Another preseason game, another devastating injury. Sean Spence, a rookie middle linebacker who was drafted in the third round, left the game in the third quarter with what coach Mike Tomlin deemed a “significant” left knee injury, including multiple ligament tears. Let’s recap our first four 2012 draft picks:
David DeCastro (RG) – dislocated kneecap, MCL surgery, and torn patellar tendon. He may return in the latter part of the regular season. The Steelers left him on the 53-man roster to allow for his return.
Mike Adams (LT) – allowed two sacks on his first 17 snaps and has not fared well against live competition. This was his opportunity to take the starting job where a re-shuffled offensive line left a vacancy at left tackle. However, sturdy veteran Max Starks was re-signed in July (after a January ACL tear) to fill the starting role.
Sean Spence (ILB) – would have been used as a substitute for Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons, with the hope of him being the successor to James Farrior in years to come. That is likely on hold, given the serious injury he incurred Thursday night. The Steelers placed Spence on the 53-man roster with the intent of placing him on a special injured reserve list with the opportunity to return to the active roster any time after Week 8.
Alameda Ta’amu (NT) – Casey Hampton is coming off an ACL tear from January’s playoff game against Denver and is not quite game-ready. But, Steve McLendon is doing his best Casey impersonation and playing phenomenally since coming to camp. Ta’amu will not be a factor in this year’s lineup.
Now, let’s take a look at a positional breakdown based on what was seen in training camp / preseason:
Charlie Batch can still read a defense and throw the ball all over the field (11 for 14 for 102 yards with a pinpoint TD pass to Emmanuel Sanders Thursday night against the Panthers). Jerrod Johnson was an intriguing option due to his size and relative youth, but he did not make the 53-man roster. Perhaps the Steelers will add him to the tractice squad.
Isaac Redman is in line to start on opening day, despite having minor tweaking injuries. His presence is of paramount importance in short yardage situations, as evidenced by the goal line drills done during training camp. The offense converted on only two of seven occasions while Redman nursing a groin injury. Jonathan Dwyer has exhibited versatility as a straight-line runner and pass receiver. He rushed 13 times for 63 yards in the preseason finale against the Panthers. Chris Rainey will make big plays this season. He had a long TD run, a long TD reception (on a screen pass), and two punt returns for TDs that were both nullified due to penalties in four preseason games. Will Johnson is an undrafted rookie who will fill the role of fullback on this squad. Yes, you read correctly, Pittsburgh Steeler fans – a FULLBACK. He did a decent job throughout the summer, starting with his work in “backs on backers” drill – where the RB must read which linebacker is blitzing – at training camp. He stood up the linebackers effectively in that drill (probably the most contact that players encountered in training camp), and has shown deft blocking ability with the first team offense in preseason games. Oh…and he runs a sub-4.60 40.
Wide Receivers / Tight Ends
Antonio Brown was the Steelers team MVP last year…and he may well duplicate that feat in 2012. Brown has a knack for getting open by cutting unexpectedly and leaving defenders in his wake. Brown even showed some passion in training camp drills for blocking. I guess the new big contract (6 years, $42 million) hasn’t gone to his head. Mike Wallace finally returned to the team following his holdout, just in time for the regular season. He may have some rust, but you can’t teach 4.25 40-yard speed. You CAN teach him the playbook, though. Sanders made it through the preseason without any injuries and will be the benefactor of coverage paying more attention to Brown and Wallace. Sanders’ greatest upside is his route-running, which would make him a solid possession receiver in Todd Haley’s new quick strike offense. David Johnson’s season-ending ACL / MCL injury hurts in the blocking game, but likely won’t impact the passing game where Heath Miller will continue to be the featured pass catcher at the TE position.
This year’s “big uglies” was supposed to feature two rookies, David DeCastro and Mike Adams, and be significantly better than the 2011 O-line. However, injuries (in DeCastro’s case) and poor play (in Adams’) make that rosy forecast nearly impossible. It’s a shame because DeCastro is a player who picks up stunts well and did not appear to get fooled often. At least the left guard position will feature Willie Colon instead of the penalty and missed assignment-prone, Chris Kemoeatu. I contend that Marcus Gilbert is the key to this year’s offensive line. If he can tap into his natural ability and keep Ben upright more than he has shown in the preseason, this unit could improve over last year’s substandard performance. Otherwise, expect more of the same…
This was supposed to be the weakest unit with the retirement of Aaron Smith (LDE) and Hampton (NT). Instead, Ziggy Hood has started to make a name for himself as a solid run-stopper with a high motor. His limited experience will result in a few running backs getting around the corner, but Hood won’t embarrass himself. McLendon has been outstanding at camp and in games. How many nose tackles sack the elusive Michael Vick? And, Casey is going to play some snaps in the season opener, so there is better depth than in seasons past. Brett Keisel (and his beard) will continue to start at RDE for at least another year while Cameron Heyward gets further seasoning.
