The Steelers have changed their identity on offense the past few years, and they are clearly a pass-first, spread-formation team. With starting running back Rashard Mendenhall likely out until sometime in December that's unlikely to change. Ben Roethlisberger should be right in the prime of his career and this is a team that could approach 5,000 yards passing ... assuming of course Mike Wallace is on board (can't imagine he won't be, and more on that to come).
With Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emanuel Sanders, the Steelers have one of the best trios in the NFL. All can run and make plays all over the field, and few teams have utilized the screen game with better success than the Steelers in recent years. Now, there were major changes to the staff (again, much more there down below as well), which could certainly dictate the shape of this offense, but the game will be in Big Ben's hands and with his issues behind him and in better shape and focused more than in years past, Pittsburgh is primed to put up huge numbers.
The Steelers might also finally have an offensive line to match the rest of the roster as well. They've managed to win Super Bowls despite a group that lacked individual stars along the line and that could be overwhelmed at times. Roethlisberger absorbed too much abuse (albeit he brings some of it on himself with how he clings to the ball), and major upgrades were needed.
Drafting franchise center Maurkice Pouncey was a great step a few years back and if rookies Mike Adams and David DeCastro live up to their promise, then Pittsburgh will have its most athletic unit in a long, long time, and no one will be smiling as widely as Roethlisberger.
For all of the talk about the Steelers' age on defense, and considerable early-season hand-wringing by fans and the media, they once again were right there with the very best in the NFL. They remain stout against the run and, aside from the playoff debacle at Denver, the secondary help up better than many expected during the season. They allowed the fewest points in the regular season, which cannot be overlooked.
Still, it's true that guys like James Harrison and Troy Polamalu and Casey Hampton are not getting any younger, and few in the history of the NFL have displayed more longevity and consistency than uber-coordinator Dick LeBeau, who shunned retirement again last year and is back for a quest for yet another Lombardi. So changes may be on the horizon at some point, though with the way Kevin Colbert drafts the next man up is quite often a future Pro Bowler himself.
The Roethlisberger/Haley vortex will be dissected all summer long. Arians had no bigger advocate than Roethlisberger, and it was no secret. They had worked together for a long time and the quarterback was incredibly comfortable with him and they achieved tremendous success together. Haley is a totally different cat. This is a major change in personality and approach.
Haley is fiery and emotional and is not afraid to clash with a star. He will challenge his players and things don't always necessarily just play out behind closed doors. He and Ben share a deep love for golf, and some who know them both well figure that's where they will probably bond first, before the classroom or practice field. Or at least that's where they probably should seek some common ground before the games start counting.
Haley will make sure the ball get spreads around, which is huge considering how many capable pass catchers are on the roster (don't forget about tight end Heath Miller, because Haley surely won't), but the interpersonal dynamics between he and Roethlisberger, and how quickly they cultivate trust, is much more important than any scheme or play call when it comes to this group.
X-Factor: Troy Polamalu
Few players are more exciting in the game. Few have made more eye-popping, instinctive, iconic plays. But since getting injured in 2010, he hasn't been quite the same according to scouts who have watched him closely. That burst, that ability to find his way to exact spot he needs to be to blow up a play, hasn't been the same.
The plays behind the line of scrimmage, screaming down on the box, haven't been there like they used to be. The sacks, forced fumbles, big plays, are way down. In fact, in 2011, he accounted for just two interceptions and no forced fumbles; a year before he had seven picks, a forced fumble and a touchdown prior to getting hurt.
When he is right, no one does it better (okay, Ed Reed perhaps). And the film was glaring in the playoffs, when free safety Ryan Clark could not play due to the altitude and his sickle cell trait. Polamalu was exposed in coverage in that game by Tim Tebow of all people, and undoubtedly that will spur him into this season.
If he is the Troy of old, then the chatter about the age of this defense goes away. Some say he may have lost a step.
Who's next to go?
The Steelers share a unique bond with their players, but excel at knowing when to let them go. Hines Ward is just the latest example. Emotion must be parsed aside in this business, and after looking at all the money pumped into young linebackers LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons, and given some of the headaches over the years, and his age and escalating contract, you have to wonder if James Harrison is in his last year in Pittsburgh.
Harrison is also at a stage where another flagrant penalty could result in increased suspensions, and he's been fighting through several health issues in recent years as well. When he's been right, Harrison is still an elite quarterback hunter, but with Wallace just one receiver in need of a payday (Sanders and Brown aren't far behind), the small-market Steelers, who had cap problems coming into 2012, will be juggling funds and determining where they need to free up future space.
Mile High hangover
It's pretty unusual to see the Steelers getting shredded on the big stage, especially by a team like the 2011 Denver Broncos. One would go too far to say they were exposed, and clearly by that point the defensive roster had been gutted by injuries, but the film doesn't lie and no doubt others are studying it all offseason long.
Those types of endings can tend to mark the end of an era, or can be a springboard for greater success. A coaching staff can either use it as a motivation or bury it and never mention it again. It says here this organization, from the Rooney family to Colbert and Omar Khan in the front office to this accomplished coaching staff the Steelers will be right back in contention in 2012, but the way last season ended, with all the gaffes on defense, won't just go away.
"I like the Haley/Roethlisberger thing. It will be good for him. He needs to be pushed. They think they'll be fine without Mendenhall. They like Dwyer and Heath Miller is going to be very involved in the passing game. He's going to get a lot of balls. The age is an issue on defense, but where did they finish overall last year? Exactly."
Xs and Os
By Pat Kirwan | NFL Insider
The Steelers' offense is being advertised as returning to the old school power run game under the direction of Todd Haley. There's no Jerome Bettis on this roster and the speedy wide receivers are their biggest strength. Coach Haley will do what he has to do to win.
One year when Haley was offensive coordinator in Arizona and head coach Ken Whisenhunt told me he really wanted to run the ball, Kurt Warner -- under the direction of Haley -- called 39 pass plays a game. The Steelers have won 53 of 80 regular season games in the past five years, so don't expect big changes.
Look for Isaac Redman to be the running back early while Rashard Mendenhall recovers from injury. I expect the Steelers to be in a lot of 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR). In order to get the power running game going without a fullback in the game, the Steelers will pull a guard and run 'G' power. What will make the Steelers different is the distinct possibility that they pull their right guard, rookie David DeCastro and run power left behind LG Willie Colon and LT Mike Adams. It also sets up nicely for the right-handed Ben Roethlisberger to half-roll right off the play fake and throw the vertical game.
Pittsburgh was 55 percent run on first down last year, which isn't consistent with the perception that they were a pass-happy bunch under former coordinator Bruce Arians. For the record, the Steelers were in the dead middle of the league in run/pass ratio with 42.8 percent run and 57.2 percent pass. At the end of the 2012 season, their percentages will be very close to these numbers.
As for the communication between Haley and Roethlisberger, it will be a bit volatile on the field at times, but it will not affect the outcome of the game.
The Steelers' defense is a base 3-4 look with lots of pressures and schemes. Dick LeBeau always feels like attacking an offense and rarely sits back in a bend-but-not-break philosophy. If any offense shows fan protection with an OT stepping out for James Harrison and or LaMarr Woodley, he will bring inside pressure from his ILB.
LeBeau also does so many different things with Troy Polamalu that offensive lines usually count him as a rusher if he's near the line of scrimmage.