General manager Kevin Colbert chafes at the notion that the Steelers are rebuilding after the kind of roster turnover that qualified as astounding given his organization’s reputation as one of the most stable in the NFL. Coach Mike Tomlin insists that the Steelers are simply in transition after an 8–8 season. Whether transition is merely a euphemism for rebuilding will be determined by how the Steelers respond after missing the playoffs for just the second time since Tomlin took over in 2007.
For the second consecutive year, the Steelers cut ties with a handful of key veterans, and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, strong safety Troy Polamalu, cornerback Ike Taylor and tight end Heath Miller are the remaining core players from the team that played in three Super Bowls and won two of them during a six-year period. Miller, the Steelers’ 2012 MVP, likely won’t be 100 percent at the start of the season after sustaining a torn ACL at the end of last season. That puts even more pressure on Roethlisberger, Polamalu and Taylor to stay healthy if the Steelers are to challenge Baltimore and Cincinnati for supremacy in the AFC North.
Athlon Sports AFC Power Ranking: 4th
The fragile union between Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Todd Haley enters its second season. For all of the psychoanalysis that is devoted to the relationship, Roethlisberger was having a Pro Bowl-caliber season before sustaining a rib injury in November. He struggled after returning to the starting lineup, and it may not get any easier this season, even if Roethlisberger stays healthy. The Steelers lost one of the NFL’s top deep threats when wide receiver Mike Wallace bolted to Miami in free agency. Miller, who has long been Roethlisberger’s security blanket and one of the top all-around tight ends in the league, may take some time to get back to full speed. The Steelers will depend on veteran Matt Spaeth, second-year man David Paulson and another tight end coming off a torn ACL, David Johnson, until Miller returns.
Wallace’s departure means the Steelers will rely heavily on Antonio Brown in the passing game. Brown, the Steelers’ MVP in 2011, took a step backward last season. The fourth-year man won’t have the luxury of having a burner opposite him on the field. Emmanuel Sanders replaces Wallace, and the fourth-year veteran has shown flashes but has also been injury-prone and inconsistent. Plaxico Burress won't be able to help the passing attack, as the long-time Steeler sustained a season-ending shoulder injury during training camp. The passing game will be helped immensely if third-round draft pick Markus Wheaton makes an impact as a rookie.
There are also questions about the skill players who will line up behind Roethlisberger. Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer are not every-down backs, and the Steelers drafted Michigan State’s Le’Veon Bell with the hope that he will develop into their feature back. Bell's NFL debut, however, will be delayed as he injured his foot in his first preseason game. The good news is that Bell did not need surgery and the injury is not deemed serious. The bad news is that he will more than likely miss at least the first month of the regular season. With Bell sidelined, the Steelers will turn to Redman and Dwyer to carry the load, as well as LaRod Stephens-Howling, who was signed to provide depth and serve as a receiving threat out of the backfield.
The Steelers did not draft an offensive lineman in 2013 because they invested so heavily in that area in previous drafts. Four of the projected five starters are either first- or second-round picks. All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey anchors the line, with the Steelers also expecting big things out of right guard David DeCastro. Tackles Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams both have to stay healthy and become more consistent. The Steelers are dangerously thin up front.
The Steelers finished first in the NFL in total defense last season, but that proved to be fool’s gold. They did not put enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks and did not force enough turnovers. Gone are five-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton and outside linebacker James Harrison, who was cut after the two sides couldn’t agree on the amount of a pay cut for the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year. The Steelers also lost starting cornerback Keenan Lewis to the New Orleans Saints in free agency.
The Steelers are high on former undrafted free agent Steve McLendon, who replaces Hampton and can also play defensive end. They must get more out of former first-round picks Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward at defensive end. Hood is going into his third season as a starter but has been, in Tomlin parlance, just another guy. Heyward has shown very little in two seasons, and that is a concern since Brett Keisel, 34, whom he backs up, isn’t getting any younger.
Lawrence Timmons, who should have made the Pro Bowl last season, and veteran Larry Foote return at inside linebacker. One of the biggest questions on the team is whether the outside linebackers will provide the necessary pass rush, which is critical to the defense’s success. Former Pro Bowler LaMarr Woodley had only four sacks last season. Jason Worilds gets the first crack at replacing Harrison, and the former second-round pick has played well in spots. First-round pick Jarvis Jones should provide help at outside linebacker even if he is only a situational pass-rusher.
The loss of Lewis thrusts Cortez Allen into the starting lineup, and Allen looked like a viable long-term starter after filling in for the injured Taylor last season. Taylor is still one of the better cornerbacks in the NFL, and the Steelers signed William Gay, who spent the 2012 season in Arizona, to play nickel back.
Polamalu is the wild card. The 2010 NFL Defensive Player of the Year gives coordinator Dick LeBeau a piece to move all over the field, and Polamalu is a game-changer when he is healthy. The problem is that Polamalu has missed 22 games since 2009, and his age (32) and aggressive style of play don’t bode well for getting an entire season out of the seven-time Pro Bowler. Free safety Ryan Clark is 33 but seems to get better with age. Perhaps the biggest issue the Steelers have at the back end of their defense is the lack of proven depth.
Shaun Suisham is entrenched as the kicker, and the ninth-year veteran was close to automatic last season. Drew Butler returns as the punter after a decent rookie season. Stephens-Howling has returned three kickoffs for touchdowns during his career, and Brown is a dangerous punt returner. Tomlin would love for a younger player to emerge there so he can minimize Brown’s exposure to big hits.
Final Analysis: 1st in AFC North
A franchise quarterback like Roethlisberger is always going to give his team a chance to contend for the Super Bowl, which is the only goal in Pittsburgh. Roethlisberger must have a capable supporting cast, and it would help if the investment the Steelers have made in the offensive line started paying off. A healthy Polamalu and a return to form by Woodley would make the defense more opportunistic. There are a lot of ifs, however, and if Pittsburgh’s marquee players do not lead the way — or are not able to because of injuries — the Steelers are looking at another third-place finish in the AFC North and another long offseason.
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