Checking It Twice

Troy Polamalu (Bridge/USPRESSWIRE)

Troy Polamalu will miss his ninth game of the season Sunday, which is why he topped the Steelers' preseason Watch List. Jim Wexell checks that list again as the team prepares for its stretch run.

I made a list back in July, before the start of training camp, and now as we enter the holidays, and the homestretch, I'm checking it twice. It just seems like the timing is right.

So here's my Top 10 Watch List from training camp, with updated commentary on how the Steelers did or must still do:

10. Will Jerrod Johnson unseat one of the veteran QBs?

Probably a good thing the Steelers didn't begin grooming a young quarterback this year, else Charlie Batch would be gone and Johnson would be starting Sunday in Cleveland. But it's a question that will have to be addressed next offseason when Batch is 38½ and Byron Leftwich is coaching somewhere, because he's proven again that he just can't go three plays without injuring himself.

9. Can the new blocking tight end block?

Leonard Pope threw a decent block or two when Weslye Saunders's fate was being decided in September, so Pope made it. But he's lost most of his playing time to seventh-round draft pick David Paulson, who's more of a pass-catcher and will certainly improve as a blocker. Next year Pope will likely lose his roster spot to David Johnson, who believes he'll return as a free agent next season but will switch majors from fullback back to tight end.

8. Will Jeremy Kapinos hold on to the punting job?

He did not, of course. Rookie Drew Butler's first punt went 52 yards and his second one was downed at the 1. He's below average statistically (27th with a 43.6 gross; 25th with a 38.1 gross) but only four full-time punters have a better percentage of kicks downed inside the 20. Butler has only 2 touchbacks with 17 downed inside the 20.

7. Does Larry Foote have enough left to play buck linebacker?

The answer was yes in the preseason and yes through 10 games, and that's been huge for a team that's been without both of its young inside backups because of injuries. Foote's tied with Lawrence Timmons for the team tackles lead with 71, but has 9 more unassisted tackles than does Timmons. Foote also has 3 sacks, 2 forced fumbles and 2 fumble recoveries. The 32-year-old doesn't seem to be slowing down as the season heads down the homestretch.

6. How long will it take the offensive line to come together?

The rushing statistics say five games, but really the line has kept Ben Roethlisberger cleaner than ever. He's been sacked once every 18.6 dropbacks this season. His previous best was once every 13.8 in 2011. Of course Roethlisberger is out with a brutal injury suffered during a sack, but that one can't be pinned on the O-line.

As for the run game, the Steelers are averaging 4.8 yards per carry the last five games, which is what the Steelers averaged per carry in 2001 when Jerome Bettis and Kordell Stewart were Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside. The insertion of rookie Mike Adams at right tackle and the settling of Willie Colon at left guard probably account for the rushing numbers. Marcus Gilbert and David DeCastro are returning to health if needed down the stretch.

5. Can Ziggy Hood's play match his physique?

This one's tough to answer. I will say that Hood has played better than most fans believe. But that's just my opinion, because Hood has had horrible stretches against the run. He's also been a team-oriented hustler with a motor that's second to none. Let's just agree to disagree in that he's not a first-round "bust" but would probably have been a better fit as someone's 4-3 under tackle. Hood's backup, 2011 first-round pick Cameron Heyward, showed some sparks in the second half last week and will push for playing time.

4. What about the open spot at wide receiver?

They did it. The Steelers got away with keeping only four wide receivers, and when injuries hit – as they have of late with Antonio Brown and Jerricho Cotchery – the Steelers were able to pick Plaxico Burress up off the street. Brown will be back after we find out if Burress has anything left. If Burress does, he'll provide great depth behind Brown down the stretch.

3. Can Chris Rainey take the pounding?

Apparently not. The 178-pound running back/return man had some moments before finally broke out against the New York Giants with 5 kickoff returns for 173 yards. But he injured his ribs that game and has since been awful. Against the Ravens he didn't look like he even wanted the ball and it's left the return game in shambles. Will Brown be the answer when he comes back from his ankle injury? Will Emmanuel Sanders be more than just a catcher back there? Problem area, no doubt.

2. Are James Harrison's issues behind him?

It's looking like these last few questions were given such importance with good reason. Again, the answer here is no. Harrison recovered just fine from the back problems that bugged him throughout 2011, but he hasn't recovered from late-summer knee surgery. So far this season, he has only 32 tackles, 2 sacks and hasn't been party to a turnover. By far he's on pace for his worst season since becoming a starter in 2007.

1. Will Troy Polamalu return to form?

Another negative answer. However, Will Allen has been a bit of a revelation as his replacement. Polamalu said he won't play this week but believes he'll return soon, so as well as Allen has played he's no Polamalu, even a 31-year-old Polamalu coming off a season-long calf injury. The Steelers have learned to win without Polamalu – 5-3 this season – but they certainly could use at least one ballhawk in their secondary.

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