Who Will Start for the 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers?

Marky Billson@@MarkyBillsonContributor IJuly 17, 2012

Who Will Start for the 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers?

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    The Pittsburgh Steelers could have more than a half dozen new starters in their lineup in 2012. Gone are William Gay, Flozell Adams, Dennis Dixon, and more players. Let's look at the Steelers' key positional battles at running back, cornerback, punter, backup quarterback, offensive line, and others for the upcoming season.

Corner Back: Keenan Lewis Leads the Way

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    With the departure of William Gay to Arizona, the Steelers will be playing a new right cornerback this season.

    Keenan Lewis is the projected starter. He started one game last year, a 23-20 victory at Indianapolis, made 30 tackles, and even saved the Steelers’ 13-9 victory at Kansas City last year with his last minute interception of Tyler Palko at the Pittsburgh 23 yard line.

    He’ll be pushed by Cortez Allen and possibly Curtis Brown, the fourth and third round draft choices of last year’s draft.

    THE PICK- We like Lewis. In his fourth year, he’s ready to step in the lineup and last year he made twice as many tackles as either Allen or Brown in his limited playing time.

    Yes, there is some concern because he’s been a backup in his first three seasons in the league. No matter. Deshea Townsend didn’t become a starter until his sixth season and had a fantastic career as a starting cornerback, complete with a knack for coming up with clutch interceptions.

Running Back: Who Takes over for Rashard Mendenhall?

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    Despite reports from Rashard Mendenhall saying his torn knee ligaments are fine, conventional wisdom has the Steelers putting their 3,309-yard rusher from the past three seasons on the Physically Unable to Perform List (PUP), preferring to use Ike Redman and a host of others.

    Redman has rushed for a higher yards per carry average in backup duty than Mendenhall has in the past two years (4.4 to 4.1 last season, 4.7 to 3.9 in 2010). Redman also shined in the Steelers’ postseason loss, rushing for 121 yards on just 17 carries. Aside from Mendenhall’s 146-yard effort against Jacksonville on Oct. 16, that run was the longest any Steelers' back gained from scrimmage all season.

    Redman also rushed for 92 yards in the season finale against Cleveland. Therefore, in just two starts, Redman had as many 90-yard rushing games in 2011 as Mendenhall, who had 15 starts.

    Jonathan Dwyer, John Clay, and fifth-round draft choice Chris Rainey will be pressing Redman for playing time and as his backup. Dwyer had a big day in a mid-season victory against Tennessee last year, rushing for 107 yards in a 38-17 triumph, but little else was heard from him after that.

    Clay scored on a 10-yard touchdown run on his first ever carry, in the next-to-last weekend of the season against St. Louis. Despite being an undrafted rookie last year, he will get more playing time because of his 6-1, 248-pound frame.

    It’s easy to dismiss Rainey because he’s a fifth round draft choice, but upon further review, he was a high school teammate of center Maurkice Pouncey at Lakeland High--a Florida powerhouse that beat Pittsburgh Central Catholic (aka Dan Marino High) 35-0 four years ago.

    Furthermore, he was a member of two national championship teams at Florida, was an All-American in track, averaged a whopping 6.2 yards per carry on nearly 400 lifetime rushing attempts for the Gators, and even set the Florida career record for blocked kicks with four!

    Rainey is a player to keep your eye on.

    THE PICK- We like Redman. He seemed to make more of his opportunity in two starts than Mendenhall made all of last year, and has “overachiever” written all over him. He even took over goal line back situations from Mendenhall last season.

    We also like the fact he’ll have a fullback, former tight end David Johnson, blocking for him this season.

    Our question isn’t so much if Redman will start or be productive in 2012. The question is if he’ll continue to start when Mendenhall comes back. Though Mendenhall has not been an unproductive player, somehow, like fellow first-round pick Walter Ambercrombie a generation ago, there just seems to be something more you’d like out of him.

    Then again, if our projection on Redman is wrong, it doesn’t seem the Steelers will be left wanting for talented running backs.





Offensive Line: Who Stops the Sacks?

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    The Steelers figure to have as many as four new starting offensive linemen this year after allowing 42 sacks last year. The Steelers have allowed more than 40 sacks every year since Mike Tomlin took over as head coach in 2007.

    To rectify this, Tomlin drafted offensive linemen in the first two rounds of the 2012 draft. Stanford guard David DeCastro in the first round and Ohio State tackle Mike Adams in the second both figure to be starting on the right and left side of the line, replacing Max Starks and Ramon Foster, respectively.

    Only center Maurkice Pouncey and right tackle Marcus Gilbert figure to return to their old positions on the interior line.

    Willie Colon, who has been limited to only one game played the past two seasons after starting every game the Steelers played from 2007 until 2009, is being asked to make the change from right tackle to left guard.

    THE PICK- Jonathan Scott lost his job at left tackle in the middle of last season and Chris Scott played in all of two games last year. The Steelers didn’t draft Adams with their second round pick in this year’s draft if they really thought either Scott was a suitable starter at left tackle.

    If Colon can’t make the transition from right tackle to left guard (which was once equated by Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola as being been something akin to writing with your right hand when you’re left-handed), then Ramon Foster is slated to be his backup and has played at left guard. The problem here is that Foster’s spot in the lineup has always seemed to be something of a desperation move by the Steelers, as he has only started at left guard twice in the past two seasons and was originally a free agent.

    Expect veterans Doug Legursky and Trai Essex to be part of the mix as well.

