PITTSBURGH - So long, Derek Anderson and Jimmy Clausen. Hello, Peyton Manning.
The Steelers wrapped up another nondescript preseason with a 17-16 win over the Carolina Panthers on Thursday night at Heinz Field with one burning question still not answered.
Are these 2012 Steelers ready for the regular season?
Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich
Will Johnson makes a catch.
Pittsburgh travels to Denver, the site of last year's playoff loss, to take on the Manning-led Broncos on Sept. 9. The Steelers went through so many changes and sustained enough injuries since that playoff loss, that it's difficult to tell if they are on or behind schedule in their preseason development. (At least we know they're more prepared than the NFL officials).
"We better be ready to go,'' Steelers linebacker Larry Foote said. "The expectations don't change with injuries. We have good backups, and we have some guys who are getting healthy at the right time. I think we're ready to roll.''
The Steelers didn't risk any more key injuries on Thursday by having several starters, including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, watch from the bench. They gave players, such as Charlie Batch, Jonathan Dwyer and Weslye Saunders, chances to either earn or solidify their spots on the team.
But when the regular-season starts, those guys won't necessarily be part of the group that will be counted on to win games.
Guys like receiver Mike Wallace and linebackers James Harrison and Jason Worilds will be, and they didn't see any action in the preseason. Nose tackle Casey Hampton saw his first action Thursday by playing a few series.
Veteran defensive end Brett Keisel always seems to be battling some kind of injury, linebacker Stevenson Sylvester is expected to miss a few more weeks, backup linebacker Sean Spence and cornerback Curtis Brown injured knees Thursday, and safety Ryan Clark will most likely not play in Denver due to his having a sickle cell trait.
The running back situation is still not settled, although Rashard Mendenhall dressed for Thursday's game and participated in warm-ups on his surgically repaired knee. Isaac Redman is expected to be the main back early in the season, but he missed time in the preseason with groin and hip injuries.
The offensive line is trying to recover from the loss of rookie guard David DeCastro for at least multiple weeks, and veteran Max Starks, fresh of offseason knee surgery, will be the man in charge of protecting Roethlisberger's blind side.
Throw in the fact that the Steelers will be running a new offense under coordinator Todd Haley, released locker room leaders Hines Ward, James Farrior and Aaron Smith, and just recently fired special teams coordinator Al Everest, and it makes one wonder if these Steelers aren't quite where they've been at the start of previous seasons.
"That's football,'' Steelers offensive guard Willie Colon said. "Guys go down left and right, and you can't control that. It's the NFL. Things happen in weird ways. But I think collectively as a group, everyone has the right focus and hunger to succeed.''
Every NFL team, including Denver, has question marks, and the Steelers' positives - Roethlisberger at quarterback probably being the biggest - outweigh negatives.
But in Mike Tomlin's five seasons as coach, the Steelers have gone either 5-2 or 6-2 in each September and October combined. One can't help but wonder if that early-season success rate might be put to the test this year.
Buck Frank can be reached at 946-7461 or email@example.com.