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2012 Team Report: Pittsburgh Steelers

Quarterbacks

Starter: Ben Roethlisberger
Backup(s): Byron Leftwich, Charlie Batch, Troy Smith, Jerrod Johnson

Starting QB: It seems hard to believe, but Ben Roethlisberger is entering his 9th NFL season. In the beginning of his career, he was a player who wasn't asked to win games but was required to not lose them. At this stage of his career, however, he is THE guy in this offense. Without Roethlisberger's ability to evade blitzers who run right through Pittsburgh's Swiss cheese offensive line, Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown wouldn't be considered elite weapons. Roethlisberger had great rapport with former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians and was sad to see him go, but there's no reason to think those feelings will lead to a down season. Todd Haley is a proven commodity at offensive coordinator, but the offensive line may still be a concern. First-round pick David DeCastro injured his knee and will be out 3-5 months (and perhaps the season) while second-rounder Mike Adams has lost the starting job at left tackle to veteran Max Starks. With the weapons around him, Roethlisberger still has some promise to provide QB1 numbers in any given week. However, the poor line could lead to inconsistency and owners not knowing when those good weeks will come.

Backup QB: Byron Leftwich has been injured a lot for a guy who isn't a starter. He only played one game in 2010 before getting hurt in the preseason last year and missing the entire season. Leftwich has shown that he can be a solid backup at the position when Roethlisberger has been riddled with injuries himself. He's not a high-upside backup who would have significant fantasy value, though, even if Roethlisberger missed significant time. Charlie Batch is entering his 8th season with his hometown team. He provided capable help last year in his only start as Roethlisberger had to miss a game due to injury. Like Leftwich, though, Batch isn't a player who will win games by himself like an elite (or even solid) QB. Jerrod Johnson is an undrafted player in his second year. While he has performed above expectations thus far in camp, it's very likely that he doesn't make this roster.

Running Backs

Starter: Rashard Mendenhall (injured), Isaac Redman
Backup(s): Jonathan Dwyer, Baron Batch, Chris Rainey [R]
Fullback(s): Will Johnson, Jamie McCoy

Starting RB: Rashard Mendenhall is this team's unquestioned starter when healthy. Some have questioned whether his talent is elite, but his seemingly pedestrian numbers have come with a very sub-par offensive line and in a pass-first offense. In a surprising move, Mendenhall was activated from the team's Physically Unable to Perform list but is still unlikely to be ready until after the team's Week 4 bye. With Mendenhall on the shelf, the team will lean on Isaac Redman to be the workhorse. Redman -- undrafted out of unheard of Bowie State -- showed flashes of talent as the primary backup to Mendenhall in 2011. On 110 carries, he averaged 4.4 yards per carry and had three touchdowns. In the preseason, however, Redman hasn't looked great. He lacks acceleration and can't make defenders miss frequently. The team's shaky offensive line situation isn't promising either.

Backup RBs: Jonathan Dwyer showed some ability in very limited action last season -- including the team's longest run of the year -- a 76-yard gain in a Week 5 game vs. Tennessee. That game was the only one in Dwyer's career where he received double digit carries, and he ran for 107 yards. Dwyer will be called upon to receive at least 20% of the carries to spell Redman. Like Redman, Dwyer is a big back who needs a couple strides to get up to speed. Both guys lack acceleration, so any defensive penetration is likely to result in a negative play. Fifth-round selection Chris Rainey can give the team a presence on kickoff and punt returns as well as on gadget plays, quick screens, or as a slot receiver. He is tiny in stature (just 5'8" and 180 lbs) but has world class speed. His versatility has led many to compare him to Kansas City WR/RB Dexter McCluster -- another Todd Haley-selected weapon. Rainey's fantasy value may not be consistent, but he'll make some "splash" plays this season (like the 58-yard touchdown he scored on a screen pass in the team's first preseason game). Baron Batch tore his ACL in training camp last year after receiving glowing reviews from the coaching staff. Despite long-time third down back Mewelde Moore's departure, Batch seems to be behind Rainey and Redman even in 3rd down situations. Fantasy-wise, he's a longshot to see any lineups.

