On the one hand, it might come as a relief that this year, the only questions the Steelers are facing concern their behavior on the field. Over the past two seasons, the team was contending with player suspensions, criminal investigations and a spate of other bad press. This year, at least, no one is talking about criminal offenses.
But fans are worried about offensive behavior — or rather, a lack of it.
As the Steelers work through the preseason, the team's offense has given ever-neurotic fans plenty to worry about:
— After 14 seasons, two Super Bowl wins, a Dancing With the Stars title and a reduced role last year, Hines Ward retired to join NBC Sports.
- Photo by Heather Mull
- Ben Roethlisberger is getting used to new offensive coordinator Todd Haley.
— After another season of providing the offense with a deep-ball threat, Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace has been a training-camp holdout, part of an ongoing contract dispute.
— After years of hearing Pittsburgh fans call for his head, offensive coordinator Bruce Arians also "retired." He was hired two days later by the Indianapolis Colts to fill the same position, and was replaced by former Kansas City Chiefs head coach Todd Haley.
Add those challenges to a banged-up group of running backs — and a new, young offensive line — and it's no wonder that fans are worried about how far the offense can carry the 2012-2013 season.
There are concerns on the defensive side of the ball too, of course. The Steelers lost two high-profile talents with the retirements of defensive end Aaron Smith and nose tackle Chris Hoke. There are also injury concerns: Linebacker James Harrison has been plagued by a knee injury, adding to an ACL injury that defensive tackle Casey Hampton suffered in January. Neither man is likely to be lost for very much longer, though it's unclear whether they'll be able to play in the Sept. 9 season opener in Denver.
- Photo by Heather Mull
- Chris Rainey figures to be the team's offensive X-factor.
But in recent years, the defense has always been able to answer the doubters. Last year, it responded to criticism that its roster was too old by becoming, again, one of the NFL's top units. This year, Troy Polamalu spent training camp flying around the field like he had a cape on his back. Cornerback Ike Taylor has even been catching interceptions — the one area where his stats haven't always met expectations.
"This defense has been around for a while," Taylor said after the team's preseason game against the Colts. "We have a good group of young guys. We'll be fine."
For a variety of reasons, it's not quite so easy to be sanguine about the offense.
Concerns up front
In recent years, the Steelers' offensive line has been a perennial question mark. Roethlisberger has ended up on his back too often for the comfort of fans. But the guys up front have always seemed to play well enough to get by — and to get to multiple Super Bowls, including two in five seasons under head coach Mike Tomlin.
- Photo by Heather Mull
- Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor again lead the Steelers secondary.
Still, the Steelers spent their top two draft picks on offensive linemen: David DeCastro of Stanford and Mike Adams of Ohio State. Assuming they start, they will join third-year center Maurkice Pouncey and second-year man Marcus Gilbert to comprise one of the team's youngest lines in recent memory.
Already there are growing pains: In the Steelers' first preseason game, against Philadelphia, Adams allowed two-and-a-half sacks — and got injured to boot. That's in addition to a minor injury suffered by Trai Essex, and to the status of a rehabbing Max Starks (though both could be just a couple of weeks away from battling for a starting spot, especially if Adams or other young linemen continue to struggle). Still, Haley and others say the unit is starting to pull together.
"I like the direction we're going with the offensive line," Haley said. "We look to be making some progress up front, especially as we get healthier."
The more the unit plays together, the better they'll get, says veteran offensive lineman Ramon Foster, who brings experience to the line along with Willie Colon, Starks and Essex.
"We need to have more consistency," Foster said. "When we have runs of good plays going we need to keep those going. … The most important thing is not letting defenses get started. If we keep it going on our end and mash them up front, we should be able to do a lot of damage on offense."
And that, in turn, will keep opposing defenses from inflicting damage on Roethlisberger.
"Our number-one job," Foster said, "is to keep Roethlisberger clean."
On the run
Complicating that job is a rushing game missing its star. Starting running back Rashard Medenhall will miss at least the first month of the season, thanks to a torn ACL that required surgery at the end of last season.
The team has opted not to bring in a free-agent replacement for Mendenhall. Instead, the Steelers are sticking with their current roster of backs, led by big, strong Isaac Redman. Still, there have been problems keeping those backs healthy as well: Both Redman and backup Jonathan Dwyer were injured during training camp. Dwyer played in the team's second pre-season game; while Redman's injured hip kept him out of that game, he's hoping to be back at practice soon. That has left Baron Batch — who was injured all of last season — and rookie Chris Rainey to carry the load in the early going.
- Photo by Heather Mull
- Antonio Brown should be the workhorse of the Steelers receiving corps.