    The feeling here is that the offensive line is on the long road to improvement. Depending on how quickly DeCastro and Adams can adjust, and conventional wisdom says that at the very least DeCastro can adjust quickly, then that long road could ultimately be very short.

    NOTE- On Tuesday, July 17 the Steelers resigned veteran tackle Max Starks. Look for him to start at left tackle and not Adams.

Punter: Jeremy Kapinos Faces Challenge from Drew Butler

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    Football is a game of field position, a concept sometimes forgotten in modern football.

    But punter is an important position. As shown, the Steelers' logo once featured the act of punting.

    But, since veteran Daniel Sepulveda was not re-signed, the Steelers will ask either Jeremy Kapinos, who became the Steelers’ punter in midseason following Sepulveda’s placement on injured reserve, and rookie Dan Butler to man the position.

    Whereas Sepulveda was drafted in the fourth round in 2007 by the Steelers, Kapinos came into the NFL that year undrafted and has been a journeyman. Pittsburgh is Kapinos’ fourth professional team.

    And while his average was approximately a yard less than Sepulveda’s in 2011 (45.0 yards per punt to 46.1), only one of his 34 punts went for a touchback, whereas one-fifth of Sepulveda’s kicks last year did.

    But don’t discount Butler. The son of former Chicago Bears kicker Kevin Butler (Remember Chris Berman’s old line after Mike Ditka’s Bears kicked a field goal: “Who did it? The Butler did it!”), Drew Butler was a unanimous first-team All-American in 2009 and 2010 and a Ray Guy Award winner in 2009 at Georgia. That season, he averaged a whopping 48.1 yards a boot and pinned opponents inside the 20-yard-line 19 times in 56 kicks. In the seasons hence has always averaged more than 44 yards a punt for the Bulldogs.

    THE PICK- Gotta feeling about Butler. Playing at the alma mater of Bobby Walden combined with his impressive college career, he would seem to have more upside than Kapinos. And, heck, I still remember the day in 1986 when his father missed a chip shot that allowed the 4-8 Steelers to go into overtime against the defending Super Bowl Champion Bears; a game in which Steelers' punter Harry Newsome threw a touchdown pass. Karma, anyone?





Can Charlie Batch Stay with the Team Again?

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    Backup quarterback is a tough one to factor because of Charlie Batch.


    Batch has:

    A-    Done everything the Steelers have ever asked of him.

    B-    Been the perfect team player for his hometown team.

    C-    Complied a 5-2 record as a starter.

    D-    Seemingly been on the skids since 2010.

    That was the year Batch was slated to be the odd man out, slated on the depth chart behind Byron Leftwich, Dennis Dixon and, naturally, Ben Roethlisberger. But Roethlisberger began the year on the bench due to suspension, and then Leftwich and Dixon were injured.

    Hello, Charlie Batch. He kept Pittsburgh afloat with impressive performances against Tennessee and Tampa Bay before Joe Flacco beat the Steelers in the final minute in the Steelers' fourth game of the season.

    Last season, when Roethlisberger suffered a late-season high-ankle sprain and Leftwich was again hurt, Batch subbed for Roethlisberger and played the best game of any Steelers' quarterback in the last quarter of the season with a 27-0 victory against St. Louis.

    To our way of thinking, Batch has earned the right to be Don Strock to Roethlisberger’s Dan Marino. The former Detroit Lions starter has completed more than 56 percent of his passes for 6.9 yards per attempt and a 60-48 touchdown to interception ratio during an 11 year career, similar if not superior statistics to Leftwich’s 58.3 completion percentage, 58-41 touchdown to interception ratio, and 6.2 yards per attempt average.

    True, Leftwich is 32 while Batch is 37, but I can almost make an argument for Batch’s experience playing in a game-per-game situation. Leftwich has also not won a start since leaving the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2006.

    THE PICK- Everyone and their brother seems to think Leftwich is head coach Mike Tomlin’s guy, so we’ll go with that. But, it seems to us that Batch has earned the right to be Roethlisberger’s backup and a few snaps in preseason shouldn’t change that.

    But for all we know, first-year pro Jerrod Johnson, a Texas A & M product who was in the Philadelphia Eagles’ camp last year, might be groomed to push Batch out this year.

    Don’t discount the importance of backup quarterback. Ben Roethlisberger has not played a full season since 2008.

    Stay tuned.

Wild CardsI- Where Does Cameron Heyaward Fit in and More?

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    Defensive lineman Cameron Heyward was the Steelers’ top draft choice in 2011, but is listed to play behind defensive end Ziggy Hood, Pittsburgh’s top draft choice of 2009. He may see action at nose tackle if Casey Hampton falters in his 12th season or press Brett Keisel as time goes by.

    Running back Baron Batch was hurt all year long. He’ll likely battle Clay and Dwyer for a roster spot, but they have track records and Batch does not.

    Veteran Mike Wallace is still holding out. But his production declined in the second half of the 2011 season, as he did not have a single 100-yard receiving game in the last nine games the Steelers played and caught only three balls for 28 yards in the playoff loss to Denver.

    Still, in these ten games the Steelers’ record was 7-3. If Wallace does not return, perhaps a receiving trio of Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, and Jerricho Cotchery won’t be so bad.

    Marky Billson is the “Voice of the Rio Grande Valley WhiteWings” and the author of “Pennsylvania Sports Trivia.” He has covered the Steelers for the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat.