Few teams were better positioned than the Steelers to weather the lockout — and specifically the missing offseason workouts and practices that were a casualty of the NFL’s first work stoppage since 1987.
Every defensive starter from 2010 returns, and the offense didn’t sustain any major losses. Mike Tomlin’s coaching staff stayed largely intact, and the loss of offseason practices probably benefited a defense that has nine starters in their 30s and needed extra rest following a season that stretched through January.
The Steelers again appear poised to hold off the Ravens in the AFC North and make a run at an NFL-record ninth Super Bowl appearance. They will have to overcome recent history as much as anything else: Seven of the last 10 teams that lost in the Super Bowl failed to make the playoffs the following season.
Rashard Mendenhall blossomed into one of the better running backs in the NFL last season, but quarterback Ben Roethlisberger remains the focal point of the Steelers’ offense. Roethlisberger overcame the drama he largely created last season to throw for 3,200 yards and 17 touchdowns and only five interceptions in 12 games. He may not get mentioned in the same breath as Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, but Roethlisberger’s value goes beyond numbers. His ability to extend plays and his toughness have allowed Roethlisberger to thrive despite playing behind a line that has been battered by injuries and criticism the last couple of years.
The Steelers ran the ball only eight fewer times than they threw it in 2010, and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who has been criticized by fans for steering the Steelers away from a power running attack, may have to resist the temptation to air it out more this season. The Steelers also have a deep and talented receiving corps, led by Hines Ward and emerging star Mike Wallace, as well as one of the NFL’s most underrated tight ends in Heath Miller.
Keeping the line relatively healthy for an entire season would go a long way toward improvement on offense. The Steelers were besieged by injuries up front last year, and only graybeard right tackle Flozell Adams (since released) and rookie center Maurkice Pouncey started every game. Pouncey is the linchpin of the line and should be a perennial Pro Bowler for the next decade. His play — Pouncey has drawn comparisons to former Steelers great Dermontti Dawson — and concerns at guard are why the Steelers explored trading up in the first round of the draft to take Pouncey’s identical twin brother, Mike, who went No. 15 overall to the Dolphins.
Commissioner Roger Goodell’s emphasis on player safety won’t deter the Steelers from trying to batter opponents into submission, an approach that has outlasted the steel mills as a Pittsburgh hallmark. James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley give the Steelers two of the best pass-rushers in the NFL, and they are part of a linebacking corps that is as good as any in the league. The Steelers led the NFL with 48 sacks, but the defense is vulnerable when it can’t get consistent pressure on elite quarterbacks, as Brady and Aaron Rodgers showed last season.
Brady and Rodgers toyed with a secondary that is led by strong safety Troy Polamalu, the 2010 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, but is suspect when it comes to covering in space. Cornerback Bryant McFadden started opposite Ike Taylor last season, but the Steelers could use an upgrade there. The problem is that William Gay is best suited to play nickel back and Keenan Lewis and Crezdon Butler lack experience. Lewis is a former third-round draft pick and may go down as a bust if he doesn’t make significant strides this season.
Defensive end Aaron Smith is the biggest question mark on the line as he tries to return from a torn triceps. The emergence of Ziggy Hood last season minimizes concerns over Smith, a 13th-year veteran who is returning from a third season-ending injury in the last four years. Assuming nose tackle Casey Hampton is his usual, immovable self, the Steelers should again be harder to run on than wet cement.
Shaun Suisham is back after bailing out the Steelers’ kicking game last season. Suisham, signed last November after the Steelers cut the erratic Jeff Reed, may have found a home after bouncing around the NFL. Punter Daniel Sepulveda also returns, although his right knee is a major concern as he has torn the ACL in it three times, including twice since the Steelers moved up in the fourth round of the 2007 draft to take the lefty with the booming leg. If Sepulveda can stay healthy, he should be one of the better punters in the NFL. Another serious injury will likely end his career in Pittsburgh.
Second-year man Antonio Brown gives the Steelers an explosive kickoff returner, something they had lacked since Tomlin took over as head coach in 2007. If he gains the trust of the coaching staff, Brown will also supplant the sure-handed Antwaan Randle El as the Steelers’ primary punt returner.
