Overall I am projecting six new starters for the Steelers next season. The offensive line was probably the toughest group to predict due to the uncertainty surrounding just about every spot but center Maurkice Puncey's. Apart from the offensive line, the main changes in the Steelers lineups will be the absences of Aaron Smith, James Farrior, and Hines Ward, who were all released this offseason to free up cap space. As always, the Steelers have stayed away from any big name free agent signings this offseason, preferring to build through the draft.
Here is my look at the projected starters for the Pittsburgh Steelers for week 1 of the upcoming NFL season.
Quarterback - Ben Roethlisberger:
Out of all the people that liked what the Steelers did in the draft, no one liked it as much as Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers need Big Ben to stay healthy down the stretch this season or else they’ll likely face another early exit in the playoffs.
Running Back - Isaac Redman:
With Rashard Mendenhall likely out for at least the majority of the 2012 season, Isaac Redman will have to carry the load. Redman is a bruising power back with a tendency to get north and south with more urgency than Mendenhall. While he may lack the speed and lateral quickness of Mendenhall, Redman’s production last season speaks for itself. Redman rushed for 479 yards and 3 touchdowns, averaging 4.4 yards per carry. Mendenhall only averaged 4.1 yards per carry, so it remains to be seen just how much the Steelers are losing next year without him. Don’t get me wrong, I think Mendenhall is a great running back. However, the promise Redman showed in games like the playoff game last season in which he rushed for 121 yards on just 17 carries should have Steelers fans excited.
Left Tackle – Marcus Gilbert:
The Steelers announced that Marcus Gilbert will be making the transition to left tackle back in mid-February. Although Mike Adams also projects as more of a left tackle than a right tackle, it seems unlikely that Gilbert would stay at right tackle after such an announcement has been made. Even if Mike Adams is the left tackle of the future, he needs to get much stronger in the upper-body before he can assume the role of a starting NFL left tackle. It’s a longshot that he will be ready by week 1. Until then, it seems likely that Gilbert will be asked to hold down Roethlisberger’s blind side. After Willie Colon went down in week one of last season, Gilbert took over at right tackle and stayed there for the remainder of the season. He showed growing pains, but improved significantly as the season went on. Following a successful rookie year, it appears as though Gilbert has a bright future on the Steelers offensive line.
Left Guard – Ramon Foster:
Foster had a pretty good season at right guard last season. Though some have speculated that Willie Colon will move inside and thereby bump Foster out of the starting lineup, I don’t expect such a move to take place. Fans have been calling for Colon to be moved to guard for years now and it simply hasn’t happened. Foster has some holes in his game, but he performed relatively well last season overall. While he is above average in pass protection, he leaves a little to be desired in the running game. Foster also needs to improve his technique as a trapper.
Center - Maurkice Pouncey:
If there is any such thing as a sure thing on the perpetually shifting and banged-up Steelers offensive line, then it’s that Maurkice Pouncey will be breaking the huddle in 2012. About to enter his third season, Pouncey is already a two-time Pro Bowler. The only thing that has held Pouncey back in his first two NFL seasons has been a nagging left ankle injury, but it’s been surgically repaired this offseason and Pouncey should be close to 100% heading into training camp. Pouncey is very good with line calls and should have no problem adjusting to the new blocking schemes Todd Haley will incorporate. Expect another Pro Bowl year out of the Steelers leader on the offensive line.
Right Guard – David DeCastro:
When you look at the current guards on the Steelers roster, it is very hard to imagine that DeCastro will not be a starter next season. The selection of DeCastro in the first round was an extremely popular pick and for obvious reasons. With DeCastro, who was the best guard in the draft, the Steelers instantly upgraded a former weakness of their roster, turning it into a possible strength. DeCastro played right guard in college and I would expect the Steelers to leave him there, at least initially. He is quick off the ball, has very good upper body strength, possesses very good balance and body control for his size, and has very good athleticism. DeCastro is also an excellent blocker in space and is probably at his best when he’s pulling. He’s a good pass protector as well. There are no major weaknesses in DeCastro’s game, and it would be a shocker if he was a disappointment at the pro level. Above all else, DeCastro should provide some of the nastiness that has been missing on the Steelers offensive line for the past few seasons. He could be the next Alan Faneca.
Right Tackle – Willie Colon:
Colon has missed the majority of the past two seasons to injury. Reports are that he is now 100% recovered from the triceps injury he sustained in week 1 last season against the Ravens. Unless Mike Adams is ready to start, Colon will undoubtedly be the starting right tackle to start the year. Before being plagued by injuries Colon excelled at right tackle, especially in pass protection.
Tight End - Heath Miller:
Miller set a career high in 2011 with 12.4 yards per reception. If there’s one player on offense that the Steelers always know what they’re going to get out of, it’s Heath Miller. Due to his blocking ability and willingness to give up his body for the team, Miller is one of the best tight ends in football. It doesn’t matter what the statistics say.
