GLENDALE, AZ - OCTOBER 23: Cameron Heyward #97 of the Pittsburgh Steelers puts pressure on Kevin Kolb #4 of the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium on October 23, 2011 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/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.
Whether it's from experience or just simply a really small margin of ability between the starter and the back-up, we've highlighted a few of the positions in which a loss of a starter wouldn't be as catastrophic (on paper, at least).
Some other positions may not give us the same feeling of comfort.
We saw this first one, free safety, during the 2011 playoff loss at Denver.
Veteran Ryan Mundy is a classic Steelers depth player. Drafted late (sixth round in 2007) was released, came back on the team through the practice squad, signed a futures contract in 2009 and has been with the team ever since.
While his rep through December of 2011 had been that of a grinder, a guy who rose through the ranks to become a contributory member of the team, most people will only recognize a blown coverage opportunity in overtime against Denver. While it can't be pinned solely on Mundy, 10 guys missed a tackle on Demaryius Thomas, he was the last one.
Mundy played well, and did a good job filling in for SS Troy Polamalu when he missed some time with injury in 2011 (Kansas City, most notably). Is he good enough to fill the void of the team's leading tackler and 2011 Pro Bowl selection Ryan Clark, though? We saw how badly outplayed the secondary was against the below-average passing Broncos. How much of that was on Mundy vs. how much of it was the absence of Clark will be debated for a while, but one thing is for sure, we'll find out in Week 1, when Clark again sits and Mundy gets the nod against a far superior quarterback than the one who torched the Steelers in the playoffs.
Another position that was exposed last season was outside linebacker. The bread-and-butter of the Steelers' 3-4 defense, when its marquee players, LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison went down with injuries, the Steelers sack well went completely dry. Notching just 35 sacks in a season that only saw Harrison and Woodley start a combined six games together, it was obvious no replacement was ready to step in and perform at a comparable level. Maybe that's unfair, given the skill of both Harrison and Woodley, but that doesn't change the fact the Steelers would suffer a noticeable dropoff if (and when) they aren't in the game.
Jason Worilds is a former second round pick, and while he showed a flash or two here and there, he was a liability against the run, oftentimes finding himself the target of an opposing running game plan. A wrist injury kept him on the shelf for most of OTAs and minicamp, and he really needs to have an outstanding training camp for the team to feel he's in their long term plans. Chris Carter is behind Worilds in terms of the depth chart and experience, and while he played a bit in Week 8 against New England, and showed a high level of enthusiasm, he wasn't at the point his recognition skills made up for his lack of size.
This isn't to say neither player can't overcome their current weaknesses, but as it sits now, getting the back-up OLBs to step up has to be a priority.
The situation is similar at defensive end. In a complex defense, the 3-4 defensive end is asked to do many of the subtle, unheralded things of which we do not hear or see. But technique and preparation are critical components of it, which is why the injury to an experienced and heavily talented player like Brett Keisel would hurt. The bigger issue is the fact his back-up Cameron Heyward, has had little time to prepare for such a monumental replacement assignment. Keisel is a very talented player, but what makes him one of the best among his position is his awareness, and that's something no one can fairly expect Heyward to have fully developed yet in his young career.
On the plus side, he played more than other starting defensive end, Ziggy Hood, did his rookie year. Heyward's role will definitely expand this year, but he's still a work-in-progress.
FS, OLB, DE