Steelers 2012: 5 key storylines

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1. Haley's offense

Bill Cowher changed offensive coordinators more often than he changed sweaters. He went through six of them. This is the first time Mike Tomlin has changed a coordinator.

Todd Haley's offense may look a lot different than the one run by Bruce Arians, but it won't matter if it is not productive. He threw out the old playbook and installed a new one with different terminology. It has been difficult to pinpoint precisely what that offense will look like or Haley's philosophy other than he wants to score as many points as possible, and he wants to run it and throw it better.

He worked hard in training camp on the ground game and the short passing game and tossed in some deep passes in the final two preseason games. How it works now as the season starts remains the question.

2. Every year, the line

The offensive line has not been among the elite in the league the past several seasons, to put it gently. They decided to do something about that and invested four high picks over the past three drafts in their line. They started with center Maurkice Pouncey in the first round in 2010, then tackle Marcus Gilbert in the second in '11, and this year took guard David DeCastro with their first pick and tackle Mike Adams with the second.

The coaches followed by moving tackle Willie Colon to guard.

DeCastro's knee injury will keep him out at least half of the season, and the coaches have deemed Adams not quite ready to start at left tackle. So the line that will open the season in Denver will look a lot like the line from last season with Max Starks at left tackle, Pouncey at center, Ramon Foster at right guard and Gilbert at right tackle. Colon is the only change.

But that still might be a better line. Gilbert has the benefit of starting 14 games as a rookie; Pouncey has made two Pro Bowls in his first two years and should only get better. And Colon had an outstanding preseason.

If they want to have a better running game, the line will have to be better than it has been, too.

3. Filling the leadership drain

Not many teams can lose longtime treasured veterans such as Hines Ward, James Farrior, Aaron Smith and Chris Hoke in one fell swoop and not feel a leadership void because of it.

The Steelers are one of those teams which should be able to. They have many longtime starters in place, and some returning leaders in their own right. Among returning players who have been regarded as leaders are Brett Keisel, Larry Foote, Ben Roethlisberger, Heath Miller, LaMarr Woodley, Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, Willie Colon and Ike Taylor. In his short time with them, Maurkice Pouncey has become a leader on offense.

Despite the changes, the Steelers remain a veteran-laden defense with seven starters over 30. They have more youth on offense everywhere but at quarterback, and he is in his prime.

4. Turnovers not half-baked

For a defense that ranked No. 1 in fewest points allowed, No. 1 in fewest yards and No. 1 in fewest passing yards, it certainly did not have that fierce or dominant look to it.

There were a number of reasons, including just 15 turnovers and only 35 sacks. Their sacks tied for their fewest in the past 21 years. The turnovers were the fewest they could find in their record books. There may be reasons for all of that such as the nearly half season that linebacker LaMarr Woodley missed after he had nine sacks through eight games or the five that linebacker James Harrison missed.

Coordinator Dick LeBeau wants to change that. How do you emphasize turnovers? It has been working. They had eight in four preseason games, nearly half of what they produced all of last season.

"The mentality of everybody running to the ball," Larry Foote explained. "You can cause fumbles and, when they do occur, recover them. As long as we hustle to the ball, good things are going to happen."

They did the year before, when they had 35 turnovers and 48 sacks.

5. The AFC North competition

The Baltimore Ravens finally caught the Steelers last season when they tied with 12-4 records and actually passed them by sweeping their two games, giving them the AFC North Division championship. Then, they made the AFC title game, where they should have beaten the Patriots in New England.

The surprising Cincinnati Bengals also made the playoffs with a rookie quarterback. The once-soft AFC North Division isn't so cushy anymore.

Although the New York Giants won another Super Bowl without earning a bye, the Steelers found out that a bye followed by home games is much better than having to travel to Denver to get knocked out in the first round.

Piling up wins in the AFC North is practically mandatory to earning one of the top two seeds and the playoff bye that goes with it. With Baltimore and Cincinnati now competitive, it won't be easy. That is especially true when the Patriots in the weak AFC East and the Texans in the weaker AFC South should be able to more easily achieve those division victories.

Steelers

Ed Bouchette: ebouchette@post-gazette.com; Twitter: @EdBouchette


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