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.
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.
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.
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.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is close with Arians, and their relationship helped save the latter’s job after the 2009 season. But Arians couldn't survive after the Steelers were 12th in the NFL in total offense in 2011 but tied for 21st in scoring, even though he also appeared to have coach Mike Tomlin’s support. A day after the team’s Jan. 8 playoff loss in Denver, Tomlin said he expected both coordinators to return for the 2012 season, but Arians was out less than two weeks later.
The Steelers announced Arians’ retirement on Jan. 20. Indianapolis hired Arians as its offensive coordinator on Jan. 31. That strange turn of events fueled speculation that president Art Rooney II had ordered Tomlin to fire Arians. Not true, said Tomlin. “Don’t get me wrong,” the sixth-year coach said. “Art Rooney II owns the football team. He can do what he wants to do. But those directions did not happen.”
Follow The Leaders
An offseason purge stripped the Steelers of their long-time leaders on offense and defense. The release of wide receiver Hines Ward and inside linebacker James Farrior — they served as captains for 15 seasons between them — did not necessarily leave a leadership vacuum in the locker room. Defensive end Brett Keisel and free safety Ryan Clark can fill the void left by Farrior’s departure. Roethlisberger, a two-time captain, and Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey are two of the team leaders on offense.
The Steelers were, uncharacteristically, near the bottom of the league in turnover differential last season with 13 more giveaways than takeaways. In Tomlin’s first four seasons combined, the Steelers had 21 more takeaways than giveaways. Bottom line: The Steelers cannot afford to lose the turnover battle this season if they want to contend for the Super Bowl.
Gaining Through Losing
Stevenson “Sly” Sylvester dropped more than 15 pounds during the offseason, and he is hoping the lost weight will help him find a more prominent role this season. Sylvester, primarily a special teams player his first two seasons, is hoping to challenge Larry Foote for the starting job at left inside linebacker. Sylvester played at 255 pounds last season, and he said his optimal weight is at around 240 pounds.
Repaying A Bet
The Steelers made it clear that right tackle Willie Colon is still very much a part of their plans even though he has played one game the last two seasons because of arm and foot injuries. The Steelers restructured Colon’s five-year, $29 million contract, giving the seventh-year veteran more guaranteed money. “In my heart of hearts I feel like I’m in debt to my two coaches, Tomlin and (offensive line coach Sean) Kugler,” Colon said, “and I feel like I’m in debt to this team.”
Off To The Races
Wide receiver Mike Wallace is one of the fastest players in the NFL, but he may no longer hold that title in his own locker room. Rookie running back Chris Rainey claims he runs the 40-yard dash in the 4.1 range. “Mike Wallace is kind of fast, but I have confidence in myself so I’m the fastest,” Rainey said after the Steelers drafted him.
2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:
No. 32:Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31:St. Louis Rams
No. 30:Minnesota Vikings
No. 29:Indianapolis Colts
No. 28:Cleveland Browns
No. 27:Miami Dolphins
No. 26:Arizona Cardinals
No. 25:Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24:Kansas City Chiefs
No. 23:Oakland Raiders
No. 22: Washington Redskins
No. 21:Seattle Seahawks
No. 20: Carolina Panthers
No. 19:New York Jets
No. 18:Buffalo Bills
No. 17:Tennessee Titans
No. 16:San Diego Chargers
No. 15:Cincinnati Bengals
No. 14:Philadelphia Eagles
No. 13:New Orleans Saints
No. 12:Dallas Cowboys
No. 11:Denver Broncos
No. 10:Detroit Lions
No. 9:Chicago Bears
No. 8:Atlanta Falcons
No. 7:Baltimore Ravens
No. 6:Pittsburgh Steelers
No. 5: Mon., August 27
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Related: 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers Schedule Analysis