MIAMI - OCTOBER 24: Running back Ronnie Brown #23 eludes linebacker Larry Foote #50 of the Pittsburgh Steelers at Sun Life Stadium on October 24 2010 in Miami Florida. (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)
Steelers Depth is a series aiming to dig into one hypothetical situation; every currently anticipated starter on the team is injured. Which positions could manage, which would struggle, where would the strength of the team be and where are its new weaknesses? No player is simply replaced. The face of the team automatically changes. This is a look into the quality of the back-up and based on their specific skills, the ability of that position to continue at the same level it was with the starter in place.
It seems the Steelers are just fine with their back-up options at quarterback, offensive line and cornerback.
Not that the Steelers would necessarily be a better team without those starters, but there's enough of a combination of ability, experience and previous success coming from the back-ups at those positions.
Some others are close to that level, but not quite.
A good example of that is at nose tackle.
We're going to qualify this position as saying we're operating under the assumption NT Casey Hampton will not be at 100 percent to start the season. He may even begin the year on the PUP list, meaning he would miss the first six games.
If Hampton cannot play, this position drops to the back of the line. While Steve McLendon is a solid player, the lack of experience from rookie Alameda Ta'amu will make the early part of the schedule difficult. As Ta'amu learns the nuances of his position, McLendon will be counted on to play for three downs, something the Steelers' defense hasn't asked a nose tackle to do in quite some time.
This isn't to say Ta'amu is physically or mentally incapable of picking up the defense early in his career, but it's a tough proposition.
With Hampton, though, it's a solid unit. McLendon looks to continue to improve, and Hampton is still an elite-level run-stuffer. We averaged the balance of the two, and placed them into the second-level of depth rankings.
The quality, though, is still outstanding. And the same kind of situation can be said about running back. With prize back Rashard Mendenhall facing the same kind of speculation as to whether he'll be able to get on the field early in the year, back-up Isaac Redman takes the reins. Confidence should be high in Redman, he's performed well, particularly in a Wild Card round loss at Denver to end the 2011 season.
Behind Redman, though, there's a lot of unknowns. Lots of talent, too. Odds are, at least one of Jonathan Dwyer, John Clay, Chris Rainey and Baron Batch will not be on the 53-man roster to start the year. If all four of them make it, not only will the Steelers be carrying five running backs but it'd be almost guaranteed to mean Mendenhall would start the year on the PUP.
The question would be who would be doing what. All four have shown talent at one level or the next, and promise exists for all of them. Are any of them 20+ carry runners, though? We just don't know right now. It'll be a really tough training camp for running backs coach Kirby Wilson.
The group of wide receivers the Steelers have pose a different kind of depth scenario. There are at least two receivers - Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown - who are considerably more valuable than any running back. But those behind them aren't Freddie Mitchell or Todd Pinkston either. It's tough to put them in a category that suggests the back-ups could fill in well, but that's almost because Wallace and Brown are both phenomenal players. Jerricho Cotchery and Emmanuel Sanders, when healthy, are both talented receivers, though, and worthy of confidence in a transitional scenario.
The inside linebackers on the Steelers roster differ from the receivers in that one position is strong (Lawrence Timmons), but the other really seems to be up in the air with whomever winning the spot carrying with him a few question marks.
Veteran Larry Foote is really holding down the fort to set up a new starter for next year. The first candidate is Stevenson Sylvester, a player who's been in the system long enough his expectations of himself, and those of the coaching staff, should be set to the starter level.
Steel City Insider's Jim Wexell wrote an insightful piece on the development of rookie Sean Spence, throwing a log or two on the speculative fire that Spence may be an option at some point.
Is now the time for either Sylvester or Spence, though? Odds are it's not. Foote is limited in terms of size and athleticism (Spence isn't any bigger), but he has the experience to hold down the job. If Foote went down, the Steelers lose that experienced leadership - a trait the defense loses a bit with the release of James Farrior and Aaron Smith.
The only reason the depth isn't worse than this is due to the improvement the Steelers would get in terms of athleticism with Sylvester. It really isn't the strongest position on the field, but the positive side is the Steelers play in their nickel defense so often, the skills of Sylvester and maybe Spence are better suited in that defense.