By Jeremy Hritz
The Pittsburgh Steelers are seeking to avoid consecutive non-playoff seasons for the first time since 1999, when they followed up a 7-9 season with an awful 6-10 finish. Much to the dismay of Steelers Nation, the team failed again to make the playoffs in 2000, finishing 9-7. The Steelers of 2013 do not want to experience such a descent, and as a result of their mediocrity from last season, according to Larry Foote, they are a “pissed off” bunch hell-bent on returning to the playoffs. Whether or not they can do that will depend on two key factors: the play of new starters and underperforming veterans from 2012 and the overall health of the team.
Had it not been for the seemingly weekly significant injuries last season, the Steelers more than likely would have been a playoff team, and more so than any other area for improvement, the Steelers must keep their key players out of the training room. With an emphasis on conditioning this offseason, the Steelers will be in a much better position to avoid some of annoying bumps and bruises that prevented continuity, but ultimately, avoiding the major injuries will take some luck.
More than any other player, the Steelers have to keep Ben Roethlisberger healthy, and if he can make it through an entire season successfully, it almost a lock that the Steelers will make a return to the postseason. However, if the offensive line is guilty of porous play as it was at times in the preseason, Roethlisberger may have a difficult time avoiding the punishment that he has taken the majority of his career. The offensive line must also stay intact for the Steelers to excel, as the depth beyond the starting five and Kelvin Beachum is shaky. Ultimately, depth is an issue at nearly every position which is why the Steelers have to maintain their health. And again, that takes luck, something that the team hasn’t had the past couple of seasons.
There new starters on defense, Cortez Allen, Steve McLendon, and either Jarvis Jones or Jason Worilds, present some reasons for optimism, but they are also unknowns because none of the players are proven. While Allen performed well and recorded a couple of turnovers last season, it is uncertain what type of production he can have in a full season. As far as McLendon, Jones, and Worilds are concerned, it is uncertain what to expect. We have seen glimpses of what McLendon can do, and he should be an upgrade over an old and slow Casey Hampton from a year ago. Jones has a body of work that is limited to the preseason, and Worilds has been OK in his play in his first three seasons. I foresee Jones being the starter in week one against the Titans as he brings more explosiveness than Worilds does, and he demonstrated in the preseason that he has a penchant for creating turnovers. This is an element missing on the Steelers defense.
Underperforming veterans from a season ago such as LaMarr Woodley and Troy Polamalu, must also reassert themselves as dominant players, and if their work in the preseason says anything, it is that they are both healthy and primed for excellent seasons, especially Polamalu who looked lightning fast and electric as he made plays all over the field.
On offense, David DeCastro will begin the season as a starter after being injured in his rookie year, and Mike Adams will get his first opportunity to be the starting left tackle. What these young linemen can do early in their career remains to be seen, and despite a poor showing from Adams in the preseason, the Steelers trust that he can get it done.
At wide receiver, the Steelers are expecting Emmanuel Sanders to compensate for the loss of Mike Wallace, and for Markus Wheaton to gradually contribute to the offense. Whether or not this will happen, again, is a big question mark.
Throw in a projected rookie starter at running back in Le’Veon Bell, who currently is nursing his foot, and Felix Jones who was just recently added to the roster, and there are just as many questions at running back as there are at the aforementioned positions.
Will the answers be positive for the majority of the questions facing the Steelers? We certainly hope so, and they are going to need to be if the team is to reestablish themselves in the AFC.
This year will speak volumes about the type of leader that Mike Tomlin is as the roster is nearly entirely his own since the majority of the players from the Bill Cowher era have departed. Tomlin put an emphasis on conditioning and on being physical in this year’s camp hoping to set the tone for what he expects this year, and the majority of the reports from camp were very positive. Unfortunately, those reports did not match the uneven play that was showcased in preseason play.
So what’s the bottom line?
The AFC North will be difficult once again, as a confident Joe Flacco will make for a tough Ravens squad, and a deep Bengals roster may be enough to push the team over the hump. Throw in a Browns team that has steadily improved, and it is easy to see a 9-7 or a 10-6 record winning the division.
However, when it comes to the Steelers in 2013, it is foolish to dismiss a healthy Roethlisberger who has only missed the playoffs three times in his nine years as a professional. It is also worth noting that following every year that he has missed the playoffs, his teams have made a return the next season.
And despite the below the line play of the o-line in the preseason, I do believe that they have the talent to be an excellent unit, and from week to week, they will improve.
And I also believe that the addition of Allen, McLendon, and Jones to the starting lineup will help to stir an improvement in the defense’s ability to create turnovers, providing more opportunities for the offense.
This is a hungry team that is anxious to prove that 8-8 was an anomaly, and they will respond by winning the division and returning to the playoffs to make a run at a seventh Lombardi. The Ravens will experience their own version of the hangover, while as much as everybody wants to say the Bengals are improved, they are still the Bengals, and still coached by Marvin Lewis who has not shown in his career that he can lead a team deep in the playoffs.
It may not be pretty early as they figure out their identity, but the Steelers finish 11-5, good enough for a home game on Wild Card weekend.
Here we go, Steelers.
Titans @ Steelers – WIN (1-0)
Steelers @ Bengals – LOSS (1-1)
Bears @ Steelers – WIN (2-1)
Steelers @ Vikings (London) – WIN (3-1)
Steelers @ Jets – WIN (4-1)
Ravens @ Steelers – WIN (5-1)
Steelers @ Raiders – LOSS (5-2)
Steelers @ Patriots – LOSS (5-3)
Bills @ Steelers – WIN (6-3)
Lions @ Steelers – WIN (7-3)
Steelers @ Browns – WIN (8-3)
Steelers @ Ravens – LOSS (8-4)
Dolphins @ Steelers – WIN (9-4)
Bengals @ Steelers – WIN (10-4)
Steelers @ Packers – LOSS (10-5)
Browns @ Steelers – WIN (11-5)