Monday, July 29, 2013

Steelers camp brings excitement, questions

By Jeff

This has been a weird summer for Pittsburgh sports fans. I can only speak for myself, but I think there has been a lot less attention paid to the Steelers, as the Pirates have been having an incredible season.

Of course, the Steelers collapse at the end of last season might have fans less excited about this year. If you don't know Pittsburgh fans, they tend to pile on the pessimism when the tiniest thing goes wrong with a team, let alone a legitimate collapse.

Well, training camp is here so fans can't hide from the Steelers any more. There are some serious concerns coming into this year.

The biggest is Ben Roethlisberger. It's amazing to think he has been in the league 10 years. For the majority of that time, Roethlisberger has been about as clutch as they come. When the team was down late or needed someone to make a play, he usually answered the call and did what was necessary to win or put the team in position to win.

That all changed last year.

Fans got a taste in Week 1 of what was to come for the rest of the season. With the game on the line in the fourth quarter, Roethlisberger threw a interception returned for a touchdown.

He recovered and played some of the best football of his career in the middle of the season, but then things went south again. With the playoffs on the line, Roethlisberger cost the team three consecutive games in December. He could have been the hero we had all come to expect him to be late in games and instead through game-changing picks.

If the team gets that Roethlisberger again, it's going to be a long season for the team and fans.

While the quarterback is the most important man on the roster, there are some other offensive uncertainties that could affect Roethlisberger's play this year.

Can Antonio Brown be a reliable No. 1 receiver? He closed out 2012 strong with touchdowns in the final four games, but his yards per reception on the season took a huge hit. It dropped from 16.1 in 2011 to 11.9 in 2012.

More importantly, can Emmanuel Sanders contribute as a starter? He's never had more than 44 catches in a season.

If these two can carry the load and fill the void left by Mike Wallace, then the team is in trouble. There is not a lot of depth at receiver on this team.

Then there is the offensive line. This is always a weakness for the Steelers. Three of the team's regular linemen from last year are gone. As a result, Marcus Gilbert will be relied upon at left tackle to protect Roethlisberger's blind side, David DeCastro will have to stay healthy at right guard, Mike Adams will have to improve at right tackle from an up and down rookie year (He also got friggin' stabbed in the offseason!), and Maurkice Pouncey needs to stay healthy.

Oh, and the team will be without arguably their best player last year in Heath Miller. Call me crazy, but I am not excited to have Matt Spaeth and David Paulson trying to fill the void left by Miller.

I'm not too concerned on the other side of the ball. James Harrison last season was not the ferocious James Harrison of old. He is in decline and I think a healthy Jason Worilds will do just fine at outside linebacker.

The question with the defense, as it is every year, is can Troy Polamalu stay healthy? When he is near 100 percent (He will never be 100 percent again in his life), Polamalu is one of the top defensive playmakers in the league. Teams have to plan around him, and even then it's hard to have any idea where the hell he is going to end up on the field. But he has no idea how to tackle properly and just launches his body with no regard for his own health, so he is never healthy.

On paper, the Steelers look like another 8-8 team. But this is the NFL. Guys like Worilds and Sanders could finally have that breakout season and make the team look brilliant for letting veterans walk. It's impossible to predict how it turns out, so I'm saying 10-6 and the Wild Card.

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