Can the Steelers return to the playoffs and even greatness in the 2013 season?
Obviously we are a number of months away from a definitive answer to that. But there are a lot of steps involved in the journey to a successful season and, starting with training camp, asking the right questions can help us to assess how prepared the team will be to handle the challenges they will have to overcome along the way. Here's one person's perspective on the what we can learn from this year's preseason.
1. Can the injury gods be mollified?
There's no getting around the fact of injuries being part of the game. It also is understood that it is bad form for the professionals who play, coach and administer this game to claim injury as an excuse for sub par performance. But the fact is there is a threshold beyond which you begin to experience diminishing returns, and the Steelers crossed it last year. Pro Bowl caliber players and other starters were hobbled throughout the year and promising rookies were cut down before they could contribute. And yes they are all great athletes, but there is a reason why some players are starters, why some are drafted higher than others (or drafted at all) and why some are paid a good deal more than others. And if enough of these players go down or if the timing and severity of the injuries is unfortunate (in other words we are unlucky) then we have issues.
Art Rooney II acknowledged as much when he declared that injury prevention would be a point of emphasis during the preseason. So far, so good. While the team is not unscathed, compared to the last few seasons they are in relatively good shape. Last year this time it was unclear as to if or when Rashard Mendenhall and Casey Hampton would return. James Harrison and Jason Worilds were sidelined with various ailments. Brett Keisel was still recovering. In previous years we lost players like Willie Colon for the year before camp even started.
Given the fact that this camp promises to be more competitive than most the possibilities of injury increases. A lot of guys will have to go all out to either to win positions or to remain on the team at all. Who, when, how and how severe will be the main thing. We should also know more about three additional injury related questions as camp unfolds:
2. When will Heath Miller return?
Last year Hampton and Mendenhall both returned weeks before it was generally believed they would be available. Maybe this is why the team is much more vague about Miller's timetable. I don't know of anyone who believes he will return before the beginning of the regular season, but his level of participation, if any, during this phase may provide some important clues.
3. Will Sean Spence return at all?
There have been mixed signals coming from the team regarding last year's third round draft pick. Some have suggested that his return prior to 2014 or ever is out of the question. Others have a more optimistic view. Besides the potential tragedy of a promising career cut short, it would also be an incredible boost for an area of the team that is dangerously thin if there was any sign that he might be able to return sometime this season.
All three had surgical procedures that limited their participation in the spring, but we've been told will not negatively impact their participation in camp. At least that's the plan. I'm not particularly concerned about Ben, a little more about Hawthorne and how that might distort how the traffic jam at defensive back is sorted out, but complications with Adams could effect the the delicate evolution of a retooled offensive line.
5. Will someone make the mistake of showing up physically unprepared?
There was a time when players used training camp to get into shape. More recently, an out of shape player could expect to spend some time in the coaches doghouse as was the case for Casey Hampton a few years back without any real long term consequences. But with injury prevention being clearly correlated with physical conditioning and the across the board intensity of the competition for helmets this year showing up in less than optimal condition could be a career ender, at least for this team. To Tomlin's credit there hasn't been much of that in the last couple of years. Part of the light coming on for Jonathan Dwyer was getting his weight under control last year and reporting in better shape. But he has paid a price for that in the sense that his reputation in this regard continues to dog him. And I think its fair to say if he comes in heavy this year that may be enough to put him on the outside.
6. Will Richard Mann stabilize the receivers room?
The story is that the Young Money crew was undisciplined and got out of hand leading to sub par performances from the receiver corps last year. That and the departure of the talented, but in my opinion overrated Mike Wallace, has led to a perception of a diminished receiver group that could be a team liability this season. There are some who believe that this unit can't be competitive without an infusion of additional talent. Brandon Lloyd? Really?
Its possible that the opposite may be true. The same mindset that overrates Wallace, would underrate Sanders. It has been a popular position to write off Burress based upon nothing but assumptions. Gilreath is a talented player who couldn't break through the traffic jam at this position last season. Wheaton has been absent through no fault of his own but few doubt his promise. And nobody's saying a word about Justin Brown, and you see what happened to the last receiver named Brown to be drafted in the sixth round. Oh, and Jerricho Cotchery and Antonio Brown as well. I think a lot of teams would be okay with such an uninspiring group of receivers, assuming they were well managed.
