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Six Points: Season Preview

PSR’s Ken Torgent pens his first Six Points of the 2012 season with a preview of sorts – looking at the final 53-man roster, the upcoming schedule, and some of the keys for the success (or failure) of this year’s Pittsburgh Steelers.

The roster may not have shaped out as originally planned, but the Steelers did get the injection of youth it so desperately needed (and might still need). However, this year’s reinforcements won’t be highly-drafted rookies (as in the last two seasons with Maurkice Pouncey and Marcus Gilbert), they’ll be late-round treasures, undrafted finds, and a small helping of young, unproven players.

Of course, the original plan was to shore up the offensive line with the team’s first two picks, David DeCastro and Mike Adams, while infusing the defense with talented rookies with plenty of potential (Sean Spence and Alameda Ta’amu) in rounds three and four. DeCastro and Spence were injured before the end of the preseason, though DeCastro could potentially return thanks to the new half-season exception applied to injured reserve. Adams was unable to wrest control of the starting left tackle job from Max Starks, while Ta’amu found a similar roadblock to playing time on the defensive line with the ascension of Steve McClendon from project to product.

As it stands, the only 2012 draftee set to make an impact from day one is fifth-rounder Chris Rainey, who impressed throughout August and will serve as the team’s primary return-man and as a moveable weapon on the offensive side of the ball. Three of the team’s four seventh-round picks are still around as well. Tight end David Paulson and lineman Kelvin Beachum were surprisingly above the cut line, while receiver Toney Clemons landed on the practice squad. Only Terrence Frederick, a cornerback out of Texas A&M, failed to stick in Pittsburgh.

All the same, the Steelers did get some help this offseason. At running back, redshirt rookie Baron Batch (who spent last season on IR), figures to contribute in the running game with the help of Will Johnson, who stepped up to claim the starting fullback job after spending his rookie season out of the NFL.

Defensively, there’s a greater cast of relative unknowns waiting to contribute. Steve McLendon transformed himself from borderline roster material into a more-than-serviceable nose tackle. Al Woods, a project player who spent his first few seasons bouncing around the league (including one past stint on Pittsburgh’s practice squad), locked up a spot as a backup defensive end.

While Spence’s injury hurt the team’s depth at inside linebacker, the men on the outside will receive a boost with the continued progression of Chris Carter and the addition of undrafted rookie Adrian Robinson. Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown, both in their second year, showed enough last season the convince the team they were ready for expanded roles, and the team found a CB/S tweener out of free agency in rookie Robert Golden.

Don’t forget, this used to be a franchise that stashed away its rookies for two years or more until they were ready. The team has softened its stance on rookies a bit since the 2010 draft (which brought the Pouncey/Sanders/Brown troika), but the Steelers have also drafted well in recent years, finding players throughout the draft who can contribute early.

Obviously, they won’t be getting as much of a boost as they expected when they wrapped up the draft in Aprils, but the youth movement is still very much alive thanks to the later rounds and other unproven players.

This year’s schedule is tough without being overbearing. The Steelers have certainly earned worse slates in previous seasons. The 2012 schedule plays out quite differently from last year’s.Photo by Vincent Pugliese

For one, the positioning of the two Baltimore games is very different from last year, when Pittsburgh faced them in the opener and wrapped the series in week nine. For the record, that was a terrible move by the NFL. Steelers-Ravens is one of the league’s marquee matchups – two teams that hate each other and who always are battling for the AFC North crown. Why in the world would you want to end that series with half a season to go?

This time around, the two teams won’t meet until week eleven, with Pittsburgh hosting. What’s strange, however, is that they’ll meet again just two weeks later in Baltimore. That will leave little time for both teams to recover and could mean that one (or both) of the teams heads into the final stretch battered and bruised.

Once again, the team will get an early bye week (week four), which could prove advantageous in the long run considering the team is already knee deep in a swamp of injuries. The early bye might give the Steelers an extra game’s worth of DeCastro (if he returns), and could aid the return of some of the other walking wounded (Casey Hampton, Rashard Mendenhall, etc.)

This year, Pittsburgh draws teams from the NFC East, which boasts last season’s Super Bowl champion New York Giants, and the AFC West, which is perennially a mess of teams that never seem to reach their potential. Luckily, the team’s matchup against the Giants falls in November, which is when the yearly Giants collapse begins (until they turn it around and do something rash like win the Super Bowl).

One other quirk to watch: the Steelers play four of their five primetime games in a six-week span starting in week six. The stretch kicks off with a Thursday nighter against Tennessee followed by a Sunday night battle with Cincinnati. After a two week break where the Steelers play at a regular time, they’ll host a Monday nighter against Kansas City and then kick off the Baltimore series on Sunday night (which is also their last primetime appearance of the season).

The result is a schedule that features very few easy games (hello Cleveland) and very few hard games (Baltimore being the team’s biggest hurdle). None of the teams in the AFC West (Kansas City, Denver, San Diego, Oakland) figure to be juggernauts in 2012. Only the Giants and Eagles (who both bloodied the Steelers in their last meetings back in 2008) look to be threats in the NFC East.

