Frank: Sophomores hold big key to season

PITTSBURGH – If the Steelers don’t improve on last year’s 8-8 season, don’t blame it on old age.

The 2013 Steelers made their debut on Saturday night in an 18-13 loss to the New York Giants in the preseason opener at Heinz Field, and one thing is for certain: It’s going to take the average fan a few games to match Steelers’ names with uniform numbers.

The Steelers have gotten younger across the board, combating a criticism levied against them the last several years. The hope is the influx of youth, mixed with holdover veterans, will get the team back into their customary playoff spot in January.

A postseason berth is only going to come to fruition if they get significant production from younger guys, including several talented rookies on display and not on display against the Giants. But where they need an even bigger contribution is from last season’s rookies.

The 2012 draft class didn’t add much to the team during last year’s disappointment. In fact, tackle Mike Adams was named the team’s rookie of the year, mostly by default.

Adams, the No. 2 pick last year from Ohio State, is expected to be the team’s starting left tackle this year, teaming with right guard David DeCastro, last year’s No. 1 pick, on the Steelers’ new-look offensive line. The line helped the first-team Steelers offense produce a 58-yard drive and a field goal against New York.

“The offensive line is creating space, and we are playing in sync,” Steelers receiver Antonio Brown said at halftime. “We don’t want to reflect too much on last year, but I think we are a lot farther ahead at this point than we were last year.”

DeCastro blew out a knee during last year’s preseason and ended up playing in just the final three regular-season games. Adams played in 10 games but was mostly used at right tackle.

Last year’s middle picks were all a waste. Third-rounder Sean Spence, a linebacker, suffered a significant knee injury in the preseason and missed the entire season and might not play this year. Fourth-rounder Alameda Ta’amu, a nose tackle, made no news on the field but made headlines with a drunken police chase. Fifth-rounder Chris Rainey flashed some decent plays at running back but couldn’t stay out of trouble and is currently not on an NFL roster.

Two of the four seventh-round picks last year, tight end David Paulson and offensive lineman Kelvin Beachum, ended up sticking with the team and contributing in minor ways. Free-agent rookie finds, like punter Drew Butler and fullback Will Johnson, played bigger roles.

The Steelers now find themselves having to count on several of these players. Adams and DeCastro, no doubt, will need to enjoy solid seasons to help ensure the health of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and allow an improvement in the running game.

The O-line doesn’t have much depth, but Beachum is a versatile lineman who will most likely be the first one off the bench if any of the guards or tackles get injured.

Ta’amu is behind Steve McLendon at nose tackle, but with Casey Hampton no longer around, his playing time will increase.

Paulson might be the biggest key player among the sophomores. With Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth expected to miss at least the early part of the regular season, Paulson all of a sudden is the starting tight end. He played the entire first half against the Giants and caught one pass for 13 yards.

“I’m watching [the younger guys] to see who is hustling, playing with technique and who doesn’t get affected by all the surroundings, and can focus in and play good football,” Steelers veteran defensive end Brett Keisel said Saturday. “A lot of guys are playing good. It is fun to see who rises to the occasion and who doesn’t.”

It’s still a little too early to tell if the youth movement has the team headed in the right direction – the first-team offense did OK against the Giants’ first-team defense – minus Jason Pierre-Paul and Justin Tuck – Saturday night. We’ll get a better feel on how the young guys are developing over the next three preseason games.

If ever a year the Steelers need four preseason games, this is one due to all of the rebuilding being done.

When the Steelers open the season at home on Sept. 8 against the Tennessee Titans, only two starters on offense – Roethlisberger and guard Ramon Foster – and six on defense will have started against the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV three years ago.

That’s a dramatic change in a short period of time. The Steelers needed to get younger and did.

They’re still somewhat paying for a sub-par 2008 draft class that currently has no members of it on their roster. They can’t afford to have the 2012 draft class produce the same dismal results.

Buck Frank can be reached at 946-7461 or