Fullback: In the team's first preseason game, incumbent fullback David Johnson suffered a season-ending knee injury. The team has signed Will Johnson and David Ford to battle to replace him. Johnson is the current favorite, and if he figures out the blocking side of things well enough to be on the field consistently, he can also make plays in the receiving game. He ran a 4.40 forty yard dash at West Virginia's Pro Day last season and is 6'2" and 240 pounds.

Wide Receivers

Starters: Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown
Backups: Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery, Derrick Williams, Tyler Beiler, Toney Clemons, Marquis Maze, David Gilreath

Starting WRs: Despite his holdout causing him to miss the team's entire camp in Latrobe, PA, rumors hint that Mike Wallace will be back with the Steelers prior to the season beginning. An improved offensive line should help someone with his skill set as Roethlisberger will have more time to allow Wallace to get behind the defense. As elite as Wallace is, however, he didn't have a 100-yard receiving game after Week 7 last year. He didn't catch six or more passes after Week 10. Wallace's 72 / 1,193 / 8 are stellar numbers, and he should be expected to be within range of those same stats this season. Fantasy owners have to wonder whether the combination of his slow finish and lack of in-game conditioning will lead to a down year for Wallace. Part of Wallace's drop in production was Roethlisberger's late-season injury, but another part was the emergence of Antonio Brown. In his second year, Brown showed the ability to run many routes and play much bigger than his frame would indicate. He excelled at running deep in routes and making big plays in the deep middle of the field. Brown became Roethlisberger's first and favorite target last season, and now the Steelers have two elite weapons at Roethlisberger's disposal. Brown's 69 receptions and 1,108 yards are very repeatable, and his low touchdown total -- only two -- should increase significantly.

Backup WRs: Emmanuel Sanders was drafted in the 2010 draft with Brown, but what many may forget is that he was the team's third-round pick while Brown was taken in the sixth. Sanders contributed as a rookie in 2010, emerging late in the year but was injured in the Super Bowl. He was nicked up a couple times last season as well, allowing Brown to emerge in training camp and throughout the year. Sanders will look to take on the role at which Hines Ward excelled late in his storied career -- slot receiver and first-down machine. Jerricho Cotchery is arguably the most accomplished #4 WR in the NFL today. He provided the team with excellent depth and overtook Ward as the team's top veteran pass-catcher. Cotchery still has very limited fantasy value, even in what could be an explosive offense.

Tight Ends

Starters: Heath Miller
Backups: Leonard Pope, Weslye Saunders, David Paulson [R]

Heath Miller is among the league's best all-around tight ends. In today's NFL, though, that claim is good enough to see him get left behind when most people list their favorites at the position. Today's tight ends have freakish size-speed combinations and can turn any matchup into a mismatch. Miller can get down the field effectively and has great hands, but the team's need to utilize him as a blocker as well has put a cap on his pass-catching opportunities (and, therefore, his fantasy value). Perhaps if this year's offensive line is as improved as many think it will be, Miller will see more targets. Leonard Pope is a Todd Haley favorite and was signed this offseason. Pope was in Arizona and Kansas City with Haley. He's a block-first tight end who has never caught more than 24 passes in any season. Weslye Saunders was selected as an undrafted free agent last season after a troubled college career at South Carolina. Saunders is equipped with a great size-speed combination and showed some signs of talent in limited action last season. He will start this season serving a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy. He likely didn't have much fantasy value as a 16-game player, so he almost certainly doesn't now. David Paulson was drafted by the team in the seventh round out of Oregon where he was a pass-catching H-Back. He may struggle to make the team but was a nice developmental late-round flyer.