The Steelers shored up their kick coverage teams last season after allowing four kickoff returns for touchdowns in 2009. Those units have alternated between solid and shaky since 2007, a pattern the Steelers are hoping will end this season. As always, the Steelers will look for help from their rookie class and younger players who, like Harrison and Brett Keisel before them, are expected to make an impact on special teams before graduating to the starting lineup.
The Steelers have been hearing for years that they are getting too old. “I (say) we’re like fine wine,” says linebacker James Farrior, who is 36 and entering his 15th NFL season. “We just get better with age.”
Three Super Bowl appearances in the last six years buttress that claim, but the Steelers have also been adroit at keeping their nucleus together while working in young impact players such as Woodley, Wallace and linebacker Lawrence Timmons.
The AFC North looks like a two-team race between the Steelers and the Ravens. The bitter rivals are so close in many ways, from personality to personnel, but the Steelers seem to have a psychological edge over the Ravens. They are, simply put, in the Ravens’ heads after overcoming a 14-point second-half deficit in last season’s AFC Divisional Playoff game — and beating Baltimore for the sixth time in the last eight games dating back to 2008.
If the Steelers can weather injuries — something they excelled at in 2008 and 2010 but couldn’t do in 2009 — they should win a third AFC title in five years under Tomlin. The prospects for a seventh Lombardi Trophy will largely depend on how the Steelers’ passing defense holds up against premier quarterbacks.
OUTSIDE THE HUDDLE
Two-back systems are either trendy or a necessity right now, making Mike Tomlin a traditionalist when it comes to running the football. The Steelers have relied heavily on one back since Willie Parker carried the ball 321 times before breaking his lower right leg in the next-to-last game of Tomlin’s first season. Rashard Mendenhall, a former first-round pick who replaced Parker as the starter in 2009, logged 79 percent of the carries by Steelers running backs last season in rushing for 1,273 yards and 13 touchdowns. And it doesn’t sound like Tomlin plans on lightening Mendenhall’s workload this season. “That’s why you draft running backs, to hand them the ball,” Tomlin says. “I think if you polled any back, they want the ball and they want it a lot.”
Outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley are the only players in Steelers history to record at least 10 sacks in each of their first three seasons as starters. The two have combined for 71.5 sacks since 2008, when Woodley cracked the starting lineup. Just as with Harrison, whom the Steelers in 2009 made the highest-paid defensive player in franchise history, the organization plans to make a long-term commitment to Woodley. And Woodley would love nothing more than to spend his entire career with the tradition-rich franchise, one that maintains strong ties with many players who helped the Steelers win four Super Bowls in the 1970s. “You see ‘Mean’ Joe Greene always around, Mel Blount,” Woodley says. “You see those guys and say ‘You know what? When I get to that age that’s how I want to be.’”
Retirement Can Wait
Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau enjoys a father-son relationship with many of his players, and the respect he commands is one reason why the Steelers are so synonymous with stingy, hard-hitting defense. When LeBeau got inducted into the Western chapter of the Pennsylvania Hall of Fame during the offseason, Harrison, James Farrior, Ryan Clark and Bryant McFadden were among those who attended the dinner. How much does Farrior love LeBeau? “I’m leaving when he leaves,” the inside linebacker and Steelers’ defensive captain says. Neither has given any indication that retirement is imminent even though LeBeau turns 74 two days before the regular-season opener and Farrior is 36. Farrior is coming off a Pro Bowl-caliber season, and the ageless LeBeau helped the Steelers finish first in the NFL in scoring and rushing defense last season. “He could go until he was 90 if he wanted to,” Farrior says of LeBeau. “I haven’t seen too many 70-some-year-old men that look like him.”
What Are the Odds?
Harrison, Farrior, Troy Polamalu and past Steelers greats Franco Harris and Lynn Swann were among those who watched Hines Ward compete live on “Dancing With the Stars” during the spring. The support Ward received from his teammates blew him away. But they were a tad skeptical after it was announced that Ward would take part in the 12th season of the popular reality TV show. “I think they had a locker room pool to see how long I might last,” Ward says. The Steelers’ all-time leading receiver outlasted everybody, joining Emmitt Smith as the only past or current NFL players to win DWTS.