Around the AFC North: Can Steelers Overcome Injuries, Growing Pains?

GLENDALE, AZ - OCTOBER 23: Mike Wallace #17 of the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrates his 95-yard touchdown with teammates Antonio Brown #84 and Isaac Redman #33 during the second quarter against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium on October 23, 2011 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

To say the Steelers have been bitten by the injury bug is like saying you've been bitten by a grizzly bear.

It's going to leave a mark.

RB Rashard Mendenhall, NT Casey Hampton, LT Max Starks and OLBs James Harrison and Jason Worilds all missed the bulk - if not all - of training camp and preseason games due to injury. Then the Steelers lost FB David Johnson for the season in their second preseason game. They lost prized rookie RB David DeCastro in their third preseason game. Rookie LB Sean Spence went down in the fourth.

It's not that the Steelers look like they're unable to repeat their 12-4 season from a year ago, it's a question of how many of those players will survive Week 1, or whether the streak of six major injuries to six different players in their previous six games will continue.

AFC North Previews: Cleveland Browns | Cincinnati Bengals | Baltimore Ravens | Pittsburgh Steelers

No team can really plan for injuries, and perhaps the Steelers are getting their share of trips to the inactive list out of the way now. One thing they do have is a slew of playmakers on the offensive side of the ball, and a defense that's as used to success as any in the league.

Offensively, WR Mike Wallace and WR Antonio Brown combine to create the best duo in the division. Brown was awarded the contract this offseason that Wallace was working to get, and while Wallace sat out the preseason, Brown scored two touchdowns on brilliant runs-after-catch, showing he may not have the vertical game Wallace does, but he'll make you miss over the same space on the field.

Wallace, though, certainly is not one to be ignored, and he'll be a factor early in the season. The symbiotic relationship Wallace's deep speed has with Brown's ability in the open field will create difficult decisions for opposing defenses on how to favor coverage. On top of that, the Steelers revamped their running game, even in the absence of Mendenhall, and will enter Week 1 with perhaps its deepest group of running backs its had in quite a while.

Isaac Redman ran for 121 yards against Denver in the AFC Wild Card playoffs last season, and may not even be the unquestioned back-up to Mendenhall. Jonathan Dwyer looked outstanding throughout preseason, and will no doubt be used in what could be a run-oriented offense early in the season.

On top of all of this, QB Ben Roethlisberger looked sharp to this point in the year, and will only improve as the season progresses.

Defensively, the key will be in the Steelers' ability to get the quarterback on the ground. The issue they had last year, when they fell to the middle of the league in sacks, was the absence of Harrison and Woodley for the bulk of the season. Without that rush presence off the edge, their turnover margin fell to among the lowest in the NFL. It's a point of emphasis this year among a secondary that could be as good as the Steelers have had since the 1990s, when the deep defense was patrolled by Rod Woodson and Carnell Lake.

A deep group of young cornerbacks oozing with talent will give the Steelers the ability to make the nickel package nearly a base defense for them, as they should be able to cover the talented wideouts of the AFC North.

AFC North Preview: Are Bengals Poised to Leap Past Steelers and Ravens? (via sbnation)


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