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Thursday, May 24, 2012
Steelers: Dream/nightmare scenarios

By Jamison Hensley

Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Steelers in 2012.

Dream scenario (13-3): Losing a handful of veterans this offseason won't impact the Steelers' play on the field. The Steelers show last year's division champion (the Ravens) and the division's upstart team (the Bengals) that they still own the division as long as Ben Roethlisberger is healthy and the defense is at full strength. A return trip to the Super Bowl would follow their pattern (Pittsburgh went in the 2008 and 2010 seasons).

Roethlisberger thrives in Todd Haley's offense much like Kurt Warner did. The biggest change is a quicker release, which will allow Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders to show off their elusiveness and make yards after the catch. The offensive line becomes the best in the AFC North with center Maurkice Pouncey staying healthy, right tackle Marcus Gilbert continuing to develop and rookies David DeCastro and Mike Adams living up to expectations.

The Steelers' pass rush is even stronger this season because James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley will be on the field together for more than a handful of games this year. The run defense is bolstered by the return of nose tackle Casey Hampton, who is able to start the season despite having knee surgery in January. The combination of Larry Foote and Stevenson Sylvester makes up for the loss of inside linebacker James Farrior.

Nightmare scenario (7-9): Pittsburgh underestimates the loss of leadership after parting ways with Farrior, Hines Ward, Aaron Smith and Chris Hoke. The Steelers also struggle more than expected with the injuries to Hampton and running back Rashard Mendenhall (knee surgery in January). It's tough to win in one of the top divisions in football when you're not at full strength.

The key to any Steelers season is the health of Roethlisberger. While the Steelers' offensive line has the potential to rank among the best, this year could be a transitional one as well. Roethlisberger could take a good number of hits behind a line that starts two rookies and moves tackle Willie Colon to guard. Losing Roethlisberger will result in a losing season. Pittsburgh would then have to depend more on a running game without Mendenhall. Isaac Redman has shown flashes, but he is a question mark as a featured back.

Defensively, the run defense becomes vulnerable in the middle with the injury to Hampton and the loss of Farrior. Hampton starts the season on the physically unable to perform list, and Steve McLendon and rookie Alameda Ta'amu can't fill the void. The pass defense takes a step back if one of the young cornerbacks (Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown) can't replace William Gay.