks for his speed and instincts and could form an athletic tandem with steady holdover Lawrence Timmons (93 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) in short order. Third-year man Stevenson Sylvester returns to reprise his assignment as an interior reserve and core special-teamer, while free-agent pickup Brandon Johnson (31 tackles) can play either outside or inside and is regarded as being strong in coverage.
DB: Three top-notch regulars from a secondary that helped the Steelers allow the fewest passing yards (171.9 ypg) in the league last season are back for 2012, headlined by perennial All-Pro strong safety Troy Polamalu (91 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT, 14 PD). The soft-spoken 2010 NFL Defensive Player of the Year's tremendous range and run-stopping ability make him arguably the team's biggest x-factor, and Pittsburgh's 6-7 record in the 13 games he's missed since 2009 supports that claim. Free safety Ryan Clark (100 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) has spent much of his career playing in Polamalu's shadow, but the reliable 10- year back-liner is plenty important in his own right, as the unit's glaring breakdowns in the Denver loss when he was out of the lineup illustrated. The Steelers are well set at one cornerback position with mainstay Ike Taylor (44 tackles, 2 INT, 14 PD), who competed at a Pro Bowl level in limiting opposing quarterbacks to under a 42 percent completion rate last season, but there's some uncertainty opposite him with starter William Gay leaving for Arizona as a free agent. Keenan Lewis (37 tackles, 1 INT) is the favorite to step in after serving as the primary nickel back last year, with 2011 draft picks Cortez Allen (15 tackles) and Curtis Brown (14 tackles) battling to earn time in sub packages. Ryan Mundy (37 tackles, 1 INT) returns as the top backup at safety and one of Pittsburgh's leaders on the special teams coverage crews.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Antonio Brown was the clear bright spot of an otherwise pedestrian special teams cast last season, with the emerging star wideout making the Pro Bowl as a returner after ranking among the AFC leaders taking back kickoffs (27.3 avg.) and punts (10.8 avg., 1 TD). His importance on offense will likely cause him to relinquish those duties in 2012, however, with Sanders the top option on punts and Rainey a prime candidate to handle kicks. The kicking game wasn't a strength, with Shaun Suisham connecting on a league-worst 74.2 percent (23-of-31) of his field goal attempts and punter Jeremy Kapinos (45.0 avg.) putting together a decent but unspectacular season. He could be pushed out by rookie Drew Butler (Georgia), who's displayed excellent leg strength and a nice touch in the preseason. Greg Warren enters his eighth season as Pittsburgh's long snapper and has about as much job security as any member of the roster.
PROGNOSIS: The Steelers are a year older and have encountered their share of challenges over the past few months, but those eager to write them off may be doing so at their own peril. Pittsburgh still boasts a top-level defense capable of wreaking havoc on the opposition, a difference-making quarterback in Roethlisberger with a wealth of outstanding weapons at his disposal, and the steadying influence of Tomlin running the ship. With all the injuries and missing parts they've had during the preseason, there may be an adjustment period before the Steelers hit their stride. In the end, however, expect the Black and Gold to once again be challenging Baltimore to be the cream of the crop in the AFC North. Pittsburgh appears to have the easier schedule of the two rivals, with the Ravens drawing games with 2011 division winners New England and Houston. That could rate the Steelers a slight edge to retake the division.