In the time leading up to training camp, predictions, hopes, and fears litter the comments as well as the articles of football sites. Fans are driven to analyzing any piece of information and extrapolating it into far-reaching consequences across years of play. We do this for fun and because, as humans, it is in our nature to search for patterns when interacting with the world around us. To avoid drifting into expectations based on gut feelings and news stories that would barely crack a news story during the regular season, this article will describe a reasonable best-case/worst-case scenario for each position or position group.
I do not intend this post to be a rigorous statistical evaluation of our team or even a historical piece, searching for some pattern that either ensures success or foretells failure. I intend to, very simply, compare this team and the teams in the past based on the additions and the losses that our team has endured. I am looking specifically at the players that we have kept and their contributions in the recent past for a best and worst reasonable set of possibilities that this team offers us, as fans.
QUARTERBACKBen was on an MVP pace to start last year before he was de-railed by injury. There is little reason to think that he wouldn't have a fantastic year if he could avoid the injury bug. Unfortunately avoiding the injury bug is easier said than done. In the best-case scenario, Ben replicates the path he was on last year and this time makes it through the entire year. If this happens, it is hard not to see the Steelers as a competitive team. Worst conceivable scenario is that we have to push our back ups in. We get to find out how Landry Jones stands up to the pressure thats been taking Ben out the last couple of seasons. In this case, we probably aren't even a playoff team and would fight for 8-8. Overall, I think that Ben could have a good year and I would take Bruce Gradkowski over Byram Leftwich (who is too injury prone), but it was nice to have an experienced QB like Charlie Batch as a 3rd string quarterback.
RUNNING BACKThe ceiling for running back is a bit lower than for Big Ben in my estimation as, in my mind, the best case scenario would be to have our rookie running back steal the show. If Le'Veon Bell can learn the offense and prove himself to be a true 3-down power back, we could have a fantastic base for the offense. Will Johnson has shown to be an asset in and out of the back field and looks to take another step this year as the teams starting fullback. The Johnson and Bell tandem would be a nightmare for a the defenders in their way. The worst case scenario would be that none of the current stable of backs impress enough to hold the starting gig, and the running game does not change much from last year. It wouldn't necessarily be a problem if one of the other backs get the start (in fact that will probably be the case for at least the first couple of games), because any one of Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer, and Bell have the skills to improve upon last years performance as the feature back. It seems unlikely that the running game could get worse than last years despite the loss of Rashard Mendenhall. Rashard was not able to run with the same flash he had before his injury and as a worst case scenario, I feel like the floor is pretty close to last year's performance.
THE WIDE RECEIVERS
The wide receiver corps has taken a hit in the talent department with the departure of Mike Wallace. This does not mean that they can not improve upon last year's numbers but makes it less likely and lowers the ceiling on the best case scenario. I could, for instance see the offense click in the new scheme that Todd Haley has them running and, with the help of developing receivers Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders having career years, teams becoming frustrated by the Steeler's dominance in Time of Possession. Anything coming from Wheaton, Cotchery, and Plaxico would be a plus, but neither Cotchery nor Plaxico seem like they have enough to consistently get separation and Wheaton must get acclimated to the NFL. This unit could really suffer in the worst case scenario. If neither Brown nor Sanders can step up to fill the void left by Mike Wallace and Wheaton busts, then there would be nearly nothing to fear from this group and they would be significantly worse than last year.
OFFENSIVE LINEThis is the make or break unit for the offense. If they can come together and perform in line with their talent, Marcus Gilbert, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David Decastro, and Mike Adams would be a force that could single-handedly decide whether this offense reaches its greatest heights or lowest pits. They have shown flashes of high-level performance in between injuries. This potential for greatness, as well as injuries, makes them the most volatile offensive group. With the new offensive line coach Jack Bicknell JR. shifting the focus of the blocking scheme, all eyes should be on the offensive line. This line should be better than last year's but, due to a lack of depth, there is the potential for this to be the worst performance for this group in recent memory.
TIGHT ENDLast year's performance pretty much sets the ceiling for this year. We have to face the facts that it is unlikely that Heath Miller can replicate last years high-level play directly after coming back from a serious injury. David Paulson could take another step forward, but his skill level is nowhere near Heath Miller's. Matt Spaeth may help with any time between the return of Miller, but he is mostly limited as a blocking specialist. In the worst case scenario we could have a slowly developing Paulson and a still healing Miller for much fo the year. This would leave us with a hole in what was a go-to spot in the red zone. I am not discounting the talent of our tight ends, but the circumstances definitely do not point towards a stand out year from the tight ends on offense..
Overall, I feel like the chances are pretty good that the offensive unit will be better than the one fielded last year due to the development of players and, hopefully, a reduction of injuries. The team has lost some flash due to the departure of Wallace and Mendenhall. With a healthy line and a healthy Roethlisburger, this would be a dangerous unit with a lot of potential.