Skip to main content

Pittsburgh Steelers 2012 NFL Team Preview

Harrison_332.jpg

Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.

The Pittsburgh Steelers check in at No. 6.

The Steelers, long a model of stability, are in transition. They released a handful of key veterans, including iconic wide receiver Hines Ward, during the offseason and made the first major coaching change of Mike Tomlin’s tenure. The question of whether they are revamping or rebuilding will be answered this season as they have to contend with bitter rival Baltimore and rising Cincinnati, and that is just in the AFC North.

For all of the moves they made during an offseason that was busier than in most years, the Steelers’ nucleus remains largely intact. They return every starter on offense, though running back Rashard Mendenhall may not be ready at the outset of the season after tearing the ACL in his right knee in a Jan. 1 game at Cleveland. The defense has to replace two starters and again fend off criticism that it has become too old (read: slow). Seven of the projected 11 starters are over 30 years old, and the defense let down the Steelers in a 29–23 overtime playoff loss to Denver.

Offense

The question of when the franchise quarterback and new offensive coordinator would meet turned into an obsession, and it ultimately shined a light on how deeply ingrained the Steelers are in the fabric of Pittsburgh. It is true that Ben Roethlisberger and Todd Haley did not talk for several weeks after the latter was hired. How well the two mesh will go a long way toward unlocking the vast potential of an offense that underachieved last season. Roethlisberger and Haley are fiercely competitive and strong-willed, which could lead to some, uh, interesting in-game verbal volleys. Haley, who lasted less than three seasons as Kansas City’s head coach, has a keen offensive mind, and he has shown the ability to adapt to his personnel — not the other way around. Arizona was one of the NFL’s top passing teams when Haley served as the Cardinals’ offensive coordinator. Kansas City ranked among the NFL’s leaders in rushing during Haley’s tenure with the Chiefs.

No less an authority than team president Art Rooney II said the Steelers have to be more consistent running the ball. But the offense is built around Roethlisberger, who is coming off his second 4,000-yard passing season, and a group of young and fleet-footed wide receivers. Mike Wallace and emerging star Antonio Brown are coming off 1,000-yard receiving seasons, and the Steelers have to hope the former’s contract situation isn’t a distraction and that his dip in production over the second half of 2011 was an aberration. Look for Haley to get more of out underrated tight end Heath Miller in the passing game.

Mendenhall’s health is a concern, as is the relative inexperience the Steelers have behind him. Isaac Redman has shown flashes of being a No. 1 back, but the Steelers need to see more from the bruising former undrafted free agent before they are convinced of it.

The Steelers fortified an in-flux offensive line through the draft. Staying relatively healthy would go a long way toward the Steelers improving their running game, particularly in short-yardage situations, and keeping Roethlisberger upright. The Steelers used 25 different offensive line combinations last season, the most in the NFL.

Defense

The Steelers may have been first in the NFL in total defense and points allowed last season, but they need to be more opportunistic and do a better job of putting pressure on the quarterback. Getting outside linebackers LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison on the field together would go a long way toward doing both. The two were rarely healthy at the same time last season, forcing defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau to move players around in his vaunted linebacking corps as if they were pieces on a chessboard. Larry Foote is a one-year replacement for James Farrior at left inside linebacker, and he will set the defense as Farrior did for a decade in Pittsburgh. The Steelers would love to see what the athletic and hard-hitting Lawrence Timmons can do at right inside linebacker if they can keep him there.

The defensive linemen will again be called upon to occupy blockers up front and allow the linebackers to roam freely in the Steelers’ 3-4 scheme. Brett Keisel is a Pro Bowl-caliber player, but the Steelers need to get more out of young defensive ends such as Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward. Nose tackle Casey Hampton is likely in his final season as the anchor of the line, and his health is an issue after the five-time Pro Bowler suffered his third major knee injury last January.

The back end of the secondary is set with perennial Pro Bowl strong safety Troy Polamalu and free safety Ryan Clark. The two have terrific chemistry, and Clark’s understanding of Polamalu’s game allows the latter to improvise and for LeBeau to line him up all over the field. Polamalu is one of  the top playmakers in the NFL, though injuries are always a concern because of his physical style of play.

The position battle to watch is at the cornerback spot opposite Ike Taylor. The Steelers are high on second-year men Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown.

Specialists

Antonio Brown gave the Steelers a triple-threat last season, excelling not only as a wide receiver but also as a kickoff and punt returner. The Steelers want to ease the burden on Brown, a starter now. Emmanuel Sanders is a top candidate to return kickoffs, though his struggles to stay healthy could have the Steelers looking at other options there. Rookie Chris Rainey has blazing speed, and the Steelers will give him every opportunity to replace Brown as the primary punt returner.

Shaun Suisham bailed out the kicking game in 2010 after he replaced the erratic Jeff Reed, but he needs to show more consistency after missing eight of 31 field goal attempts last season. The Steelers gave up on Daniel Sepulveda, a fourth-round draft pick in 2007 who suffered three major injuries in five seasons, leaving Jeremy Kapinos as the punter.

Final Analysis: 1st in the AFC North

Faces have changed, but expectations haven’t for one of the NFL’s flagship franchises. It is again Super Bowl or bust for the organization that displays six Lombardi Trophies at its practice facility, and it is time for the offense to supplant the defense as the Steelers’ driving force. Roethlisberger’s wideouts should be as good as any in the league, and the Steelers are no longer in the awkward position of trying to keep Ward involved in the passing game. The offensive line should be better, especially if rookie guard David DeCastro helps fortify the interior as expected. The defense is no longer a great one, but it is still good enough for the Steelers to win, especially if it improves on the 15 turnovers it forced in 2011.

The key to another Super Bowl run is winning the AFC North. Two of the three seasons the Steelers won the division under Tomlin they also advanced to the Super Bowl. The two times they finished outside of first place they either missed the playoffs or lost in the opening round.

Related: 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers Schedule Analysis

Outside The Huddle

Homecoming for Haley
Todd Haley, who replaced Bruce Arians as the offensive coordinator, is no stranger to the Steelers’ organization. Haley’s father, Dick, is a former player personnel director who helped build the dynastic teams of the 1970s, and Todd once served as the Steelers’ ball boy at training camp. Bill Cowher offered Todd Haley the job of wide receivers coach in 2004. When Haley turned it down, Cowher hired Arians for the position.