Five Keys to the Steelers Success in 2012

Steelers Nation will soon learn what the 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers are really made of. Since losing Super Bowl XLV the Steelers have remained an enigma.

Yet the Steelers bounced back strong enough by mid season to school their long-time nemesis the New England Patriots.

  • Pittsburgh entered 2011 the secondary as their weak link. Nonetheless, the Steelers pass defense finished number 1

Yet, two late game passes, one from Joe Flacco and another from Tim Tebow, defined their playoff fortunes.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are the NFL’s mystery as and the ESPN, SI, and SB Nation vastly differing predictions indicate. Steelers are a team in transition with franchise mainstays off to their “Life’s Work” while others such as Casey Hampton are entering the encore stage of their careers.

Strong organizations weather personnel changes without altering their fundamental character.

But the Pittsburgh Steelers face a different challenge in 2012. Five key, long-held assumptions about the Steelers will be tested this year. Some of these are urban myths, others speak directly to the identify of the franchise. Regardless, the season’s fortunes hinge upon them.

The Pittsburgh Steelers Don’t Win Three Years in a Row

The logic goes like this. Since 2001, the Steelers have posted double digit wins and followed them with disappointing ones and the press has bandied this about like it’s the decoding key to the Rosetta Stone.

  • Nonsense.

If the Steelers don’t make the playoffs this year it won’t be because they some how “won too many games” in the previous to seasons.

Outsiders are Doomed as Steelers Offensive Coordinators

Let’s face it, Todd Haley is fighting history.

The 1989 Steelers captured the imagination of Steelers Nation. Chuck Noll followed by bringing in Joe Walton and the offense almost revolted as a result.

Chan Gailey was developing Kordell Stewart nicely, and Bill Cowher tapped Ray Sherman to replace him, who had a sterling record in developing quarterbacks.

Sherman was an utter disaster, contributing heavily to Kordell Stewart’s ruin.

Cowher replaced Sherman with Kevin Gilbride, who only made things worse.

Does this history doom Todd Haley?  Of course not.

  • Todd Haley’s ability to get along with Big Ben will play a key role in the Steelers success this year, but…

The misdeeds of Walton, Sherman, and Gilbride will have zero impact on Haley’s ability to control the clock, protect Ben Roethlisberger, and score in the Red Zone.

The Pittsburgh Steelers Always Can Find Good Running Backs

Since the NFL-AFL merger, no team has rushed for more yards than the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Current and future Hall of Famers Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis gave Pittsburgh a good chunk of that yardage.

  • Both were first round picks who made good.

But overlooked and undervalued draft picks have played just as large a role. 10th round picks like Merril Hoge and Frank Pollard and undrafted rookie free agents like Willie Parker and Isaac Redman hold almost as high a space in franchise lore.

Second tier rushers such as Erric Pegram, John L. Williams, and Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala both ran hard and found ways to make it happen when games were on the line.

Even when the Steelers have reached deep into their depth chart, now forgotten running backs responded. In 1988 and 1989 Rodney Carter came out of no where and made big plays, often times by doing little more the “going out and getting open.”

The fourth string running back Mewelde Moore delivered with stunning results in a crucial game against vs. Jacksonville in 2008.

  • Can the Steelers continue the trend?

Rashard Mendenhall is coming off of ACL surgery. Isaac Redman has been banged up and David Johnson and John Clay, two guys the Steelers figured to count on for depth, were lost in preseason.

Two weeks ago the Steelers desperately signed DeJuan Harris simply to get through the preseason finale.

Jonathan Dwyer looks good. Baron Batch has been OK. Chris Rainey’s got burning speed. Redman is practicing and so is Mendenhall.

Will latest mixture of a first rounder plus draft-day afterthoughts rise to the task?

A big part of the Steelers success in 2012 hinges on the answer being “yes.”

Linebacking Leads the Steelers Defense

The headline is arguable. The term “Steel Curtain” does refer to Joe Greene, Ernie Holmes, Dwight White, and L.C. Greenwood.

But the linebackers actually lead in the Hall of Fame count, thanks to Jack Lambert and Jack Ham.

Consider some of the foursomes the Steelers have fielded at linebacker:

And that leaves out key role players like Jerry Olsvasky, Jerrol Williams, and Clark Haggans.

  • Since 1971 the Steelers have sent at least one linebacker to the Pro Bowl 34 times.

If the Steelers running backs are a group on the mend, its linebacking corps continues to ail. James Harrison Jason Worilds sat the entire summer. Sean Spence looked promising, then destroyed his knee. Stevenson Sylvester is also injured and unavailable.

Replacements such as Chris Carter and Adrian Robinson looked good but remain untested in games that count.

The Steelers do still have Larry Foote (who missed practice last week), LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons.

  • The Steelers can afford no more injuries, and these men must deliver.

Woodley, streakiness aside, will come through. Fans worry about Foote, but he too will be above the line.

Lawrence Timmons holds the key. If the Steelers get the aggressive, play making Timmons of 2010 the defense has a shot. If they get the tentative, Timmons of 2009 and 2011, Steelers Nation will be in for some long afternoons.

Will “The Standard” Remain the Standard?

During his first year, Mike Tomlin turned heads when he dismissed concerns about the impact of injuries declaring “The standard is standard. Injuries will not be an excuse.”

Was he saying that Tyrone Carter was as good as Troy Polamalu?

Was this a coaching mind trick?

  • For Tomlin, this is no mind trick.

He once explained in the Steelers Digest that membership in the NFL already means you’re in the top one half of one percent of the football playing population and therefore you’re capable of playing “Above the Line.”

Tomlin’s got a point. How many college superstars struggle to keep third string jobs in the NFL? That’s because when you mix the best of the very best together, the differentiators are going to be subtle.

Tomlin knew that Tyrone Carter isn’t the athlete that Troy Polamalu is, but he doesn’t need to be to have a winning performance.

Think about it. Tomlin’s right. Did lack of athletic ability freeze Carter like a deer in the headlights as David Garrard made the defining play of the 2007 playoff loss to Jacksonville?

  • On the flip side the 2008 Super Bowl run saw the Steelers rebuild their offensive line in mid-season, vindicating Tomlin.

Those tests will continue in Denver where Robert Golden and Ryan Mundy remain one play away from guarding the center of the field vs. Peyton Manning. And only a couple of mishaps will put Kelvin Bechaman between Ben and a ferocious Denver defense.

Even if they avoid injury vs. Denver, injuries are going to happen and the 2012 Season figures to give “The Standard is the Standard” its biggest stress test yet.

How will the Steelers hold up as they test themselves against these assumptions? Steelers Nation will start finding out tonight in Denver.

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