The case for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2013: Part Two

Justin K. Aller

A look at how player leadership and the offense factors in to the possibility of team success.

In part one I laid out what I believed to be the general underlying themes and challenges that the Steelers must contend with in order to be successful in 2013. The balance of this segment will focus specifically on issues relating to the offense. But first let's look at one more leadership issue.

Team captains

I understand that some readers are skeptical, if not downright contemptuous of the intangibles that under-gird success, especially in a team sport like football. For them its all about what they can see with their eyes on the field and that which is easily quantifiable. Consequently it would be difficult to comprehend Troy Polamalu's statement,

I believe the strength of this organization is in its camaraderie and its family atmosphere. We didn't have those last year.

nor Trib writer's Dejan Kovacevic's expansion,

Don't think for a second that, in any football setting, chemistry doesn't matter.

The captains set the tone on a peer level and help set accountability standards. Their selection by their teammates gives them a level of earned credibility that other authority figures sometimes never achieve.

Ben Roethlisberger has been the Alpha Dog of the offense for quite some time, but with Charlie Batch and Leftwich gone he now takes on the role of Village Elder as well. Pouncey represents the next generation. Hopefully he'll be a leader on this team long after the other three captains have taken their final bows. Two added benefits is that he comes from what is currently the most maligned position group on the team and is in the process of leading its resurrection. I would also hope and suspect that the added responsibility will cause him to be more circumspect about his own off field behavior.

The defensive captains (Brett Keisel and Ryan Clark) should bring a sense of urgency given the fact that this may constitute the last shot for each in a Steelers uniform. A championship run might be the best chance they have for convincing management to keep the band together for at least another season beyond this one. Plus I'm particularly pleased that the fiery and outspoken Clark can now do officially what he has been already doing for quite some time, serving as a fearless and passionate voice for his team.

All four know first hand what it takes to get to New Jersey in February. Few teams have this kind of resource, fewer still can claim two guys who have done it three times (Ben and Brett). I spoke in Part One of a team learning how to play at a championship level, this group of captains can convey how truly ruthless this team will have to become with their opponents and themselves in making that happen.

The Offense

Some of us have problems grasping intangibles, others have issues with delayed gratification. Regardless of how good or how bad you thought the new offense was last year, we will have a more accurate and definitive idea of its capabilities this season. With new systems, their supporting tactics and terminology it takes time for all parties to acclimate. And with the instability that was experienced at quarterback, offensive line, running back and wide receivers (the tight ends were pretty stable until the last game, and Heath had a great year), it's a wonder the offense was able to accomplish anything at all. The system has been tweaked with input coming from practically all corners. Personnel adjustments have been made, there are fewer distractions and though not perfect, the injury situation is better and much more hopeful than it was this time last year.

And please get whatever you thought you saw during the preseason out of your minds. As Peyton Manning said this week, one of the biggest concerns of an opening week game is teams don't know what their opponents are going to unleash, because the smart ones don't show much of anything in the preseason. Only a bunch of idiots would show their hand in order to reassure their fan base that they're competent. We fans will hope or fret as suits our dispositions and then begin to confront reality starting Sunday. So lets get specific.

Quarterback

If you don't remember anything of the few thousand words or so of this series it would be this, easily the most important thing to know about the chances for the 2013 Steelers. As long as Ben Roethlisberger is healthy enough to be on the field and has any reasonable supporting cast, this team can win. And I don't mean in the fuzzy, hypothetical sense of any given Sunday. I mean the other team is in trouble, period.

Now read the following carefully and as many times as necessary until it sinks in; Ben is in the middle of a run that is likely to land him in the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. Do not get caught up in the bigotry of football agism that says that any age that begins with a '3' means you've got one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel. Ben is right in the sweet spot of his prime. The worse case scenario is that he's just as good a player as always. But there is evidence that he may, in fact, be better than he's ever been. His arm is reportedly stronger, his knowledge of the game and confidence is improved. I could actually stop the series right here and be assured of a credible argument for the Steelers.