Todd Haley’s success or failure will be one of the most important factors for the team’s performance in 2012. Haley was brought in to modify an offense that needed a new perspective, sure, but his primary job is to build an offense that takes Ben Roethlisberger to the next level while simultaneously keeping the quarterback healthy for the Photo by Vincent Puglieseduration of the season.

Look no further than Indianapolis’ and Arizona’s 2011 campaigns if you need a lesson on how important the quarterback is to an NFL team. If Ben stays healthy, the Steelers are a perennial Super Bowl contender. If he misses time or spends another season with a series of mishaps and other nagging injuries, the stock of the Pittsburgh Steelers drops from Super Bowl contender to playoff hopeful.

Haley can ensure Ben’s safety in a number of ways, with the most simple method being more emphasis on sets and formation with more blockers and less of an emphasis on more reckless formations like the empty backfield. In addition, Haley figures to make more use of his running backs in the aerial game as safety valves and could implement more action for tight ends Heath Miller and Weslye Saunders (when he returns following a suspension).

If it works, the team could get a double whammy of positives. First, Ben stays healthy for a full season and is able to give the team a legitimate shot at making it to the Super Bowl. Second, Ben stays healthy, which could help keep him going as the quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers for an extra year or two.

My key player on the offensive side of the ball: Emmanuel Sanders. Sanders was originally expected to be last year’s breakout star at wide receiver, not Antonio Brown. However, a foot injury kept Sanders off the field in last year’s training camp and the extra reps allowed Brown to jump his fellow sophomore on the depth chart. Photo by Vincent PuglieseThe rest, of course, is history.

This year, a little bit of karma came back Sanders’ way. Hines Ward’s retirement and Mike Wallace’s holdout allowed Sanders to get in some valuable work with the first-team offense in training camp and in the preseason. While I don’t expect him to have the kind of year that Brown had in 2011, he should be able to take his own next step and become a key cog in the team’s offensive plans.

And quite frankly, he needs to be.

Let’s face it: there’s a very real possibility that Mike Wallace will be wearing Black and Gold for just one more season. If the Steelers can’t agree on a contract with the speedster, he’ll depart for greener pastures and, simply put, more green. That will leave an empty spot in the starting lineup for a hopefully-healthy Sanders.

There was some discussion whether Antonio Brown essentially took what Wallace turned down when he signed his big-money contract extension earlier in the offseason. That’s not entirely true. I believe the goal was always to sign both of them. However, if Wallace balks at what the Steelers offer, then Sanders could end up earning what Wallace turned down.

Here’s the catch, though. He will only get a sniff of that money if he stays healthy and shows the team that he can be the 1B to Brown’s 1A.

My key player on the defensive side of the ball: Cortez Allen. Allen joined the team as a fourth-round pick in the 2011 draft, impressed the coaching staff, and eventually snuck into the picture as the team’s dime-back before the end of the season – no easy task for a rookie in Dick LeBeau’s defense.

Photo by Charles LeClaireHis initial campaign peaked in week eight, when he was asked to shadow New England tight end Rob Gronkowski all over the field. Gronk managed to catch seven passes for 94 yards, but Allen passed the eye test. Besides, the tight end had done nothing but score touchdowns all season and he was shut out in that loss to the Steelers.

Allen just capped another impressive August and is now working as the team’s nickelback, which means he’ll be a presence on the field much more often than in his first season.

The reason he’s a key player this season is half about his own development and half about the development of the player ahead of him on the depth chart – Keenan Lewis. Lewis has had his ups and downs since joining the team in 2009. While, the departure of William Gay moved Lewis into a starting role, he hasn’t been all that impressive of late.

He has all the tools to succeed – size, strength, speed – but it looks like he’s hitting a plateau in his development. If that is indeed the case, Allen could end up jumping ahead of him into the starting spot opposite Ike Taylor.

Of course, there’s also the possibility that the team uses Allen like it did William Gay last year. Gay was a starter and would be one of the two corners on the field in base sets, but he’d play as a nickelback when the team went out of its base element. That allowed Gay to cover opposing slot receivers while Lewis stepped in to handle the outside threats.

That might be the ideal situation for Allen, who is still relatively inexperienced in just his second season in the NFL.

In the end, Steelers Nation has to have a little faith. Sure, the team looks different at the top this year. That will happen when you get rid of Aaron Smith, James Photo by Charles LeClaireFarrior, and Hines Ward – all players who have been with the team for the past decade while also serving as mentors and leaders in the locker room. Sure, the team could be forced to let go another starting receiver in Mike Wallace after the season. The defense is still old. The offensive line is still in a constant state of flux.

In the end, the majority of it won’t matter, just like similar issues haven’t mattered to a franchise that has been to the Super Bowl three times in the last seven years. The fact is, there are few teams that are better at adjusting year-to-year than the Steelers, which is why they’ll always be in the thick of things come January.

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