Every championship-caliber team needs to have certain players that they know they can count on to get the job done on a consistent basis, without whom those championship aspirations can disappear in a hurry.
The Pittsburgh Steelers may have lost a number of such players in recent years, players with multiple championship rings, and they are still waiting for the next generation of leaders by example to step up. But they still have a solid group of players that they know can be relied upon, assuming they are healthy.
Of course, everybody falters once in a while, but generally speaking, when the team has succeeded in recent years, the following five players have generally had a hand in creating that success.
Ben Roethlisberger: It starts at the top, of course. No individual piece is more important to a championship team than the franchise quarterback, and the Steelers are fortunate to have had one for the past decade. Ben Roethlisberger led the Steelers to the AFC Championship game as a rookie, and proceeded to become the youngest starting quarterback to win a Super Bowl in his second year. He is currently one of just three quarterbacks in the league with multiple championship rings as a starter.
More important than his pedigree, however, is how he has looked recently, and he was in rare form in the team’s third preseason game, both in the pocket and on the fly. His deep ball was crisp and accurate as it has not been for the past year or so, and he has grown comfortable with many of his new weapons and the new offense. Only injury should be able to prevent Big Ben from having a career year.
Heath Miller: Heath Miller has been about as reliable as they come from the tight end position. He may not be healthy enough to play right now, but he has done enough in practice for the team to list him as ‘doubtful’ rather than ‘out’ for tomorrow’s season opener, which suggests that he is close to returning, possibly no later than after the early Bye Week.
Miller had a career year himself in the team’s first year under new offensive coordinator Todd Haley, with Haley putting more of the offense in his hands, and he has not dropped the ball. He may take some time to get back up to speed, but I expect him to be Old Reliable toward the end of the season.
Lawrence Timmons: With James Harrison and Troy Polamalu battling injuries the past couple seasons, Lawrence Timmons has emerged as the on-field leader by example of the defense, as well as the playmaker. He may have had his best season last year, if you take into consideration situational impact, such as the interception that essentially won the game over the Kansas City Chiefs last year. He finished with 54 stops on defense, and in coverage, he had three interceptions and five pass deflections while not allowing a touchdown. He returned one of those interceptions for a touchdown and also forced two fumbles.
Troy Polamalu: As mentioned, it is not always easy to count on Troy Polamalu, especially in recent years, because he has often not been healthy. But the frequent offseason reports about how good he looked were on full display during the preseason, where he looked the best he has since the heart of his Defensive Player of the Year 2010 season. When he is healthy, Polamalu is as much of a wildcard and a difference maker as anybody else taking the field in an NFL stadium around the league. He does things that nobody else does, and it looks like we will be seeing more of those unique plays in 2013.
Ike Taylor: The only consistent member of the cornerback room for the past decade, Ike Taylor at his best is as good a cover corner as anybody else in the league. Nobody has given up less receptions per target over the past two seasons. He was targeted 166 times over the course of the last two years, and allowed just 70 of those passes to be caught, for a completion percentage against of just 42.2. After giving up just two touchdowns in 2011, however, he was beaten for five in total in 2012, although some of that is attributable to the chaos surrounding the safety position for much of last season.
Aside from poor ball skills, he also must clean up his game in terms of penalties. In the last two years, he has been penalized 19 times, with three of them declined or offsetting. While he may not have great ball skills, however, he does have three interceptions over the past two years to go along with 27 pass deflections. He had 13 pass deflections in less than 12 games last year.