Place Kicker

Shaun Suisham : In his first full season with the Steelers, kicker Shaun Suisham produced modest results in 2011 -- hitting 23 of 31 (74.2%) on field goals, which is below current industry standards. The team appears to be looking to bring in competition. They tried out, although didn't sign, Dave Rayner. At punter/holder, incumbent Jeremy Kapinos will face competition from undrafted rookie Drew Butler out of Georgia. Long snapper Greg Warren's job appears to be safe. The Steelers ranked 18th in attempted kicking points in three of the past six years, including in 2011.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Emmanuel Sanders

Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders revealed to a radio station that he has been told he will be returning punts and kickoffs this season, though that does not necessarily mean he is a lock to be the primary returner. The Steelers have also expressed excitement about using fifth round rookie RB Chris Rainey in the return game.

Punt Returners: Emmanuel Sanders, Chris Rainey [R]

Though wide receiver Antonio Brown went to the Pro Bowl in 2011 as a return specialist, offensive coordinator Todd Haley has suggested that Brown won't return punts this season. Rainey has an excellent combination of explosiveness, top end speed, and elusiveness that may serve him well as a punt returner.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Max Starks, LG Willie Colon, C Maurkice Pouncey, RG Ramon Foster, RT Marcus Gilbert
Key Backups: T Mike Adams [R], G David Decastro [R] (inj), T Kelvin Beachum, C Doug Legursky

UPDATE: David Decastro is out for 3-5 months after dislocating his kneecap and tearing his MCL. His ACL is still in tact, however, and he will not be placed on IR. The team obviously feels that he can potentially contribute - but not until after Thanksgiving. Ramon Foster is likely to start in his place. Mike Adams is still on the shelf with a minor injury and newly returned vet Max Starks is likely to win that left tackle job. The bad news is that the Steelers' offensive line re-make is not going well. Some good news, Starks and Foster have experience with this group and that improves cohesion. Also, Willie Colon reportedly looks great at left guard. Overall the Steelers only drop from 19th to 21st in the rankings, as the impact of the rookies was likely always overstated. PRESEASON OUTLOOK: Center Maurkice Pouncey is the key player on the Steelers offensive line. Pouncey can push the pile on running downs, and he controls the interior in pass blocking. Pouncey is an All-Pro player and will be relied upon during this time of transition for the Steelers line. Left tackle Mike Adams is a second-round pick out of Ohio State, and it appears he will win this job in training camp. Adams is actually an underrated player, a natural left tackle athletically. Adams, however, did not have the easiest experience in college, and the professional game is certainly a step up in difficulty. Left guard Willie Colon spent most of last season on the injured reserve with a torn triceps and will be moving to guard after being a right tackle for several seasons. For years, onlookers have said that Colon has Pro Bowl potential at guard, and this year we will see if they were correct. Colon will compete with Ramon Foster for that left guard spot. Right guard David Decastro is the team's first-round pick, and he was an extremely technical and tough player out of Stanford. The Steelers hope that Decastro follows in the footsteps of Alan Faneca and becomes a stalwart guard for the next decade. Keep in mind, however, that Faneca didn't make the Pro Bowl until his third season, and Decastro does have shortcomings in his game. Decastro is great pulling and pass protecting, but stronger defensive tackles can overwhelm him at the point of attack. Earlier in the offseason, Marcus Gilbert was rumored to be sliding to left tackle (and that still might occur if Adams struggles), but Gilbert will likely remain at right tackle, where he does a good job. Swing tackle Jonathan Scott is decent in small doses, but he has been exposed when starting for multiple weeks. Overall, the Steelers line could be very good in time, and the team has made moves that clearly point in the right direction. In the near term, however, expect cohesion to be an issue. The good news for Steeler fans is that cohesion was an issue last year too, and the line surely can't be worse this season.

