Last season, the Steelers failed to improve on their 12–4 record from 2011 and did not reach the postseason for the first time since 2009. The Steelers finished the season with a record of 8–8, their first non-winning season since 2006. The team was inundated with injuries that began in training camp and lasted the entire season. Yet still, the Steelers lost seven of their eight games by a combined 31 points, which averages out to just four points per loss. Even the 12-point loss to the Broncos in their first game of the season is deceiving in that Pittsburgh led at the start of the fourth quarter. With six losses on the game’s final play, The 2012 Steelers set a new NFL record for the most games decided on the last play.
Head coach Mike Tomlin enters his seventh season having accomplished a lot in his first six years. Tomlin’s 63 wins, four playoff appearances and three division titles are the second most in franchise history. His two Super Bowl appearances also are a franchise best for a coach in his first six seasons.
Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has led the Steelers defense since 2004. During that time span, it has been regarded as one of the top defenses in the NFL, helping to lead the Steelers to three Super Bowls. Last year, the unit yielded an NFL-low 275.8 yards per game in 2012, becoming the first team to lead the league in net yards allowed in 10 different seasons, including five times since LeBeau returned to the Steelers in 2004 as defensive coordinator.
QB Ben Roethlisberger failed to play all 16 games for the fourth straight season and eighth time in his nine-year career. Prior to Big Ben’s Week 10 injury against the Kansas City Chiefs, he was in Pro-Bowl form for the Steelers. In 13-games last season, Big Ben performed at a high level, as he averaged 251.2 passing yards per game, the fourth highest per game average of his career. He threw for 3,265 yards, marking the fifth consecutive season he recorded at least 3,200 passing yards and tied for the third most passing touchdowns in franchise history (26) and the second most of his career. He finished the season with the second-fewest interceptions in his career, which marked the third time that Roethlisberger has thrown for less than 10 interceptions in a season.
As always, the Steelers need Roethlisberger for as many games as he can stay healthy but should he not make the entire schedule, Pittsburgh-native Bruce Gradkowski returns home to provide depth at the quarterback position. They also drafted Oklahoma and Big 12 record holder Landry Jones in the fourth round.
The Steelers employed a running back by committee approach last season with Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman splitting time while Rashard Mendenhall missed six games after suffering an ACL tear in the regular-season finale of 2011. Prior to 2012, Mendenhall led the Steelers in rushing for three straight seasons but in his absence, it was Dwyer who led the team with 623 yards and two touchdowns while Redman tallied 410 yards and two touchdowns. This attack was inconsistent and error prone. They ranked 26 out of 32 teams in the NFL in rushing and for the first time since 2006, the Steelers ranked in the bottom 10 in giveaways. Considering their QB did not throw that many interceptions, fumbling was a major issue from the RB position. Pittsburgh lost a game to the Browns in which every single running back on the team fumbled.
Mendenhall is now in Arizona and with the 48th overall pick, the Steelers drafted a big bruising back from Michigan State in Le’Veon Bell. Tomlin’s hopes of watching Dwyer, Redman and Bell battle it out for the starting job was quickly dashed when Bell injured his foot and will likely miss six to eight weeks.
Now, Isaac Redman, the team’s listed co-starter has missed time with back issues, as has backup running back Baron Batch. LaRod Stephens Howling missed the second preseason game with a knee injury, leaving the only two healthy options as Dwyer and sixth stringer, Alvester Alexander—but they were both released by the Steelers during final cuts. Alexander was signed to the practice squad, however.
The hope to return to a solid running game may once again take a back to seat, as Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley may be forced to throw more than he wants to in 2013. Redman will get the nod to start– with Stephens Howling backing up. Felix Jones, whom the Steelers acquired in a trade with cross-state rival Philadelphia late in camp, could be a major contributor if he can stay healthy. Even with a healthy Bell, it would seem that this foursome isn’t forcing AFC North foes to stop and take notice and Tomlin knows it.
Wide Receiver/ Tight End:
As usual in Pittsburgh, the list of key losses always outnumbers the key additions but one of those losses was the Steelers biggest offensive threat in WR Mike Wallace, who took his talents to South Beach in March. With Wallace gone, 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 will not have the luxury of having a burner opposite him on the field but he will have the promising Emmanuel Sanders, who replaces Wallace. Sanders is entering his fourth-year and has shown flashes but has also been injury-prone and inconsistent. Plaxico Burress sustained a season-ending shoulder injury during training camp. The passing game will need third round selection Markus Wheaton to step up, which he has done during the preseason. But whether he can adjust to the regular season speed remains a big question mark.
Pittsburgh has five TE’s listed on their depth chart after final cuts. Injuries and recovery time has forced the team to keep this many. TE Heath Miller (torn ACL in 2012) and veteran Matt Spaeth, who hurt his foot early in camp and is likely to be out an additional six weeks, will be sorely missed by Roethlisberger.