Of course there is the matter of Ben's style of play that continually places him at risk. The system is in place that would minimize those risks, but we all should know by now that Ben is not temperamentally disposed to do anything but go for an opponent's jugular regardless of the risks incurred by doing so. And it is here where things start to get intriguing. Here is where the theme of depth and experience begins to come into play. Last year I wrote that the Steelers quarterback room was fairly unique in that

all three quarterbacks have been NFL starters, not just starting a game here or there, but the face of their respective franchises for years. Their ability to win games at this level is not a hypothetical issue, they have the resume.

Yes, but so what? As many have said (I've said it as recently as a few weeks ago) if Ben goes down we're screwed so it really doesn't matter who the backups are, right? Except, its actually a little more complicated than that. Its absolutely true if you are talking about a catastrophic season ending injury. But the fact is that in the Super Bowl seasons of '05 and '10 the path to the playoffs necessitated the third string quarterback starting and winning a game when the playoff situation was in doubt. A quick review.

In '05 Ben was forced to miss multiple games due to a leg injury. Second string quarterback Tommy Maddox led the Steelers in a game against Jacksonville that went into overtime. In the overtime period Maddox killed a drive that was in Jaguar territory when he fumbled a short yardage handoff intended for Jerome Bettis. Then on the next Steeler possession he threw (to use a baseball term in honor of the Pirates) a walk off interception. This sequence literally ended Maddox' career and basically led him to being, in essence, run out of town. Third string quarterback Charlie Batch would then start and win a game against Green Bay at Lambeau field. The game was not insignificant. If they had lost the Steelers would not of even qualified for the playoffs, forget about the Super Bowl. In 2010 it was Batch again, due to Ben's suspension. But he wasn't the third string quarterback this time, he was fourth string behind Byron Leftwich and Dennis Dixon, both of whom were injured.

Now consider the possibility we are faced with such a scenario this year and insert Landry Jones. You see the concern?

And please don't consider this a knock on Jones. Third string quarterbacks are like those doughnut type spare tires. They are designed to get you from the middle of nowhere to a filling station. You don't have the expectation that they can carry you along the interstate from New York City to Chicago. It is indicative of how spoiled we had become that we got angry when the third string guy doesn't win a game (think Cleveland). And some weren't all that impressed when Batch beat our championship capable arch rival on their home field. That's riding that doughnut from New York to Los Angeles.

This is not to say they couldn't win with Jones. Take a page out of the 1976 book where the team rode two 1,000 yard rushers and the defense pitched shutouts (can't win if you can't score). Its just that you'd rather it not come to that.

So am I just being Captain Obvious and saying that success depends on Ben staying upright? No. History says that Ben's style of play means that he will probably miss some time, even if its a quarter or two due to injury. Success may depend upon keeping Bruce Gradkowski upright.

Offensive line

Here are the two things to keep in mind when the topic is the O line. It is the youngest group that has represented the team in over 55 years. According to Ben they are the best group he has had since he has been here. That would include the unit of Marvel Smith, Alan Faneca, Jeff Hartings, Kendall Simmons and Max Starks. Three Pro Bowlers in there I believe. It might also put them in the running of being, eventually the best group in the past 55 years. Getting way ahead of things here, but the point needs to be made that this unit has potentially the most dramatic upside of any on the team. On the other hand, it may take some time to get there.

They have a number of hurdles to clear. They are not just young but less experienced than it would appear on paper. Adams and DeCastro in particular are second year players in name only since for the most part. Injuries robbed them of the opportunity to gain but so much in game experience through most of their rookie season. They have all only worked together as a unit since the beginning of OTAs and in the current configuration for about a month. As has already been mentioned the offense is still new, and their position coach and blocking schemes are newer still. Unlike any other position group on the team, this is ensemble work. Not only must they master their own assignments, they must learn how to coordinate and cooperate with their line mates. In other words a key word here would be patience.