On paper, the lack of experience is glaring. Of the four currently active backs, Redman is the only one to have significant carries in a season, and even he's had fewer than 175 touches for his career. And he's frequently been used as a straight-ahead battering ram — a job that may be trickier if his blockers experience growing pains.
Still, while Haley agrees that "what he does best is … pound it up in there," he cautions that it would be a mistake to "pigeon-hole him and say he's strictly a between-the-tackles runner, because I do think he has a little sneaky burst to the edge."
And while the other backs lack experience, their teammates say they offer plenty of potential. Rainey, though small for a featured back, is plenty quick.
"Coach Haley is definitely falling in love with Chris Rainey," said wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. "What's not to fall in love with? He's one of those guys when he has the football in his hands he's definitely big-play-capable.
"I feel like he's going to take our offense to another level."
Of Rainey, Haley said, "He's still got a long way to go. We're not going to start carving the bust [in the Hall of Fame] yet for Rainey. He has done some things that get you excited."
Redman, anyway, hopes to take the sting out of Mendenhall's absence.
"While I'm starting, I want to be one of the top running backs in the NFL," Redman said. "With hard work and our [offensive] line picking up, I feel like I have a good shot to do that."
Up in the air
Another major question is how successful the Steelers' receiving corps will be. Here, too, the team has been getting along without its major star.
Most of the uncertainty has centered on Mike Wallace, who was a restricted free agent last season and hasn't been offered as much money as he wanted by the Steelers — or by any other team, for that matter. Wallace has spent the off-season holding out; as of this writing, he still had not reported to the team, although the buzz at training camp last week was that he was likely to show sooner rather than later.
"I've talked to [Wallace] a few times," said cornerback Ike Taylor. "He is working out. He's working hard. As long as he's working out and getting into football shape, that's what matters."
- Photo by Heather Mull
- In only his third year, Maurkice Pouncey is one of the vets of the offensive line.
Haley says having Wallace back would be nice. "I haven't heard anything factual or [that] sounds solid, so we'll continue to coach the guys who are here. But I am looking forward to seeing him, hopefully sooner rather than later."
The "guys who are here" include last year's standout, Antonio Brown, who was given a huge contract extension a few weeks ago. While Wallace remained the team's flashiest receiver, by last season's end, it was Brown who stepped up to become the team's go-to receiver. In Hines Ward's final season, it was Brown who seemed best positioned to take over Ward's role as the workhorse. He's backed by Jerricho Cotchery and Emmanuel Sanders, who have shown promise. Add to that a reliable pass-catching tight end in Heath Miller, and the Steelers should be able to muddle through until either Wallace returns or some of the younger receivers step up.
"Everybody here who has their hand in the pile is willing and capable," Brown said at the announcement of his contract extension. "The men who are going to be here are going to give us their all. When Mike gets here, we will embrace him."
Meet the new boss
Overarching all of these questions is how the offense — and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger — will embrace its new coach, and the game plan he devises.
Haley would seem an ideal offensive coordinator for the Steelers: He's a run-happy, emotionally charged "my-way-or-the-highway" type coach with a deep Pittsburgh connection. His father went to college at the University of Pittsburgh, played for the Steelers and served as the team's director of player personnel for years. But his relationship with Roethlisberger — who was golfing buddies with Haley's predecessor — has worried fans.
Roethlisberger has publicly expressed concern that Haley would bring a more run-centered approach to the offense, curtailing the quarterback's improvisational, scrambling style. Roethlisberger has also referred to Haley's schemes as the "Rosetta Stone."
But especially as training camp got underway, Roethlisberger sounded a warmer tone.
"It's different," Roethlisberger told reporters of his working relationship with Haley. "Different doesn't mean good or bad. It's just different. I think we've worked hard in both the spring and here to really get a head start and really get going on this offense. I think our relationship is good, and I think we're really coming along with the offense."
Haley acknowledges that he values a strong rushing attack. "If we can win every game running it 35-40 times that would be great," Haley said at camp last week. "Statistically, if you hand the ball off 30-plus times in a game, you've got a 90-plus percent chance of winning."
But above all, he added, "We'll play the way we need to play to win each and every week."
"We've got a real good quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger, and I would think that one of our strengths is versatility," Haley said. "You don't want to do a lot of things just OK. You'd like to do some things real good. I think with some of the ability we have and if our line continues to gel together and gets better every week, we have a chance to be a pretty versatile group that can hurt you in a number of ways."
Throughout the offseason, there has been rampant speculation on what type of offense Haley will employ. At this stage, he seems to have only one type of offense in mind — a successful one.
"The philosophy is, get the best 11 on the field," Haley said. "That's really the way we try to operate."