Wide Receiver - Mike Wallace:
Mike Wallace wants a long-term deal, and Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert has made it pretty clear through both his actions and statements this offseason that locking Wallace up for the long-term is the Steelers number one priority of the offseason. The problem appears to be that Wallace is simply asking for too much money. The Steelers have a contract value in mind that they’re not willing to stray too far from, and Wallace is likely asking to become one of the highest paid receivers in football. As good as Wallace is, the numbers clearly indicate that he slipped significantly towards the end of last season. This suggests that if defenses scheme hard enough to slow him down, they can be successful. If Wallace finished last season as strong as he started it, then I would be willing to bet that he would be already signed to a long-term deal; there would be less uncertainty over whether or not Wallace is truly an elite receiver or just an extremely talented vertical threat. Wallace wants to be paid like the player he was in the first half of the season, but the Steelers don’t seem convinced enough to budge. Playing hardball with Wallace could turn out to be a deadly game however if Wallace holds out into the season and grows sour towards the organization. It’s critical that the Steelers lock Wallace up sooner rather than later and get him in camp to learn Todd Haley’s new offense.
Wide Receiver - Antonio Brown:
2011 was a breakout year for Brown; he was named MVP by the team and also became the first player in NFL history with at least 1000 receiving yards and 1000 return yards in the same season. In 2012, defenses will no longer be sleeping on Brown. His production next season will show how good he really is, and also the degree to which his breakout year came about as a result of opposing defenses focusing on slowing Mike Wallace down. My expectation is that Brown has another big season ahead of him. He especially excels in getting yards after the catch, which is always a tough thing for defenses to take away even with added attention.
Wide Receiver - Emmanuel Sanders:
It will be interesting to see what types of formations Todd Haley will use most frequently in Pittsburgh. Just based on the makeup of the Steelers roster, it would appear that Haley would try to employ a lot of three-wide receiver sets to get Emmanuel Sanders on the field more often. The Steelers lack a true fullback and are somewhat limited at the backup tight tend spot as well. In the past Haley has used fullbacks, but David Johnson is more of an H-Back type and leaves a lot to be desired whether employed at tight end or fullback. It would be my guess that Emmanuel Sanders will see the field more often next season than Johnson or backup tight end Leonard Pope, so I am listing him as a projected starter. After Antonio Brown’s breakout season in 2011, it’s easy to forget that Emmanuel Sanders showed more potential than Brown as a rookie. What happened? Ever since the Super Bowl loss to the Packers, Sanders has been suffering from a nagging foot injury that he never truly recovered from. He was kept out of five games last season, and it was clear from watching him on the field that he was never truly 100% healthy as he lacked burst coming in and out of cuts. After missing both training camp and the preseason, Sanders was never really able to get his timing down with Roethlisberger. None of this takes away from the impressive combination of size and speed that Sanders offers, exemplified by the fact that Rex Ryan switched Darrelle Revis off of Mike Wallace and onto Sanders in a regular season matchup in 2010. 2012 could be the breakout season for Sanders that the 2011 season was for Brown. If this is the case, the Steelers will have an embarrassment of riches at the wide receiver position.
Left Defensive End – Ziggy Hood:
With Aaron Smith officially retired and gone for good, it’s time for Ziggy Hood to finally step in and assume a starting role at defensive end. Hood was drafted with the 32nd
pick in 2009. After originally serving as a rotational backup, Hood filled in for Smith in both 2010 and 2011 after the veteran was placed on injured reserve. Smith only played in 16 games during the last three years of his career, giving Hood the opportunity to learn the scheme and grow as a player. Hood may never turn out be the player Smith was, but he has made enough plays in the first few years of his career to indicate that he could be a solid starter for a long time in Pittsburgh.
Nose Tackle – Casey Hampton:
It remains to be seen whether or not Hampton will be able play at the start of the season. Coming off of ACL surgery, Hampton is a candidate to start the season on the PUP list. If he’s not ready, expect either fourth round pick Alamedu Ta’amu or Cameron Heyward to fill in until Hampton is ready to return. Ta’amu is more of a true nose tackle, but Heyward was the Steelers first-round pick in 2011 and gained some valuable experience last season. In all likelihood it would be Ziggy Hood bumping down from end to nose if Hampton cannot go in week 1. Hood would be replaced by Heyward at end.
Right Defensive End – Brett Keisel:
Keisel has really developed during the last few seasons as a leader of the Steelers defense. He followed up his Pro Bowl campaign of 2010 with a solid season in 2011 in which he recorded 48 tackles, 3 sacks, 6 passes defensed, and 2 forced fumbles. He also led the team with 37 quarterback pressures. With Aaron Smith gone and Casey Hampton coming off of a torn ACL, the Steelers will now need “the beard” more than ever.