Upon first glance, the linebacking corps looks awfully thin. And, that would be a correct assessment…for the first few weeks of the regular season anyway. James Farrior was released (and is considered retired). James Harrison underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee that has caused swelling since spring. Sean Spence was going to contribute, but primarily as a special teams demon. Stevenson Sylvester tore his MCL in early August, but it is anticipated that he will only miss a few weeks. Jason Worilds had surgery to repair an injured wrist that hampered his 2011 season. That’s a lot of holes to fill on the starting line, let alone depth players. Harrison is making every effort to return for the opener. The preference of the coaching staff is to get #92 100% healthy so that he can be his usual disruptive pass rushing self. Larry Foote will be a younger, more active version of the “buck” middle linebacker – the individual who makes all the play calls – (than Farrior was). In the final goal line drill of training camp, Foote “owned the drill” according to Mike Tomlin. Farrior was so adept at making sure everyone was in place before the snap of the ball that his presence will be missed. Lawrence Timmons has given Steelers fans glimpses of the amazing agility he possesses. The only issue is his occasional inconsistent play. Steelers coaches gave Timmons some additional responsibility by switching him in as the buck linebacker for some training camp snaps. LaMarr Woodley will re-issue his assault on QBs, hoping to avoid injury and get upwards of 15 sacks. Chris Carter may be the opening day ROLB, if Harrison and Worilds can’t go. But, he will be relegated to backup once Harrison returns.
Ike Taylor is poised to rebound after the debacle in the first round playoff exit at Denver. Taylor’s cover skills are in the upper echelon of the NFL and his top end speed matches nearly every receiver in the league. Ike may not catch every ball that should be intercepted although he had nice “pick 6″ against Indianapolis Colts rookie QB, Andrew Luck this preseason. The battle for #2 and #3 CB positions fall to one of the following: Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen, and Curtis Brown. Brown appeared to injure his left knee in the first quarter of the preseason finale, so he may be relegated to backup duty depending on the severity of his knee damage. In my mind, Allen has the inside track on starting across from Ike Taylor, while Lewis would be a serviceable nickel back, taking over for the departed William Gay. As for the safeties, Troy is Troy and Ryan Clark is Ryan Clark. Right? We all know what each of these hard-hitting safeties bring to each play.
It has been a very interesting preseason for the special teams unit. Antonio Brown has moved on to be a full-time receiver, leaving Chris Rainey to be the return specialist. He has the raw talent to be explosive. Al Everest was unceremoniously dismissed as special teams coach before the third preseason game. The reason behind this move is nebulous, at best. Insiders are speculating that a personality issue, not performance, was the cause. Danny Hrapmann looked dependable at placekicking, but did not survive the first round of cuts. I hope that the Steelers have Hrapmann on speed dial if incumbent Shaun Suisham falters. Undrafted rookie free agent, Drew Butler looks to have won the punting job…by default. Jeremy Kapinos may be headed to the injured reserve list, ending his 2012 campaign.
As in seasons past, when the offense needs a jump start, expect to see the no huddle. That doesn’t necessarily mean a hurry up offense, but Ben likes to get into a playcalling rhythm and not allowing defenses to change personnel.
The short passing game will attempt to get the ball in playmakers’ hands more quickly. The offense is loaded with young, quick guys at the skilled positions. So, I would project the yards after catch to be much higher than last year.
There will be a lot more back shoulder throws with receivers tiptoeing on sideline routes than in years past.
The defense will likely feature more “quarters” defense due to seeing more of Ryan Mundy on the field. This will allow the DBs to take a quarter of the field and cover receivers, while allowing that long-haired guy (Troy Polamalu) to be his instinctive self.
I guarantee that there will be more emphasis on creating more turnovers. As such, the pass rush will be wide and varied to cause opposing QB’s to make quicker decisions (and hopefully mistakes). Pittsburgh had eight takeaways in the four preseason games, but forced an NFL-low 15 turnovers last season (in 16 games).
Scotty Montgomery, the wide receivers coach, is a very animated guy at practice. His receivers, to some degree, take on his personality. Likewise, first year secondary coach, Carnell Lake, is calm and collected. The DBs, while they love to make plays, have a much more serene demeanor.
Coach Tomlin has maintained that the Steelers were in “camp mode” throughout the preseason, so he was not overly concerned with individual playing time. He felt that making evaluations on players was the preeminent concern. But, now it’s just about winning games and preparing for a playoff run.
Hats off to Aaron Smith, Joey Porter, Willie Parker, Marvel Smith, and Kordell Stewart, who all retired as Steelers during the offseason.
Next week’s article will be a 2012 Steelers game-by-game season preview. Enjoy your Labor Day weekend!!
About the Author
Written by Rob Stroup
I grew up in western Pennsylvania, so I have followed the Pittsburgh sports teams (Steelers, Penguins, Pirates) since the womb. It has become a tradition to make the yearly trek to a Steelers and Penguins game each year despite the distance. I hope to make writing a profession because I thoroughly enjoy attempting to paint a picture with words.