Team Defense

Last year the Steelers struggled as a team defense, managing just 15 turnovers and 35 sacks, which is a far cry from what they normally produce on defense. Interestingly enough, they were the top overall defense averaging only 271.7 yards per game, including a league low 171.9 yards passing per game. Pittsburgh dominated defensively from a yardage and total points allowed standpoint. Their inability to force turnovers and score defensive TDs kept them from being a strong fantasy defensive unit. Outside of their two main edge rushers, Lamar Woodley and James Harrison, nobody had more than 3 sacks. Two defensive rookies could make an impact this year. ILB Sean Spence, who possesses good speed and quickness, is a great fit for the Steelers LB corps. DT Alameda Ta'amu will fit in nicely as the team's NT, replacing Casey Hampton (knee), who could be released due to his big number against the cap. WR Emmanuel Sanders will be taking over both PR and KR duties, allowing Antonio Brown to focus all of his efforts at wide receiver. If the Steelers can find a way to force more turnovers, they should be able to jump back into the Top 10, possibly Top 5.

Defensive Line

Starters: DE Brett Keisel, DE Evander Hood, NT Casey Hampton
Backups: DE Cameron Heyward, DE Al Woods, NT Alameda Ta'Amu [R]

Starting DL: In a 3-4 scheme the defensive line gets little glory but sets the foundation for the unit to be successful. Nose tackle Casey Hampton is a 5 time pro bowler who may well have been the best 3-4 nose tackle in the game over the past decade. Hampton however, will be 35 years old when the season starts and is coming back from injury. The Steelers drafted his heir apparent this spring in Alameda Ta'Amu who could take over early if Hampton is not 100%. Steelers nose tackles don't put up great numbers but their contribution to the perennial success of this defense are unquestioned. Brett Keisel held off 2011 first round pick Cameron Heyward for the starting job last season but the 33 year old may lose that battle this season. At the least it is likely that Heyward will figure in on a rotational basis. Keisel led the Pittsburgh DL with 3 sacks in 2011. Evander Hood fills out the starting trio. He was was the Steelers first round pick in 2009 and is a very good fit for what the scheme calls for. There will be little box score production from this group but they will continue to set the table for the linebackers to prosper.

Backup DL: The Steelers don't have a lot of depth up front in terms of quantity but they do have a great deal of quality. Cameron Heyward may be the starter at some point this season and is almost certain to claim that job in the near future. He has the size and power to hold up at the point of attack and is capable of eating up multiple blockers which is the responsibility of linemen in the Pittsburgh 3-4. Long time backup nose tackle Chris Hoke has been replaced by rookie 4th round pick Alameda Ta'Amu. At 6'3" and 348 pounds, Ta'Amu gives the club an immovable object in the Casey Hampton mold. The rookie will eventually replace the soon to be 35 year old veteran and will likely see a good number of snaps this season. Like Hampton, Ta'Amu's contributions will be important but will not show up in the box scores. Beyond Heyward and Ta'Amu the Steelers have a couple of developmental guys but no one who seems destined to make a serious contribution in either short or long term.

Linebackers

Starters: ILB Lawrence Timmons, ILB Larry Foote, OLB James Harrison, OLB LaMarr Woodley
Backups: OLB Jason Worilds, OLB Christopher Carter, ILB Stevenson Sylvester, ILB Sean Spence

Starting LBs: By design linebackers are the key to the Steelers zone blitz scheme. The club does an excellent job of replenishing the talent so that there is always someone ready to step up when a veteran moves on. That is the case this season as long time starter James Farrior was let go. 2007 first round pick Lawrence Timmons has been starting for a couple of years and will now step into the role of signal caller and leader. He was moved around some last year to cover for injuries at OLB and his number suffered from it. As a full time ILB in 2010 Timmons racked up 96 solo stops with 6 takeaways, 3 sacks and 10 passes defended. The new role should bring similar production. Larry Foote was a starter in Pittsburgh for several seasons before heading to Detroit in 2009. He returned to the team as a backup for the past two seasons and is the favorite to fill the vacancy left by Farrior's departure. He is not a big time playmaker but is a very solid and dependable compliment to Timmons. Strong play from the outside linebackers is critical to the Steelers success. In James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley the club has arguably the best tandem of OLBs in the game today. They are tenacious pass rushers, strong run defenders and show excellent discipline in their responsibilities. Both are strong candidates to reach double digit sacks and provide a lot of big play punch. The fantasy downfall of any 3-4 OLB is a limited amount of opportunity to tackle. Harrison missed 4 games last season with injury but is perennially among the league's top tackle producers at the position. This makes him the fantasy game's top prospect among 3-4 OLBs.