Left Outside Linebacker – LaMarr Woodley:
The Steelers really need Woodley and Harrison to each stay healthy next season. Their pass rush just isn’t the same when either of them is out of the lineup. They only started in 4 games together last season. In 9 starts last year, Woodley still had a very productive year with 9 sacks. Although he tried to return many times, Woodley was never the same after he suffered a hamstring injury against New England in week 9.
Left Inside Linebacker – Larry Foote:
Foote is expected to be given the enormous task of attempting to replace the giant void in the middle of the Steelers defense left by James Farrior. Although he’s not James Farrior, Foote is serviceable and experienced. He started on both Steelers Super Bowl teams last decade before being replaced by Lawrence Timmons. Since Foote has been primarily used on special teams since the Steelers resigned him in in 2010, it’s difficult to tell how much of a drop off Foote will be at inside linebacker. Farrior was beginning to show signs of age catching up to him in 2011 as he was a liability at times in coverage. What’s really being left behind by Farrior is a void in leadership. Sylvester Stevenson and rookie Sean Spence will push Foote in training camp, but I’d be surprised if the veteran didn’t emerge with the starting job.
Right Inside Linebacker – Lawrence Timmons:
Timmons is one of the more underappreciated players on the Steelers defense. He can do everything Dick Lebaeu asks him to do as a player. Gifted with great speed for an inside linebacker, Timmons has great range in coverage and plays sideline to sideline against the run. For such a gifted athlete, Timmons does leave a little to be desired as a pass rusher. Regardless of this minor deficiency, Timmons has turned out to be everything the Steelers hoped for when they selected him in the first round in 2007. If he can surpass Ryan Clark for the team lead in tackles next season, Timmons will have taken the next step towards becoming an elite linebacker.
Right Outside Linebacker – James Harrison:
Though Harrison will turn 34 this May, he has less wear and tear on his body than most players his age due to the fact that his NFL career really didn’t start until 2004. Since then, Harrison has been arguably the best pass rushing outside linebacker in the entire league. Harrison missed 4 games last season with a broken orbital bone, but was still productive with 9 sacks. With Woodley back alongside him next season, I expect Harrison to have a better season next year.
Left Cornerback – Ike Taylor:
Though he has never gotten the credit he deserves, Ike Taylor is one of the best corners in football. Exceptionally fast, tall, and a very sure tackler, Taylor has frequently shut down some of the NFL’s best receivers in his career. The main reason that Taylor doesn’t get all the credit he deserves is probably that the corner position has been the Steelers weakness on defense for the past 10 years or so, but this is no indictment on Taylor’s skills in coverage. Another explanation for the lack of appreciation is that Taylor has horrible hands and had never had more than three interceptions in a single season. Nonetheless Taylor led the Steelers with 20 passes defense last season, and deserves a lot of credit for the Steelers number one ranked pass defense.
Right Cornerback – Keenan Lewis:
Out of all the spots on defense, the starting corner job opposite Ike Taylor has the most uncertainty surrounding it. The three main candidates for the job are Keenan Lewis, Curtis Brown, and Cortez Allen. Lewis has a leg up on the competition in terms of experience; he was drafted by the Steelers in the third round of the 2009 draft out of Oregon State. He typically replaced former starter William Gay on the outside when Gay moved inside to cover the slot in nickel packages last season. After an up-and-down first few years in the league, Lewis showed improvement in the nickel back role last season. He recorded career highs in tackles, passes defended, and had the first interception of his career. Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen were drafted in the third and fourth rounds of the 2011 draft respectively. Both players played well on special teams in 2011. Allen also chipped in on defensive sub packages last season as the dime back. All of the Steelers top four options at corner are 6’0 or above, which is a rare advantage. With experience on his side, this job is Lewis’ to lose, but don’t be shocked if he does to either Brown or Allen.
Strong Safety – Troy Polamalu:
There is not much that can be said about Troy Polamalu that has not already been said. He is without a doubt the best safety of his generation and in my opinion also the best defensive player in football right now. Thus far into his career Polamalu has shown no signs of slipping due to age or injuries. That’s not to say that Polamalu has not suffered from his share of injuries in his career, but his ability to come back from them has been extremely impressive. When you play the game as violently as Polamalu does, injuries are bound to happen frequently. The Steelers can only hope that the best defensive player in football will be able to stay relatively healthy in 2012, as they lack depth at the safety position.
Free Safety – Ryan Clark:
Without Ryan Clark, Troy Polamalu would not be able to play the game the way Dick Lebeau wants him to play the game. The reason Polamalu is granted the freedom to fly all over the field is because Clark understands his own role in the defense. Over the years, the two players have really developed into a special tandem. Without Clark, Polamalu would still be a special player. With Clark, Polamalu is the best defensive player in football. Clark has always been great in run support, and the fact that he led the team with 100 tackles last season is a testament to this. Not many other safeties can say they recorded 100 tackles the same season that they were on the number one ranked pass defense in the league. On January 25, 2012, Clark was named to his first career Pro Bowl, replacing the injured Ed Reed.