In 2013, that theory could get its toughest test in years. The roster is in transition, with a mix of aging veterans who are getting close the being kicked to the curb (including one with really long hair), a nucleus of players who are in their prime and who need to lead like it, and youngsters who’ll be relied upon to step up or step off.
For now, the consensus of the six PFT scribes placed the Steelers at No. 15. Plenty of people think they’ll end up much worse. Which tells me that there’s a good chance they’ll finish much better.
Perhaps the greatest strength of this franchise, year in and year out, comes from the franchise itself. The Rooney family leads the team with a steady hand, never getting too high or too low in response to whatever may be happening at any given moment, month, or year. Their patience could be tested over the next year or two, if the effort to change a flat tire on a moving car doesn’t work out very well.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger remains a strength, but he could be an even stronger presence in three ways. First, he needs to become a real leader of the team, not just a leader in word or title. When former teammate Hines Ward pointed earlier this year to a lack of leadership earlier this offseason, he was pointing directly at Roethlisberger. It’s time for Ben to prove the MVP of Super Bowl XL wrong. (Unless the MVP of Super Bowl XL is right.)
Second, Roethlisberger needs to do less. In the two seasons the Steelers won Super Bowls with Roethlisberger at the helm, he had his two lowest full-season per-game passing-yard averages, other than his rookie season. The Steelers have been trying to achieve greater balance between run and pass, and Roethlisberger needs to buy in to that approach completely.
Third, he needs to stay healthy. Though Roethlisberger apparently has recovered quickly from late-offseason knee surgery, there’s a sense that his very large body will betray him sooner than later, making it very hard for him to match other franchise quarterbacks by playing deep into his 30s.
In contrast to the Patriots’ inability to find quality receivers in the upper rounds of the draft, the Steelers have mastered the art of reaching into the haystack and pulling out mid-to-late-round needles. Even with Mike Wallace (a third-rounder) gone to the highest bidder, the Steelers have a paid of solid replacements in Antonio Brown (a sixth-rounder) and Emmanuel Sanders (a third-round pick). This year, the Steelers reached for two more needles, picking Markus Wheaton in (where else?) round three and Justin Brown in (where else?) round six.
The offensive line has been a perennial weakness. The fact that it isn’t this year sort of makes it a strength. Marcus Gilbert steps in for Max Starks at left tackle, and Mike Adams will handle the right side. Maurkice Pouncey anchors the middle, with Ramon Foster on Pouncey’s left and a fully-healed David DeCastro, a first-rounder in 2012, to the right of the apologetic Hernandez apologist.
On defense, the ongoing presence of ageless coordinator Dick LeBeau will be needed more than ever, as the team adjusts to the departure of linebacker James Harrison and the highly unlikely return of nose tackle Casey Hampton. But the Steelers have shown over the last 20-plus years an ability to interchange parts and still have a strong defense. Regardless of the names and faces, the end result will be a fierce, hard-hitting defense.
The Steelers desperately need leaders with the will and the ability to influence teammates, on both sides of the ball. Last year, they simply weren’t able to adjust to the sudden departure of leaders like Hines Ward and Aaron Smith. This year, it will be very hard to turn around the perceived status of the team without players who take the criticisms personally and motivate those around them to take it up a notch, or three.
The running back position is perhaps less of a weakness than it is unsettled. Rashard Mendenhall has left via free agency, and the Steelers hope Le’Veon Bell can make a Franco-style impact as a rookie. If Bell doesn’t, it’ll be up to a revolving door of journeyman to provide the balance the team needs on offense.
The tight end position could be an issue for the Steelers, if Heath Miller has trouble recovering from a torn ACL suffered late in 2012. If he does, David Johnson (who tore an ACL last August) could get a chance to shine.
The defensive line isn’t necessarily a weakness, but it’s not as strong as it used to be, making it harder for the largely anonymous trio to tie up blockers, which allows linebackers to get to the ball.
On offense, a quartet of big names has bolted: Mike Wallace, Rashard Mendenhall, Max Starks, and Willie Colon. On defense, James Harrison has hit the road after rejecting a pay cut. Casey Hampton didn’t even get a chance to turn down an offer; his contract expired, and the Steelers moved on. (We still wouldn’t be completely shocked if he returns.)
New faces on offense include backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, who displaced Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch. Rookie quarterback Landry Jones has prompted Batch to suggest that, if Jones develops well, he could eventually displace Roethlisberger. Three rookie skill-position players, led by Le’Veon Bell, will help the offense find its groove in year two under coordinator Todd Haley.
First-round linebacker Jarvis Jones, if his neck really is a non-issue, could make a huge impact from the get-go, making Steelers fans forget all about Harrison. (Until, of course, Harrison is chasing around Roethlisberger when the Bengals face the Steelers.)
The Steelers want Le’Veon Bell to become the bell cow back, but he’ll have to earn it. Other contenders include Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer, Baron Batch, and diminutive-but-effective La’Rod Stephens-Howling.
Beyond Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, the spots on the receiver depth chart are up for grabs. Don’t overlook Plaxico Burress, who’ll have his first full offseason and training camp to prepare for an NFL campaign in five years, as the primary red-zone target. The slot job could come down to Jerricho Cotchery and rookie Markus Wheaton.
Pencil in Jarvis Jones as the replacement for James Harrison, but Jones will need to fend off Jason Worilds.
Despite the return of starting corners Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen, the return of William Gay could make things interesting, especially if Allen slips.
At safety, it could be hard to keep rookie Shamarko Thomas off the field, even with Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark on the roster. (It also could be hard for Thomas to avoid the inevitable nickname of “Sharknado.”)
At punter, incumbent Drew Butler will battle it out with Brian Moorman, who was the incumbent in Buffalo a year ago.
The Steelers feel like a team in transition that borders on turmoil. They missed the playoffs in 2012, and many see them as the third-best team in a competitive AFC North.
But the Steelers have a way of finding their groove when they’re being doubted, and it should surprise no one if coach Mike Tomlin wills the team toward postseason contention. If they get there, they’ve still got enough talent and experience to cause problems for supposedly “better” teams in the AFC and, if it comes down to it, the NFC.”