Sports Illustrated recently published its team-by-team pre-training camp snapshots of each NFL team.
Among the highlighted questions they noted for the Pittsburgh Steelers before they begin training camp July 27, will the Steelers be able to handle the leadership void created through the release of several veterans? Will Isaac Redman be able to handle the feature back role, and how good will the team's well-reputed rookie class be?
Obviously, time will tell, but the summarize the Steelers position as saying they have the talent to make a playoff run, but "if there was a year Pittsburgh might take a step back, it would be this one."
Why is that?
RB Rashard Mendenhall is no doubt talented, and his absence won't make the team better, but it's not as if Redman was pulled from a belly-up position at the Harp and Fiddle yesterday. He's shown he can be a successful player in this league. Either way, Mendenhall will miss, at most, six games (if he begins the season on the PUP). If nothing else, he'd be fresh for the final 10 games of the year.
Leadership voids are filled all the time by every team each season. A team cannot replace the leadership of players like James Farrior and Hines Ward, but they also don't have to. Leadership is situational, and considering the main issue is the loss of previous leadership, new leaders will accept the responsibility of being the alpha dog while forging the team into what they will be without those players.
The rookie class, by many accounts, is outstanding, and if nothing else, we'll see immediate impacts among the offensive line. Rookie RG David DeCastro will be a solid starter right away, and his addition to the team moves Willie Colon inside, thus giving the Steelers the most improved offensive line in football. They were a 12-4 team last season with a depleted protection unit. Losses elsewhere are minimal, and could be seen as non-factors.
If nothing else, Todd Haley's offensive team will be more disciplined than Bruce Arians' team in 2011. That's the main hold-up at this point. While this may not immediately result in an increase of 14 points a game, they have a coach reputed for his focus and his demanding attention to detail. That will bring a transitioning team closer together.
Defensively, the secondary is on the rise, even if the linebacking group and defensive line are in something of a state of flux. Even with the loss of Farrior and the likelihood of NT Casey Hampton starting the year on the PUP, both players missed time last year, thus giving back-ups valuable playing time which will make them better players.
Sports Illustrated isn't pointing out anything incorrect, per se, but while this may seem like the darkest hour for the Steelers since a brutal losing streak in 2009, it could also be their finest moment.