Robinson: 10 Steelers storylines to keep tabs on
Six weeks before training camp begins, the Steelers are approaching a crossroads season that could set their course for much of the rest of this decade.
Are they a team on the mend, one that merely needs a patch job after an 8-8 season that disappointed them — but apparently did not discourage them — despite the departure of a high-profile offensive player in Mike Wallace and a face-of-the-franchise defensive player in James Harrison? One that will benefit from an infusion of younger players and won't really miss a couple of players who were ready to be replaced anyway?
Or are they a team on the decline, one with too many older, slower players in key positions — the Warren Sapp theory — that was exposed last season with all of its close, late-in-the-game losses? One that is beginning an irreversible slide caused by a couple of weak drafts, too much contract restructuring that limited the Steelers' ability to bring in players from the outside and the reality that no matter how astutely a team assembles talent, it is not always possible to put a 12-win team on the field every season?
The Steelers' veteran players are treating 2012 much like they did non-playoff seasons 2006 and '09 as a mere blip on the map, a misstep that won't be repeated. All they need are some recalculations — such as the tweaks Todd Haley is making to the offense, Jack Bicknell Jr.'s blocking scheme changes and Danny Smith's special teams revamping — and a restated vision of what the Steelers expect of themselves, regardless of their level of experience.
“In order for us to be successful, we have to have the young guys step in and play football. We have a lot of young guys in this locker room. Our success lies on their shoulders, just as much as on us old guys,” defensive end Brett Keisel said. “We need them to play great ball if we want to be a good team.”
The Steelers will have seven new starters, multiple position battles and innumerable questions to answer when they report to training camp July 26. Here are 10 storylines to watch for as camp plays out and the Sept. 8 opener against Tennessee approaches:
1. Will he continue to be Hard Mike? Coach Mike Tomlin is putting an emphasis on conditioning and chemistry. Players such as Larry Foote and Ryan Clark said their coach hasn't changed in his seventh season, but Tomlin seems intent on making sure this season doesn't get away from this team the way last season got away from the 2012 Steelers. With so many younger players, Tomlin no longer seems willing to accept as much self-governing as before — he's the boss, and everyone knows it.
2. Old and slow, or slimmer and trimmer? Troy Polamalu is in better shape than he was at this time last year. So is LaMarr Woodley. If they carry that conditioning and commitment into the season, the Steelers' defense — already No. 1 — might look faster and, well, more Steelers-like regardless of how well Jarvis Jones plays (or how much he plays).
3. Are the Steelers ready to plug in rookies to two of their most important positions, running back (Le'Veon Bell) and outside linebacker (Jones)? Even they don't seem to know yet, but they're willing to find out. Put on the pads and get the answers.
4. How good is Ben Roethlisberger's line of protection? The Steelers' franchise player is 31 and coming off knee surgery. He is perhaps more vulnerable than ever as he lines up behind the youngest offensive line the Steelers have fielded since the 1950s, one that will feature two players who were rookies a year ago in David DeCastro and Mike Adams. If the line is as good as the Steelers think it is, Roethlisberger will be fine. If it isn't, this could be a huge trouble spot, especially given the relative lack of depth.
5. Todd Haley, Year 2. All of the offensive players seem more comfortable now that most have a year under Haley. He is trying to convince his players that his offense actually is their offense — they have input, they have control, they will dictate what they do. However, there are numerous potential trouble spots: the offensive line, the QB's health, the lack of a game-changing wide receiver in Wallace and the possibility the running game won't be any better than last season if no starter emerges.
6. Emmanuel Sanders replaces Mike Wallace. Cortez Allen replaces Keenan Lewis. Marcus Gilbert replaces Max Starks. Jason Worilds/Jones replaces James Harrison. The Steelers swapped Joey Porter for Harrison in 2008 and were rewarded with a player who was even better than his predecessor. Not all such swaps go so well, but the Steelers can't afford to have major falloffs at multiple positions.
7. Markus Wheaton. The Steelers know nothing about him. They need to find out a lot, and soon. If he can bring a lot to the passing game right, Wallace's absence won't be felt nearly as much.
8. The second line. The Steelers need a lot more from backups such as Curtis Brown, Chris Carter, Al Woods and Stevenson Sylvester. In the NFL, you're only one play away from playing, and the Steelers got little from much of their second tier last season.
9. How good are the rookies? This rookie class won't just make the team, it has the potential to make the Steelers' season if it performs up to expectations. And the Steelers badly need that to happen.
10. When will Heath Miller be back? And not just when will he play again, but when will he be back to being Heath Miller again? Normally, it takes about a year for a full recovery, but the Steelers' season will be nearly over by then. If Miller can make an Adrian Peterson-type recovery, it will be a huge boost to an offense that is using the tight end like never before.