PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 30: Ike Taylor #24 of the Pittsburgh Steelers breaks up a pass in front of Taylor Price #17 of the New England Patriots during the game on October 30, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
The term aging really no longer applies to this group. Only Casey Hampton would fit that definition, and his presence at this point of the season could be viewed as more of a luxury than a necessity. Few people were expecting his return this soon in the 2012 season. And with the emergence of Steve McLendon there is no particular sense of urgency associated with Big Snack's return. With the exception of team captain Brett Keisel, the remainder of this group is on the young side. Of its seven players I would be comfortable with any combination of five (Hampton, Heyward, Hood , Keisel and McLendon) in the starting lineup.
Most Intriguing. Ziggy Hood. Hood has attracted some heat from those who have believed that he has underachieved. Forgotten is the fact that Ziggy had been pressed into service probably before he was ready because of a series of injuries suffered by Aaron Smith. Regardless of what you have believed about Hood's performance in the past, the realization is beginning to dawn that Ziggy has taken things up a notch. He and his friend McLendon appear positioned to rise up together as the vanguard of the next generation of Steelers defensive linemen.
Help seems to be arriving just in time with this group. Harrison and Worilds are fully participating in practice and chances are good that they will play in the first game of the season. As these two and Stevenson Sylvester have struggled with injuries the beneficiaries have been Chris Carter, Adrian Robinson, Brandon Johnson and to a lesser extent Marshall McFadden. The loss of Sean Spence for the season has made the margin of error razor thin, but there is still a chance that the Steelers will start the season with their ideal starting lineup intact. Of greatest importance is that Lawrence Timmons is allowed to remain an inside linebacker where he has All Pro potential.
Most Intriguing. LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison. Woodley appears poised to have his greatest season. You can't look at this man and not be awed by how big he is. And I don't mean fat. Of the few glimpses we've had this preseason one is left with the impression of a player who is on the verge of being able to do whatever he wants whenever he wants. Health is the key concern for Harrison. But if his knee turns out to be more speed bump than road block then he may be far enough removed from his back troubles to quiet concerns that he has lost too much and is on his way out. Maybe just as important is whether the witchhunt continues and if he can adapt his game sufficiently to prevent another round of fines and suspensions. If so, then along with Larry Foote, this group could take their place among the great Steelers linebacker combinations of the past forty years. In partnership with a younger and frisky defensive line we could be seeing a front seven that possesses formidable strength and speed.
Youth at the corners and age at the safeties would be the headlines here. Most of the attention during the summer was the competition for the number two corner with Keenan Lewis holding off the challenge, so far, of Cortez Allen. Nonetheless, Allen's stock is rising fast as Curtis Brown's has faltered a bit. This competition has distracted from the possibility of Ike Taylor rising from his worst professional moment to reaching a higher level. There is a lot of quiet concern about Troy Polamalu; whether age and his reckless style of play may have caught up with him resulting in a drop off. Hard to say. Given his style it makes no sense to go all out before the games actually count. Nor will we necessarily know after the first game. The absence of Ryan Clark will alter Troy's game most likely and it will not provide a clear picture of what his season will be like, in my opinion. The play of Ryan Mundy may be the most important factor in the eventual outcome of this game. It will be interesting to see how he responds.
Most Intriguing. Cortez Allen. He's definitely growing. How fast may be a determining factor in the success of the team and whether he can supplant Lewis in the starting lineup this year. Of course that may not be either necessary or desirable. With the continued rise of spread formations Allen may not be a starter but could see as much time on the field as all but a few of his defensive teammates. To have three high quality corners when for most of this decade the team has struggled to get beyond one would be a delightful change. And if the front seven can deliver on their promise could raise the defense to great heights.
There are two possible scenarios here. If you believe that success is dependent upon the contributions of newcomers, mainly rookies, then predictions by Homer J and others whom I've spoken to over the past few months makes the most sense. Namely, that all depends upon how quickly the new guys get it and can apply it. This probably means that even though the team is likely to be moving forward rather than backward or stagnating they are probably a year away.
The other scenario would be that this was already a 12-4 team without the new additions. Yes, they lost some veteran leadership, but the on field contributions of this group was fairly negligible, with the possible exception of Farrior. Consequently, even a minuscule contribution from the newcomers could push the team over the top.
I believe the season will turn on two factors that cannot be predicted and whose impact will only be known after they transpire. The first are the timing and impact of injuries, the second is how resilient the team is in the face of situational adversity. If Baltimore and Cincinnati can fulfill their promise then the margin for error will be tight and just becoming playoff eligible will take an enormous amount of focus and energy. If that is survived then is there enough energy left to finish, or will the effort exhaust the team, particularly newbies unaccustomed to the marathon NFL season? In the case of any scenario the 2012 team is likely to not be as strong as 2013, and in that sense perhaps there will be less pressure on the team save for that of its own standards and the high expectations of the fan base.
I try to be as observant of our community in both the microcosm (BTSC) and macro (Steeler Nation). My feeling is that we face some dangers similar to that of last year that involve us painting ourselves into a corner psychologically and emotionally.
The short term issues have to do with the fact that many of us are very passionate about the team but are saddled with short memories, a bad combination. What this means is that, for some, too much weight and meaning has been given over to preseason. I just wrote a piece on the situation at backup quarterback. Think about that. We're arguing over the backup quarterback (third string at that!) Its hard to imagine anything being less important a month from now. Too much weight will likely be given to this first game. I feel certain that the sense of failure associated with the 2011 season probably had as much to do with the first game as it did with the last. The beginning of the season and September football will likely elicit overconfidence if the team does well, (and let me warn you, in the years of the greatest team success things often don't start off that well) and panic if the team struggles early. Last year we finished September 2-2 and then lost only two more game the rest of the season.
Long term there is the problem that some may have greeted the news that it may be possible that the team is a year away, not with anticipation or joy but with despair. I can understand that the standard is the standard, but even Tomlin (and Noll before him) acknowledges that the journey is the thing. Otherwise you have condemned yourself to misery most years. And even when the team wins you're liable to be the person who, instead of celebrating after winning the Super Bowl will post a ten point plan of what needs to be done to win next year before the confetti has settled.
So, some unsolicited advice. Try to remember that we have been waiting for this moment for seven months. If you call yourself a football fan and you can't be happy now then it is indeed a sad state of affairs. Some fans already know that their team isn't going anywhere this year. I know that feeling. Every Steeler fan over the age of fifty, or if you prefer, every Pirate fan of any age knows that feeling. We have hope. Not that crazy 'maybe something will get hit by lightning hope', but hope based upon the fact and belief that the Steelers have a legitimate shot at a Lombardi this year.
Try to enjoy the ride.