If you haven’t heard by now, the 2012 edition of your Pittsburgh Steelers is going to look very different than the team you have grown accustomed to seeing running out of the Heinz Field tunnel. Besides the usual roster change-over that comes with any new NFL season, the Steelers have experienced the most significant personnel flux since the early 1990’s. Much of the core of the Steelers veteran roster – Hines Ward, Aaron Smith, James Farrior, Chris Hoke – are all either retired or released. CB William Gay departed for Pittsburgh-West and a reunion with many of his former teammates in the desert. RB Rashard Mendenhall is going to miss much of – or all – of the 2012 season. The player changes are drastic, but not the big story.
New offensive coordinator Todd Haley brings his monumentally different formula to the team after taking over for the “retired” Bruce Arians. The national and local media has spent most of the past three months trying to stir up controversy between Haley and the Steelers $102 million quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger. The stories about the relationship (or lack thereof) between Haley and Big Ben dominated the headlines for most of the spring, soon followed by the stories of Roethlisberger and his frustration with the new Haley offense. Nobody really knows what Todd Haley is bringing to the table outside of the South Side Complex. When he was the offensive coordinator in Arizona, his passing offense was dominate, revolving around Pro Bowlers QB Kurt Warner, WR Larry Fitzgerald, and WR Anquan Boldin. Once he took over as Head Coach in Kansas City, he rode the RB combination of Thomas Jones and Jamaal Charles to the top rushing offense in football and an AFC West Title. The talent level in Pittsburgh is on par with any that Haley has experienced in the past, so if he can find a way to combine both strategies in the Steelers new offense, the team could be a machine.
With so many changes, it is inevitable that a player or two will elevate themselves to star status in 2012. The Steelers have many young, hungry players who would like nothing more than to become the next breakout star – echoing the 2011 season of WR Antonio Brown. On the defensive side of the ball, old faithful is still plugging away in his 37th season of coaching in the NFL. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has lost a few players that were pivotal parts of his record-setting defense of the past seven years. The loss of DE Aaron Smith was expected, as the veteran had lost the battle with injuries and was sure to retire. The loss of ILB James Farrior was a surprise to many, and his departure leaves a hole at a key spot in the Steelers 3-4 defense. That role will be played at the outset by 10th year ILB Larry Foote, who has worked in the LeBeau scheme for all but three of his NFL seasons. There is no doubt that Foote can fill the role of Farrior on the field, although the team will gravely miss the leadership that Farrior offered. Whether Foote can step up and be that leader is yet to be seen, but by all indications he has started the process this week with his shot back at NFL Network analyst Warren Sapp. That is a good sign for the Steelers, who continue to act the part of a “Band of Brothers”, defending each other from criticism doled out by the media.
So who will be 2012’s breakout stars for the Pittsburgh Steelers? The obvious first choice would be RB Issac Redman, who will have first crack at filling the starting role in the absence of RB Rashard Mendenhall. Redman was been a great story for the Steelers, an undrafted free agent out of tiny Bowie State who clawed his way up the ladder and is now on the verge of becoming a star in the National Football League. Redman showed what he is capable of in the Steelers 2011 AFC Wild Card playoff loss to Denver, when he rushed for 121 yards on just 17 carries. The team seems to believe that Redman will be the answer to the loss of Mendenhall, but just in case he falters the team has a stable of backs ready for the call to arms – Jonathan Dwyer, John Clay, Baron Batch, and rookie Chris Rainey will all vie for carries should Redman not be able to carry the load. At 6-foot and 230 lbs, Redman has the size and power to get the job done and he fits the prototypical idea of a Steelers running back. With the Mendenhall injury still not entirely understood, it could be a full season of Redman in the backfield. Could he end up being the next breakout star for the team?
Should the offense continue to be carried by the passing game, the Steelers already have two established stars in WR Mike Wallace and WR Antonio Brown. Wallace has been AWOL from team activities over a contract dispute, so his presence with the team in 2012 is in doubt. Brown, who set an NFL all-purpose yards record in 2011, is on his way to becoming the go-to guy for Ben Roethlisberger and after his Pro Bowl season he is already a star. Next in line for a status upgrade is WR Emmanuel Sanders, who looks to be fully healthy and ready to take advantage of any opportunity the Wallace situation creates for him. Sanders has all of the tools to be a star wide receiver, including the trust of his quarterback. Should Mike Wallace and the Steelers not be able to come to terms, it would be Sanders taking over as the #2 WR in the Todd Haley offense. Could Sanders be the next breakout star?
The organization added the element of speed – LOTS of speed – in the draft when they chose Florida RB Chris Rainey in the fifth round. Rainey is a player in the mold of former Haley project Dexter McCluster, who electrified the Chiefs in 2010-2011 with his speed and hybrid ability. Rainey is faster than McCluster and looks to be a better receiver, and will also add kick/punt return duties to his agenda with the Steelers. Similar players in the NFL such as RB Darren Sproles, have been able to break the mold of the prototypical RB to become all-purpose stars. If Rainey learns quickly and gains the trust of head coach Mike Tomlin, he could become an “X Factor” for the team in both the running and passing games. Could Chris Rainey be the next breakout star for the black and gold?
On the defensive side of the ball, the loss of DE Aaron Smith has opened up a full-time starting spot for forth-year player Ziggy Hood. Hood has shown flashes of reaching the potential he showed when the Steelers drafted him in the first round of the 2009 Draft. Now a crafty veteran with experience playing the unique DE position in LeBeau’s defense, Hood has a chance to really make his mark in 2012. He has shown the ability to be a good pass rusher in addition to the run-stopping duties that are paramount for any Steelers defensive lineman. Over a full 16-game schedule, Hood could put up 8-10 sacks and close to 100 tackles. Would that make Ziggy Hood a breakout star in 2012?
Lastly, we have the cornerback situation opposite veteran Ike Taylor. The candidates for the starting slot left behind by William Gay are CB Keenan Lewis, CB Curtis Brown, and CB Cortez Allen. All three of these players have traits found in successful NFL corners, including size and the ability to match up one-on-one with NFL receivers. One of these players is going to be announced as the starter and have an opportunity to seal their fate with the Steelers. Lewis would seem to be the favorite, heading into his forth season with the team. However, Curtis Brown has looked impressive in his limited playing time and has the pedigree to become a true shutdown corner. Finally, we have Cortez Allen – a small school player who is entering his second season and has as much raw athletic ability as any player on the roster. While his learning curve is behind both Lewis and Brown due to his college career being played at The Citadel, Allen could surprise everyone and snag the starting spot with a great preseason. Will one of these players become the breakout star for the 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers?
There are other possibilities, including first round pick OG David DeCastro, NT Alameda Ta’amu, DE Cameron Heyward, and ILB Stevenson Sylvester. All of these players will see the field quite a bit in the preseason, with DeCastro taking his starting spot on the offensive line. Ta’amu could end up starting as well if veteran NT Casey Hampton is unable to fully recover from his knee injury. The huge rookie looks the part of a Steelers NT and eventually will take over as the starter. Could that be as early as this season? Both Heyward and Sylvester are expected to see increased reps with Smith and Farrior gone, and both have the talent to be starters at their positions. Either one could end up breaking out in 2012 if the cards fall in their direction.
So what do you think, Steeler Nation? Who is your choice for the 2012 breakout star of the Pittsburgh Steelers? Cast your vote in the comments section below or share it with us on Twitter by using hashtag #2012SteelersBreakout.
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