Palmer�s 2012 Preview
September 7, 2012
The Stillers head into the 2012 campaign looking to improve in two vital areas: scoring offense and late-game pass defense.
A failure to upgrade either area and they�ll likely end up the same team they were last year: a playoff participant not likely to go to the Super Bowl. The keys to the 2012 campaign are two-fold: have the scoreboard reflect all theyardage you�ve gained (a 4,000-yard passer should equate to better than 20.3 points a game), and stop all the late-game pass defense folds.
To address the first need, the team brought in Todd Haley, in my mind the smart move. I believe Haley will look at plays the Stillers called in the red zone, and immediately see the problem: namely, a reliance on looking downfield and ignoring the dump-offs and other short-stuff offered to them by opposing defenses.It�s time for some patience in the play-calling department.
Part of the blame can be laid on the quarterback, as Big Ben too often focuses on the big play, especially inside the 20. The addition of Chris Rainey at RB should help, as his brand ofpass-catching and YAC abilities have been lacking at the position for some time. Rookie Rainey has dazzled so far, breaking off big plays as a runner, receiver and returner.
The Stillers suffered a disastrous pre-season, losing both their number one and number three draft picks to injuries. As you know, I was sky-high on rookie LB Sean Spence, and the sight of him going down against Carolina thoroughly sickened me. Spence tore about every ligament the knee has to offer, in a gruesome twist � literally � of fate.
I had expected Spence to replace Larry Foote by the end of the season, but a trip to IR has ended that dream. Foote, for his part, has looked old and slow, and frequently lost in space. Inside linebacking, normally a Stillers strength, could drop off seriously unless Lawrence Timmons steps it up big.
The Stillers offense will have to carry a heavier load in 2012, as I expect the defense to be nothing close to the dominant unit it once was. Without James Harrison, the linebacking unit looked average, as Lamarr Woodley continues to underwhelm. Jason Worilds, once expected to contend for a starting rusher�s job, moves closer to bust status with each season.
The key player on defense this year will be Keenan Lewis,who�s been named the starting CB next to Ike Taylor. I doubt either the defensive line or linebacking corps can dominate this year, meaning the secondary will have to pick up the slack. The Stillers will need strong years from both corners, facing up-and-coming WR stars such as AJ Green and Torrey Smith. If Harrison can�t mount another monster sack year, the pressure will be on the DBs to ramp up their coverage.
Lewis somehow managed to beat out Cortez Allen, who, in my opinion, played his way into starting-role consideration.Allen impressed me, and we can only hope Tomlin made the right choice � and that Lewis won�t repeat the same mental lapses that once got him yanked out of the line-up completely.
The hope is that Son-of-Ironhead can replace the aging Brett Keisel � the ultimate hope is that both Heyward and Ziggy Hood can start living up to their number-one-pick potentials. This of course would relieve some of the burden on Allen and Ike Taylor.
Speaking of age, this could be the year Troy Pola really shows his own. With ten years under his belt, his athletic skills have peaked, and he�ll rely more than ever on his uncanny football instincts. Along with Ryan Clark, the �Still Wheelchairs� safety corps will come in as the oldest unit this side of Ed Reed. (The Stillers will of course be missing Clark at Denver in week one.)
Still, the defense has a shot to do again what it did last year: become an effective unit that gives up yards, but not a lot of points. Time and again the defense kept the Stillers in games when point-production fizzled � if the Stillers can score more points this season, they can contend for the Super Bowl. Last years 14.2 ppg scoring defense was championship level � with improved secondary play, this year�s unit might come close to duplicating that.
But again � and I can�t stress this enough � the defense CANNOT fold when facing the opponents� two-minute offense. The Flacco fiasco in Pittsburgh marked the turning point of the 2011 season; the Tebow tragedy in Denver marked the end of the season, period. No team wins championships when they can�t hold leads at the end of games. Even Dick LeBeau should know that.
As for scoring offense, there are two ways for the team to improve: upgrading the offensive line, and more considered red-zone play calling. DeCastro�s injury hurts, as the Stillers were looking for immediate help from the rookie. (The other high-round-choice rookie, Mike Adams has looked like a bulldozer on run plays, and a bullfighter against speed rushers).
The Stillers finally moved Willie Colon to guard (a move I�ve been screaming for for years).Colon�s simply more suited to playthere � his mauling style works much better in a phone booth than in space. Colon�s many penalties came as a result of movement, not holding � usually because he tried to �cheat� his way by moving early, to make up for his lack of tackle�s quickness. The overdue move to guard � fought no doubt by Arians � should play to his strengths.It just may cut down on all the flags Colon draws, too.
Ramon Foster offers a competent option while DeCastro heals, so things aren�t disastrous there. The key will be whether Marcus Gilbert can step up at tackle � and whether Maurkice Pouncey can stay out of the trainer�s room.
The Stillers are loaded at the skill positions � even more with the addition of Rainey � it�s up to the offensive line to make sure they can maximize these skills. You�ll hear talk about Roethlisberger �getting rid of the ball earlier� but don�t expect things to change � he�ll still be running around extending plays. It�s up to the line, though, to protect better when Ben does stay in the pocket.
The talk is once again of the Stillers and Ravens fighting it out for the North crown. Don�t count Cincinnati out of the hunt. The �Red Rifle,� Andy Dalton, comes in with a year of experience, and within another year will become the second-best QB in the division. The Bengals defense has quietly turned into a decent unit. The race for the North is a three-way proposition.
On a positive note: the Stillers may have made their next great out-of-nowhere find in WR David Gilreath. Gilreath made play after play in the pre-season, and only an overcrowded WR field kept him from making the team outright. As of this week he�s been rescued from waivers and placed on the practice squad (luckily for the team) � he�s both a receiving and return threat waiting in case of injury. Keep your eye on Gilreath should one of the regular WRs suffer injury.
Enjoy the season!