Five Questions as Training Camp Opens
What will the offense look like?
In an offseason that featured the departures of Hines Ward, James Farrior, and Aaron Smith – all of whom have been fixtures in Pittsburgh for the past decade – the biggest change could actually be at the offensive coordinator position. Bruce Arians is gone after five years of service and has been replaced by Todd Haley, who most recently served as the head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs.
Arians’ offenses during his tenure were a balance of positives and negatives that seemed to shift from month to month. His greatest accomplishment may have been his ability to wake up a dormant passing game and press it into the spotlight, as opposed to having the aerial assault run as a sidecar to the team’s traditional running attack. He opened up the offense, allowing playmakers like Santonio Holmes, Mike Wallace, and – most recently – Antonio Brown to flourish next to franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Love him or hate him, Arians’ work was partly responsible for the team’s two Super Bowl appearances in the last five years.
However, his greatest accomplishment also spawned the very issue that prompted his release: the continual punishment of Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben is a player who is true to his nickname, a rare talent who is able to use his size and strength to avoid sacks and extend plays. The problem is that he was doing it far too much, whether by design or of his own free will. No player has been sacked more than Ben Roethlisberger since he entered the league in 2004, and that wear-and-tear is finally starting to show. The quarterbacks’ promising 2011 campaign was derailed by a series of injuries that limited his effectiveness greatly. Couple that with the fact that he has played with nagging injuries even in his best years and there’s reason to be concerned.
While Arians opened the offense, he may have opened it too much. Big Ben was left with little protection behind an offensive line that was constantly shuffled due to injury. Despite the weakened line, the Steelers frequently deployed four-wide, single-back, and empty-backfield sets that offered no help to the starting five in front of the quarterback.
In addition, the Steelers’ offense was often frustrating to watch, despite its successes. The running game, which used to be a weapon, was now being used as a changeup. The ground attack was also painfully predictable in that its only strength was running to the right. Additionally, the team’s performance in the fourth quarter was abysmal in Arians’ final year.
Things are sure to change under Todd Haley. Haley’s offenses are more diverse and feature more protection than his predecessor’s. While Ben will almost certainly continue to extend plays with his legs - a unique skill that terrorizes opposing defenses - he’ll feel more security when he decides to stay at home and wait things out.
Even if the Steelers’ yardage and point totals don’t budge with the change from Arians to Haley, it will all be worth it if the latter can add an extra 2-3 years to the career of Roethlisberger.
What will the offensive line look like?
There’s no question that the pedigree is there. In the last three years, the Steelers have selected four offensive linemen in the first two rounds. If the young guns pan out, it will be a welcome change from a half-decade that featured offensive lines full of re-treads and ever-shifting, versatile backups.
Maurkice Pouncey will remain the anchor of the line, and there’s a very real possibility that he’ll be the team’s second most experienced lineman (behind Willie Colon) when the team takes the field in September, despite the fact that he is only in his third professional season.
Marcus Gilbert, once thought to be a project when he was drafted, played very well when pressed into service in his rookie season and will likely be the only other member of last year’s line to reprise the same role this season (along with Pouncey).
The two rookies, David DeCastro (first round) and Mike Adams (second round), were two draft day steals that could follow in the footsteps of Maurkice Pouncey and start from day one. DeCastro is the surer bet of the two, and the fans should expect him to hold down a guard spot for the next decade. Adams comes with some questions (character issues that caused his slide in the draft) but he has the talent to settle in at left tackle.
Despite featuring so much youth and inexperience, the line’s biggest question mark is Willie Colon, for two reasons. First, he’ll be switching from tackle to guard for the first time in his career – a change that fans have been wanting for the past few seasons. Will he be able to pick it up quick enough? Will be ever be able to pick it up? I believe he’ll be just fine, but I don’t feel as confident with his other issue: health. Colon has ended up on IR the past two seasons and has played just one game in that span. Will he be able to make it through a full season? Have those injuries sapped any of his athletic ability? We really won’t know until the season starts.
All in all, I’ll take the growing pains of this group this year over last year’s mess, which featured the team fielding a different combination of players seemingly every week.
How do you replace the departed?
Ward, Farrior, and Smith are all gone and each was an important part of this team both on and off the field. Ward was a Pro Bowler, a Super Bowl MVP, and an offensive captain for much of his career. Antonio Brown is set to replace the receiver on this field, but who will step up to fill the void left by the star in the locker room?
Aaron Smith’s replacement is in the same situation. Ziggy Hood is charged with replacing a Pro Bowler and a guy who was often considered as the finest 3-4 defensive end in the league. Because of a myriad of injuries to Smith, Hood has the experience to take over as a starter, even if he isn’t the second coming of the man he’s replacing. All the same, who fills Smith’s role off the field.
Farrior’s departure produces the biggest question mark. Like Ward, Farrior is a long-time captain of the team that will be difficult to replace off the field. However, there’s no clear long-term replacement on the field either. 32-year-old Larry Foote will serve as a placeholder and will take over as the defense’s on-field general, but who will replace Foote when the time comes? Stevenson Sylvester once looked like the answer, but he isn’t developing as quickly as he was and he may fit more as Timmons’ backup, not Farrior’s replacement. The other candidate, Sean Spence, is a rookie and is rather undersized for the position. Even if he shows he is capable of filling that void, there’s no way he’ll learn Dick LeBeau’s complex defense fast enough to make an impact in the next two years.
Who will take control of the team’s running game?
There is little chance that Rashard Mendenhall starts the season on time after sustaining a major injury late last season. That leaves the rushing attack in the hands of a group of relative unknowns: undrafted fan-favorite Isaac Redman, the unpredictable Jonathan Dwyer, and the redshirt rookie Baron Batch – who missed all of last season after an impressive training camp.
Redman is the likely starter and he may have guaranteed himself the job with two fine performances after Mendenhall’s injury last year. In fact, Redman was a better rusher on a per-play basis than Mendenhall pre-injury as well.
The real question is what will the starting role mean for Redman? Will he be a clear-cut #1 or will he simply be the lead-dog in a timeshare with his fellow rushers? When/if Mendenhall comes back, will Redman relinquish his starting job or is it now his to lose?
Mendenhall doesn’t figure to be in the team’s plans past this season. His contract will expire at the end of the year and he’ll likely be seeking a raise that, frankly, the team can’t afford.
I’m also not sure that he has provided an adequate return on the first-round pick used to bring him into the fold. Let’s not forget that Chris Johnson, Matt Forte, Ray Rice, and Jamaal Charles were all selected after Mendenhall in the 2008 NFL draft. Johnson became only the sixth running back to rush for 2000 yards in a season in 2009. Forte and Rice have both parlayed their talents (both are exceptional in the passing game) into big-money contract extensions. Charles, who could have been had in the third round, nearly broke Jim Brown’s record for yards per carry in a season (6.4 ypc).
If Redman can impress this year, he could lock down the starting job for 2013 and beyond. If he doesn’t and if one of the other young backs (Dwyer, Batch, etc.) doesn’t pan out, the team could be back to drafting running backs in April.
Who will be this year’s camp star?
Redman was the fan-favorite at camp in 2009. 2010 saw Maurkice Pouncey buck the trend of rookies sitting the bench and take a starting job by force. In 2011, both Antonio Brown and Baron Batch had impressive showings.
The team’s first-round pick, David DeCastro might be the most obvious pick to be a star this August. Ditto with third-rounder Sean Spence, who garnered a decent amount of attention earlier in the year during mini-camps.
I’m putting my money on second-year cornerback Cortez Allen. He’s a bright kid, a superb athlete, and he may have the most to gain from an Antonio-Brown-esque showing at camp. Remember, William Gay and Bryant McFadden are no longer with the team and the cornerback slot opposite Ike Taylor is essentially up for grabs. Keenan Lewis currently holds the job, but a quality camp by Allen could push the latter out of the background and into the spotlight.