Mann is a seasoned coach who is on record as saying that he will not repeat mistakes he made earlier in his career when he was inconsistent in his treatment of all the players in his room, a quality that is lauded in Carnell Lake and is likely to serve him and his players well. This leads to an interesting followup question.
7. Plax or Cotch, does one of them go?
One of the assumptions of last year was the benefit of having a stabilizing veteran presence in the receivers room given the departure of HInes Ward, and the relative youth of the Money crew and their coach. Does that dynamic change with the arrival of Mann? And in any case do you need two veterans taking up roster space, particularly if there is sufficient up and coming young talent whose progress those veterans are blocking?
Several issues effect an answer. What is their actual level of performance now? These have been two top level receivers in their respective primes. Some assume, particularly in the case of Burress, that they are in steep decline. The fact that Plax joined the team in mid year, and the team was struggling to master a new offense could lead to the perception that he is less effective than he could be with the time to train with his teammates and integrate the system.
But even if each can continue to perform at a high level does that justify suppressing the development of Wheaton if he proves to be worthy of his high selection from a talent perspective and a quick study? There is plenty of historical precedent to suggest that even if he eventually becomes one of the Steelers greats that Wheaton may play a greatly reduced role his first year. This was true for players such as Lynn Swann and Santonio Holmes. But even if he gets no further than the relatively low status as fourth receiver that would mean that one of the older vets would be fifth. Neither of the old guys will be playing special teams, one possibly might not dress for some games. If younger players such as Justin Brown or Gilreath show anything at all does that make sense?
There is also the matter of leadership. A lot of veteran leadership went away the last two years. The offense in particular is young, especially with Miller sidelined. Cotch has been in the wars and Plax has championship pedigree. There was a time that the team had that in enough supply that they could ignore it as a consideration, perhaps not now. And don't be so sure that if they part ways with one that Plax will be odd man out. Plax has higher Steelers cred than Cotch, and a better long term relationship with Ben. Those things count for something.
However, there is a another factor that could effect the receiver configuration.
8. Do Antonio and Manny retire from special teams?
How the question of who returns kickoffs and punts is resolved will have ramifications for the receivers and probably the running backs as well. If some combination of Reggie Dunn, LaRod Stephens-Howlings and Wheaton show they can carry the load in these areas then some capable guys are going out the door to make room for them.
9. What impact will Danny Smith have on special teams?
One aspect of this question that can't answered in the preseason is whether the quality of the third leg of team performance will actually improve once the lights come on. That is a question for late August. In late July it is safe to say that if you are a young and/or borderline talent then for the next six weeks Danny Smith may be the most important and influential person in your life. How he teaches and evaluates special teams performance may determine your football future. Special teams seems destined to always be an afterthought to outside observers. Maybe because we only notice when they fail. Otherwise we take it for granted save the occasional return for a touchdown or blocked punt. But for returning players such as Baron Batch, Stephenson Sylvester and Curtis Brown, as well as newcomers such as Dunn, Stephens-Howlings and others special teams are basically life and death careerwise.
Two things that are noteworthy on Smith is that if the published reports are believed he has been Tomlin's first choice that wasn't available previously. Therefore I believe we are safe to assume that what evolves here more faithfully reflects Tomlin's will than previous members of the staff. In fact, you could argue that the others were just placeholders until the team got the man they want. Second, is the Pittsburgh theme that is reflected in both the hirings of Mann and Smith. That probably reflects some influence from higher up the foot chain than Tomlin. The fact that we are approximately the same age and come from the same neck of the woods in Pittsburgh also intrigues me. All things considered this may be a more significant addition than some of us can imagine.
10. Is the kicking competition important?
Its Hrapmann vs. Suisham at placekicker and Moorman vs. Butler at punter. (Yawn) Is this just a made for training camp spectacle? Maybe. Given the season that Suisham had last year it would seem inconceivable that his spot on the team was anything but unassailable. But I got to witness some of the competition between these two players at last years camp. One of the significant differences between the two; Hrapmann had the stronger leg. Now remember the Tennessee game and the second Cincinnati game. Two field goals that missed short, either one of which if they had been made could have propelled the Steelers into the playoffs. Moorman vs Butler is a more plausible competition and given the fact that Moorman appears strong (punt placement) in one of the areas where Butler is weak (consistency being the other) then if I were Drew I wouldn't be sleeping that comfortably these days.
In Part Two the questions will move to the offensive and defensive lines, running backs, defensive secondary and linebackers.