Robinson: As usual, Tomlin has concerns
By Alan Robinson
Published: Saturday, Aug. 17, 2013, 8:52 p.m.
NFL coaches are worriers by nature. If it's not the quarterback's health, the offensive line's depth, the star cornerback's inability to operate effectively in press coverage or his own contract status, there are 1,001 things to worry about at any stage of any season.
Or the preseason. Or the moment.
Mike Tomlin isn't any different, even if he won't say so.
There are issues that greatly concern him with the Steelers season three-plus weeks away and his 53-man roster still not close to being settled. Tomlin doesn't do much in-depth player personnel analysis during his media sessions, and he rarely hints at what really troubles him about a team that was 8-8 last season and plays in what arguably is the NFL's toughest division.
So with three preseason games to go, let's guess what worries Tomlin — and what doesn't.
What's a worry
• Tight end: Heath Miller probably won't be back at least for the first month of the season and perhaps longer. Except for Ben Roethlisberger, no player is more important to both the running and passing games than Miller, a blocker nonpareil and the team's best receiver last season. No disrespect to David Paulson and Jamie McCoy, but in no way do they resemble Miller. The Steelers badly want to regenerate their running game, and getting Miller (and Matt Spaeth) back will help Le'Veon Bell and the other backs. But when?
• The depth chart: There are new, unproven and untested players scattered throughout the depth chart, especially along the offensive line. In the NFL, you're always only one play away from being on the field. But, quite simply, Tomlin and the Steelers don't want some of these guys out there yet in meaningful situations.
• Birth certificates: Tomlin joked recently about Troy Polamalu having a contusion to the birth certificate — he's getting older. He's not alone on a defense filled with 30-somethings. All that experience doesn't help if a player's hurt and aging players tend to be more fragile, as the Steelers were reminded last season. With so much inexperienced depth, one significant injury to a major player could be season-altering.
• Special teams: Breakdowns in the Giants game were an anomaly. But with new special teams coach Danny Smith breaking in so many new players at many critical positions, such as gunner, every kick return will be a concern, at least early on.
• The deep ball: Expect to see opposing quarterbacks challenge the secondary downfield like in no other recent season. Polamalu, Ryan Clark and Ike Taylor are well into their 30s, and Cortez Allen is talented but inexperienced and is coming off knee surgery during camp. This has “Test Me” written all over it for opposing offensive coordinators.
No worries here
• Big Ben's big arm: That complicated shoulder/chest injury last season badly affected the QB's throwing after he returned late last season. But, as Tomlin said Saturday, “He's hosing the thing.” This strength gained during an offseason program might enable Roethlisberger to complete in September and beyond some of the throws he couldn't make in December.
• Wideouts: No Mike Wallace, but will his absence make a difference? Roethlisberger lacks a tall receiver, but he has three wideouts — Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Markus Wheaton — who can make major things happen with the football.
• The O-line: On some plays, they're flying around corners and cutting angles like skill position players. This might be the fastest and most athletic Steelers offensive line since … well, a long time ago. David DeCastro could join Maurkice Pouncey as a Pro Bowl player within a year. Tomlin and Todd Haley love them. Now if only they can stay healthy.
• The kickers: To paraphrase Tomlin, Roethlisberger isn't the only player hosing it in camp. Shaun Suisham is, too. Some practices, he's perfect. And punter Drew Butler can only get better as he competes with veteran Brian Moorman.
• The rookies: With the exception of quarterback Landry Jones and the mostly injured Terry Hawthorne, the prized rookie class has been as good as advertised. Tomlin is giving Jarvis Jones, Bell, Wheaton and Shamarko Thomas every opportunity to get on the field right away. None of them has regressed since camp began, and that's not always the case with rookies. Remember, even Polamalu didn't get on the field much until his second season.
Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.
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