The good news is, Miller has been activated off the PUP list, which means Big Ben’s top security blanket (71catches & 8 TD’s in 2012) the last few seasons can begin practicing with the team and could be ready by Week 4 or 5. Second-year man David Paulson, and another tight end coming off a torn ACL, David Johnson, as well as fourth-year journeyman Michael Palmer will all likely get reps. Paulson’s forte is in the passing game; Michael Palmer’s is as an in-line blocker; and Johnson’s is as the ‘move’ tight end. Palmer also had a couple of tackles on special teams this preseason.
If the Steelers need a roster spot to add a player at another position, they may look at tight end, where they could cut someone or possibly decide to put Spaeth on that IR-designated-to-return list..
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. Ramon Foster will play left guard.
Unfortunately, for Roethlisberger, there are some issues with the offensive line. The unit’s lack of experience showed last season with Adams surrendering more sacks (7) than games started (6) during his rookie campaign. The backups are John Malecki , Guy Whimper and Kelvin Beachum, who figures to enter the regular season as the primary backup at every offensive line position, with the only possible exception being left tackle.
Pouncey has emerged as one of the league’s best centers and is the first center in NFL history to be selected to a Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons.
Offensive Player to watch: WR Emmanuel Sanders
The defensive front is the foundation to any strong 3-4 defense, but there are some questions with the Pittsburgh Steelers’ line. The Steelers enter 2013 without some long time stars, one of them being NT Casey Hampton. The fact Hampton will not be on the Steelers’ roster at the end of training camp for the first time since 2000 is a frightening reminder the Steelers defense is in transition. In his place will be Steve McLendon, who should be a perfect fit in the AFC North. He battles Pro-Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey daily and is a solid replacement for Hampton.
McLendon is the centerpiece, literally and figuratively, of a Steelers defensive line that has tons of potential. As Steelers fans know all too well from last season, potential does not win games and they must get more production from ends Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward if the Steel Curtain is to remain on top. Hood is going into his third season as a starter but Tomlin has not been impressed. Heyward has shown very little in two seasons, and that is a concern since Brett Keisel, 34, whom he backs up, is not getting any younger. Al Woods is an active and versatile defensive lineman who will also provide depth. The final battle for a roster spot came down to the two nose tackles – Hebron Fangupo and Alameda Ta’amu—and the winner was——- Fangupo.
This unit also lost a former star in James Harrison, who did not go far when he signed with the Bengals. Lawrence Timmons, who should have made the Pro Bowl last season, and veteran Larry Foote return at inside linebacker. The key to the aggressive nature of Dick LeBeau’s defense is his pass rush and that remains a question mark heading into the season. 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. The question is whether he can stay healthy, and signs point to the fact that he may not be able to do so. It is anticipated that it won’t take long for 2013 first-round pick, Jarvis Jones, to emerge as a devastating pass rusher in the NFL. Chris Carter became the obvious choice as the No. 4 outside linebacker following the trade of Adrian Robinson to the Philadelphia Eagles. He then cemented his claim to that spot with two sacks in the preseason finale.
Like other components of the defense, the Steelers secondary also lost a key cog following last season when starting cornerback Keenan Lewis moved on to the New Orleans Saints in free agency. 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 IkeTaylor 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.
Troy Polamalu, who is only three years removed from earning the 2010 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, could be the biggest reason why the Steelers make the playoffs in 2013 or miss them for a second straight season. Polamalu has missed 22 games since 2009 but his age (32) and style of play does not bode well for him playing in every game this season. Free safety Ryan Clark is only a year younger than his partner is but seems to be getting better and more aggressive with age.
Getting an entire season out of Polamalu, the seven-time Pro Bowler, will be key if the Steelers wish to reverse a disturbing two-year trend of not creating turnovers. While overall defense is important, statistical analysis seems to indicate that turnovers forced is more important to playoff and Super Bowl success than any other defensive category. LeBeau’s unit has underperformed in that area the past two seasons, combining for 35 takeaways in 2011 and 2012, and finishing 32nd and 25th, respectively.
Defensive Player to watch: OLB Jarvis Jones
Shaun Suisham was close to automatic last season, and considering Heinz Field is a place that sends many kickers into a psychological swoon, that is saying something. Drew Butler returns as the punter after a decent rookie season. WR’s Antonio Brown and Emanuel Sanders will handle the return duties.
The Steelers have not missed the playoffs in two consecutive seasons since they did so in three straight seasons from 1998-2000. In fact, in two of the three seasons that Pittsburgh rebounded to make the playoffs, the following season they went onto play in the AFC Championship game and the Super Bowl. The assumption of health is obviously factored into this 10-6 record prediction, because getting anything less than 85 to 90 percent of the schedule from Big Ben or Troy Polamalu could lead to another 8-8 season, or even worse.
The Steelers have the front line talent to be a very good team but lack the depth across the board should the next man up be called upon to make a difference. Divisional play will be critical and if the Steelers are going to make the playoffs, finishing 4-2 in the tough AFC North will be no easy chore. The schedule sets up favorably for Pittsburgh, who could be 7-3 with six games to play. They must be better than 2-4 down the stretch, which is how they finished last season. No worries– even at 3-3, which is how we project them to finish– 10-6 and third in the AFC North may be enough to get them back to where Steelers nation owns a time-share, the playoffs.