Backup LBs: No club is better at developing young linebackers than the Steelers. They have a long history of grooming players for a few years then getting good mileage from them as starters. Jason Worilds was a second round pick in 2010 and may well be the team's next great success story. He will continue to work as the third OLB for now but is expected to be ready when the 34 year old Harrison moves on. Worilds has looked good in limited action over the past two seasons and will be ready when his opportunity comes. Chris Carter was the Steelers fifth round pick in 2011. He is less of a blue chip prospect than Worilds but will be given a chance to develop. Last year's injury shuffle may have produced more questions than answers at the ILB positions. Then second year pro Stevenson Sylvester had an opportunity to shine for a few games but failed to take full advantage. His play was mediocre and his box score production nearly non-existent. The coaching staff is far from ready to give up on him but it may not be a coincidence that they added Sean Spence in the third round this year. Spence is a bit on the short side at 5'11" but is fast, instinctive and an excellent pass defender. He was a very productive 4 year starter at Miami and may quickly pass Sylvester on the depth chart to become the #3 ILB. Spence could also get a long look as an OLB. Either way he has future starter written all over him.

Defensive Backs

Starters: SS Troy Polamalu, FS Ryan Clark, CB Ike Taylor, CB Keenan Lewis
Backups: CB Curtis Brown, CB Cortez Allen, CB Terrence Frederick, FS Will Allen, SS Ryan Mundy

Starting DBs: The nature of Pittsburgh's zone blitz scheme puts a lot of pressure on the secondary. Corners are often left on an island and must be able to handle man coverage while the safeties have to make split second decisions in a system that is very complicated. Of course it's much easier to do these things with the team perennially being among the league leaders in sacks. Ike Taylor fits the bill well and is entrenched at one corner position. His best season came in '07 when he recorded 69 tackles, intercepted 3 passes and defended 16. Those numbers have slipped a bit over the past few years and the Steelers would like to see more big plays from him. In fact, if there is a weakness with the Steelers defense, it is a lack of big plays from the secondary. No Pittsburgh DB recorded more than 2 picks in 2011. Bryant McFadden and William Gay are gone so there will be a wide open competition to determine a starter opposite Taylor. 2009 third round picks Keenan Lewis is the most experienced of the contenders and will likely enter camp atop the depth chart. He is in no way assured to be there come September. A healthy Troy Polamalu is one of the best big play safeties to ever play the game. He tied a career best with 7 interceptions in 2010 but again battled injuries. Polamalu played a full schedule last season but saw a dramatic drop in big play production. The Steelers expect a bounce back 2012 season for him and so should we. Ryan Clark mans the other safety position. His modest box score production does no justice to his value in the grand scheme of this unit. It is Clark's intelligence, and consistency as a tackler that allows Polamalu to roam free and make plays. His 71 solo tackle in 2011 were a career best but Clark's responsibilities as the free safety in this scheme don't allow him to gamble, thus his big play production is always limited.

Backup DBs: Last year's third round pick Curtis Brown and fourth round selection Cortez Allen will be right in the thick of the training camp battle to start at corner. Neither of them saw a great deal of playing time as rookies but the coaching staff will give several young players an opportunity to step up. In the end it will be no surprise to see the team pick up some veteran free agent help if a solid option becomes available. Terrence Frederick was a seventh round pick in April's draft and is a developmental/special teams prospect at best for this season. It would not be a big reach for the Steelers to move FS Will Allen to corner. Allen played that position for the Dolphins earlier in his career. Fourth year pro Ryan Mundy has seen action in nickel and dime sub packages over the past two seasons. He would be a significant drop off from either of the starters but would be a serviceable fill in if called upon.

Last modified: 2012-09-03 12:18:26

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