In the midst of the challenges there are these hopeful aspects. Those who have been pushing for the team to commit to improving the offensive line have gotten much, if not most of what they've wanted if they would just take a breath. The group has the equivalent of three first round draft choices, Adams slipping to the second round was not based on football issues. If Ramon Foster represents the bottom of the barrel among the starters, well, we've seen worse over past several years. Yes, the group is thin, but quality offensive linemen are a scarcity league wide. Here is where there has to be hope that youth works as an asset and mitigates against serious injury. It is on this issue of depth that the unit MVP may well be Kelvin Beachum playing the position of Security Blanket. And what we have seen thus far has not been bad. They consistently can move the ball, then they shoot themselves in the foot.

A good test to determine where this group is and how far they have to go is likely to occur on the Monday night game against the Bengals. A good defensive line and a motivated James Harrison. A good test.

Running back

Arguably the biggest mystery on the team is this group. Let's begin with where we've been. A year ago the running back group looked like this: Rashard Mendenhall was in the same situation as Heath Miller this year, not available but progressing faster from a late season knee injury than generally expected. Chris Rainey was a promising rookie with game breaking potential. Baron Batch, like DeCastro spent his rookie year injured, and though, having a high profile with fans, was only then getting his first opportunity to do something in stadiums. Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman had played sparingly in backup roles and were suddenly looking to be thrust into feature type reps. In other words, with Mendenhall on the shelf early, it was a group that had very little game experience.

This group is different in that it is much more experienced with the exception of Le'Veon Bell. That would also include this year's version of Redman. It should also be mentioned here what I like to call the Tiffin effect. This recognizes that not all college football experiences yields the same level of preparation. So a player like Redman from Bowie State may lag relative to a Bell or Stephens-Hollings who hail from MIchigan State and Pitt respectively. This group tends more toward being full service backs in that they all show the potential to be credible three down players. Even Will Johnson, a converted tight end is a good pass receiver. We know next to nothing about Bell and Felix Jones. The body of work of S-H in black and gold is thin. But its hard to imagine this group not being a significant improvement over last year's group. Receiving ability alone may prove extremely valuable until the situation at tight end gets completely sorted out.

Wide receiver

Since he left for Miami we been fed the line that the exit of Mike Wallace constitutes some sort of major disaster for the Steelers. Once again history tells a different story.

In 2005 Pittsburgh's number one receiver, Plaxico Burress left via free agency. The receiving corp that year consisted of Hines Ward, Antwan Randle El, Cedric Wilson and Nate Washington. The team won the Super Bowl. In 2010 number one receiver Santonio Holmes was traded to the New York Jets, leaving a receiving group of Ward, Wallace, Randle El, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown. Again, they went to the Super Bowl. Somehow I don't feel that Wallace is better than Plax or Santonio. And Brown, Sanders, Markus Wheaton, Jerricho Cotchery and Derek Moye would matchup favorably with any of those other groups. Brown has to demonstrate that he can be as productive when drawing number one coverage. Sanders has to stay healthy. With Mann instructing them on professionalism its hard to see them as any kind of liability.

Tight end

The one area of the team we know will change over the coming weeks. No way they will continue with five tight ends. Two questions concerning Heath Miller. When will he return to the lineup, and when will he be close to 100 percent? Spaeth will be away for a while and hopefully with Paulson, Johnson and Palmer the team can cobble together one well rounded tight end.

Though Miller's production will be missed, I think there is no real shortage of weapons on the offense. A year ago Andy Benoit who is now with Sports Illustrated described the Steelers offense as being potentially borderline unstoppable. Ben has a lot of weapons at his disposal, enough to compensate for the absence of Miller, enough so that no one player is indispensible, meaning that defenses may not be able to focus upon trying to stop any one individual.

But it still remains to be seen if this offense can stop tripping over its own feet. If so then the rest of league is in for a frightful surprise because a competent, potent offense in partnership with a 'normal' LeBeau defense is something no opponent wants to contemplate.

Defense and Special Teams will be cover in Part Three

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