LATROBE, PA - JULY 29: Casey Hampton #98, James Harrison #92, and Brett Keisel #99 of the Pittsburgh Steelers walk down to the field during training camp on July 29, 2011 at St Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
It's been over six months since we saw the Pittsburgh Steelers 2011 season come crashing down thanks to Tim Tebow and his mania, and even though we may still have a bit of a sour taste in our mouths after that overtime loss, it will soon be washed away by the refreshing taste of our favorite team reporting to Latrobe on Wednesday afternoon.
This past offseason was certainly newsworthy and a bit of a transition for the Steelers. Longtime legends Hines Ward, Aaron Smith and James Farrior parted ways with the team. Also, offensive coordinator Bruce Arians stepped down after five tumultuous seasons.
These events certainly answered some questions that fans and media were asking last season. But they also created some more questions to add to the many that every offseason seems to produce.
Below are some questions that, depending on how they're answered, may determine the direction of the 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers.
Will it be Todd Haley and Ben Roethlisberger or Todd Haley vs. Ben Roethlisberger?
How the offense will produce under new offensive coordinator Todd Haley is certainly one of the biggest questions as the team gets ready for another summer of work at St. Vincent. There is obviously a lot to be excited about regarding Haley's offensive mind. He's certainly had success in the past in both the passing and the running game. But Haley is a type-A personality and a disciple of the Bill Parcells coaching tree. And Ben Roethlisberger is a franchise quarterback with a bit of a checkered past who has already led the team to three Super Bowls before the age of 30. Also, it was no secret that Roethlisberger and Arians had a pretty deep friendship. Learning a new offense is going to be a challenge, certainly. The ability of Haley and Big Ben to have a strong working relationship could be the key to a smoother and more successful transition for the offense.
Speaking of potential soap operas, will the Mike Wallace contract situation drag into Training Camp?
It's no secret that Mike Wallace wants a fairly hefty new contract with the Steelers. A restricted free agent, Wallace refused to sign his $2.7 million tender and missed offseason OTAs. If the recent reports are true, maybe the two sides are getting close to an agreement. But if enough progress isn't made between now and Wednesday, will Wallace make his hold out official by not reporting?
Will the influx of talent along the Steelers offensive line immediately make it better, or will there be some growing pains?
There is no question that there is a ton of excitement regarding the Steelers talented new line. The team went o-line in rounds one and two of this year's draft. After guard David DeCastro somehow made it to the 24th pick, the team selected tackle Mike Adams in the second round. With those two talented young studs playing along side Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey and second year tackle Marcus Gilbert, the unit could quickly go from a weakness to a strength. However, all we really know right now is that the line will be fairly inexperienced, and it's not wise to count on rookies being able to jump in and start right away. Also, Willie Colon will be making the transition from right tackle to left guard, and he'll be doing so after missing all but one game over the past two seasons. Plus, DeCastro and Adams were forced to miss OTAs thanks to a graduation rule. They'll be a few steps behind a group that must learn Haley's new terminology. It should be interesting to see how well the young guys mesh together. But like Ivan Cole pointed out in his Weekend Checkdown, re-signing Max Starks and adding him to a group of capable backups could add much needed depth for the unit in-case the kiddos still need more time to study.
Will the Steelers defense be a little more opportunistic this season?
There is no question that the 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers defense was a great one. Papa Lebeau's unit finished number one overall, and pretty close to the top in most categories. However, the defense finished 32nd in takeaways with only 15 for the season. In contrast, the 2010 team finished 3rd in the NFL with 35 takeaways. Also, the sack numbers were down last season (35) compared to 2010 (48). Of course, those dubious stats were no doubt influenced by the absences of both LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison for significant portions of the season due to injuries and a one-game suspension.
Will the Steelers offense make other defenses less opportunistic in 2012?
Not helping matters any was the offense's carelessness with the football, committing 28 turnovers and finishing near the bottom in that category. All-in-all, the Steelers were a minus -13 in the giveaway/takeaway department last season, as opposed to 2010, when they were plus-17.
Will the Steelers actually miss William Gay?
The Steelers defense finished first in the NFL against the pass in 2011, and William Gay was a huge part of that. The subject of much scrutiny after a very poor 2010 campaign, Gay had his finest season in 2011 as he helped to transform the secondary from a source of weakness into a source of strength. Gay left via free agency in the offseason, and now the young trio of Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown will be thrust further up the depth chart. Lewis had a break-out season a year ago and is the apparent front-runner to take over the number two corner spot opposite Ike Taylor. And from all indications, the team is excited about Allen and Brown. Under assistant coach Carnell Lake, whose contributions to the improved play of Gay and Lewis should not be overlooked, it'll be interesting to see if the young guys will maintain last season's level of excellence.
Will the Steelers be able to ward off the injury bug in 2012?
This is probably a useless question to ask because it's impossible to determine. However, the answer will go a long way in shaping the 2012 season. Injuries were a problem for the Steelers all of last season, and by the time the playoffs started, things were downright laughable. As I mentioned earlier, Woodley and Harrison each missed parts of last year with injuries. In Harrison's case, it was a fractured orbital bone suffered in week four that caused him to miss six games. In Woodley's case, after maybe the best four-week stretch of his career in-which he averaged two sacks a game, he strained his hamstring against the Patriots and was never truly the same. Also, in addition to Colon being lost for the year after week one, Aaron Smith, once again, was lost for the rest of the season due to a neck injury that was discovered following a loss to the Texans. The Steelers seemed to recover from those early season injuries and were on a roll in early December, but the injury bug really started to hit the team hard beginning in the Thursday night game against the Browns. Both Roethlisberger and Pouncey sustained high ankle sprains. In Ben's case, it limited his effectiveness the rest of the year. In Pouncey's case, he never played again. In addition to those injuries, Rashard Mendenhall, Mewelde Moore, Casey Hampton and Max Starks all suffered serious injuries down the stretch and in the playoff game against the Broncos. They say it's the healthiest teams that compete for the Super Bowl. Well, the 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers were far from that.
Those are just some of the questions on the minds of Steelers fans as we count down the final days before the boys head to Latrobe. We will soon start to find the answers.