Another season of Pittsburgh Steelers football is upon us and it has a different feel to it than it usually does. The Pittsburgh Pirates are still relevant so that has had a hand in the NFL season sneaking up on me. Also, with the continued focus towards player safety and the issue of replacement officials, there are thing to be concerned with beyond just who's on the roster. And speaking of the roster, there has been a lot of change from years past. A lot of familiar faces are gone. But does that necessarily mean that they will take a step back this year?
Quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger, Byron Leftwich, Charlie Batch): Roethlisberger's best friend Bruce Arians is gone and mean old dictator Todd Haley has taken over. Oh, the humanity! On top of that, ownership talked about him wanting to tweak the way he plays the game. Somehow that was a big deal too. It's not. Yes, Roethlisberger is 30 now but don't expect him to change the way he plays the game. And if Haley lets him run no huddle like we saw in the preseason, I'm sure Roethlisberger will be thrilled. He's one of the best quarterbacks in the game. Drama queen? Sure. But as long as he throws touchdowns, I don't care.
Running Back (Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer, Baron Batch, Chris Rainey, Will Johnson): This may be contrary to popular belief but I think the Steelers are in the best shape they have been at the running back position in years. Mendenhall isn't going to be readily available but he's going to be back much earlier than I ever expected him to be. Even while he's out, they should be fine. Neither Redman or Dwyer have carried the load on their own before but they can be effective splitting carries. Rainey provides multiple threats. He can line up all over the field. He's a match up nightmare. I'm not quite sure where Batch fits in the picture and I'm not just saying that because he's annoying on Twitter.
Wide Receiver (Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery): The Steelers only kept four wide receivers which is something you don't see too often but I like the move. Even though we didn't see him in the preseason, we know what we're going to get out of Wallace. The same can be said for Brown. The biggest thing is whether or not Sanders can stay healthy. Cotchery is more than capable of stepping into his role but with only keeping four wide receivers, one injury goes a long way in destroying depth. That being said, Rainey is basically the team's fifth wide receiver since that's where I think you will see him lined up more often than not.
Tight End (Heath Miller, Leonard Pope, David Paulson): I think this is going to be one of the more interesting positions to watch in the Todd Haley offense. Haley came in on a platform of not necessarily having a system, but playing on his personnel. And there is proof at this position. In Arizona, they didn't have a tight end so it wasn't utilized. However, in Kansas City, before Tony Moeaki got hurt he was a big part of the offense. We all know what Miller can do in the passing game so we could see him have one of his biggest years.
Offensive Line (Max Starks, Willie Colon, Maurkice Pouncey, Ramon Foster, Marcus Gilbert, Mike Adams, Doug Legursky, Kelvin Beachum, David Decastro (IR)): Finally! The Steelers have an offensive line that will prevent Roethlisberger from running for his life. Not so fast. Arguably the steal of the first round, Decastro, suffered a knee injury that will keep him out at least half of the season. And their other rookie, Adams, proved that he's not quite ready to start which led to resigning Starks. So all of a sudden, the line looks a lot like last year's with the addition of the oft injured Colon. That could negatively affect the run game like it did last year but the Steelers have had success with sub par lines in the recent past, they can do it again.
Defensive Line (Ziggy Hood, Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel, Al Woods, Steve McLendon, Cameron Heyward, Alameda Ta'amu): A familiar face in Aaron Smith is missing on the defensive line and even then, I think it's much deeper than years past. Hampton returned from knee surgery faster than anyone his size ever should. And even then, McLendon may see a lot of snaps after how well he performed in camp. Hood seems to be coming into his own. The line is always the quietest part of the 3-4 defense but it's arguably the most important and I think this line could do big things this year.
Linebackers (LaMarr Woodley, Larry Foote, Lawrence Timmons, James Harrison, Jason Worilds, Stevenson Sylvester, Brandon Johnson, Chris Carter, Adrian Robinson, Sean Spence): The linebackers have to be better this year. Even though the Steelers had the best defense statistically last season, they struggled to put pressure on the quarterback and force turnovers which are staples of this defense. Harrison's healthy is a big question mark. Timmons has to have a bounce back year. He may have been the most disappointing Steeler on the roster last year. It's time for Worilds and Carter to prove they belong in the NFL. The line has improved. The linebackers have to follow suit.
Secondary (Keenan Lewis, Ike Taylor, Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, Cortez Allen, Curtis Brown, Ryan Mundy, Will Allen, Demarcus Van Dyke, Robert Golden): The best pass defense in the league last year lost one of their starting cornerbacks. William Gay has moved on to Arizona and Lewis has been called upon to take his place. Lewis was effective last season in a nickelback role but starting will be different. He'll likely get picked on since opposing quarterbacks often avoid Taylor and he'll have to respond well because none of the other corners on the roster have proven that they could step into that role.
Specialists (Shaun Suisham, Drew Butler, Greg Warren): Suisham will once again be the kicker and we all know what we're going to get out of him. He's far from spectacular. Not going to hit much beyond 45 yards. Fortunately, the offense rarely puts him in a position where has to. There is a new punter though. Butler beat out an injured Jeremy Kapinos in camp and he did look pretty good. And he has two working knees which is more than what can be said from Daniel Sepulveda.
Prediction: The Steelers are in a bit of a transition period. Obviously, with Haley taking over as offensive coordinator, the offense is going to look different. The biggest changes are on the defensive side of the ball. Some of the older guys are gone and some other veterans are starting to get pushed by the younger guys behind them. That makes predicting how well they are going to play a bit difficult. I do think they will take a slight step back this year but nothing major, especially since the AFC is a good conference to be in during a transition year. I think the Steelers will finish 11-5 this season. They will make the playoffs but I don't see them advancing beyond the divisional round.