It is not how Sunday was suppose to go down, but it happened. A season filled with injuries and playing down to their competition finally caught up to the Steelers. In the blink of an eye, Pittsburgh went from having a chance to cap off an impressive comeback victory to watching Tim Tebow and the Broncos celebrate one of the most stunning playoff upsets in recent memory.
Now, instead of preparing to battle their playoff demons in a matchup against the New England Patriots next week, Pittsburgh is starting their offseason sooner than any of us would have liked or expected.
This offseason will be particularly tough, as Pittsburgh's front office will have many difficult choices to make.
“There’s always going to be changes,” said Mike Tomlin.
“There are changes every year. I am not going to sit here and pretend like there’s not going to be changes. To what extent, at this point I am not ready to address. That’s why I enjoy these journeys. They are precious. At the end of this thing, the wheels do continue to turn."
The wheels will certainly continue to turn, and that may come at the expense of some popular players. Expect the Steelers to be well over the salary cap and have to make decisions on longtime veterans who once were the core of two Pittsburgh Super Bowl championship teams.
The team clearly needs an infusion of young talent, but they are by no means in need of an overhaul. There are still a core of talented players on the roster, and there are others who should be ready to step in for aging veterans next season.
Remember, the Steelers are coming off a 12-4 season and were one win away from earning the top seed in the AFC. There is no need to blow up the roster. There is no need to fire the entire coaching staff. That talk is nonsense and was the voice of frustration coming out following a disappointing loss.
That does not mean that changes are not needed. They are. This team cannot stand pat and expect to keep up with the AFC elites.
Let's take a look at the early offseason game plan for the Steelers.
To begin looking at the free agent situation, you have to look at the restricted and exclusive rights free agents. These are the young players who are the future of the team and you should expect most to be retained.
The group is headlined by Mike Wallace, who has established himself as one of the top deep threats in the league after averaging 19.4 and 21.0 yards per reception in his first two years. While his average dropped to 16.6 yards this year, much of that can be attributed to his status as a No. 1 receiver and development of his all-around game.
You can look at Wallace's decreased production over the second half of this season (43 receptions and five touchdowns compared to 29 receptions and three touchdowns), but the fact is, Wallace has improved each year and lead the Steelers in receptions, yards and touchdowns. He deserves a long-term deal and is an important part of the future.
Here is a snap shot of the others:
Restricted Free Agents
David Johnson: The tight end also plays fullback. He is an OK blocker and receiver and could be upgraded, but should be retained for at least one more year.
Doug Legursky: As backup center, Legursky could be upgraded, as he can be dominated by the larger defensive linemen. However, he has plenty of experience with the team, and with Maurkice Pouncey showing ankle problems, Legursky will stick around for at least another year.
Ramon Foster: It is still hard to believe that he did not earn a starting job out of camp. Though both guard positions need to be upgraded, Foster can backup at both guard positions as well as at tackle.
Keenan Lewis: Lewis quietly had a good season. He rarely had a bad game and did not give up many big plays. Look for him to start next year, and he may have earned himself a multi-year deal.
Ryan Mundy: Mundy is a nice backup and special teams contributor. Already lacking depth at the position, the Steelers need to keep him.
Exclusive Rights Free Agents
Isaac Redman: Redman proved that he can start in the league over the last two games of the year, carrying the ball 36 times for 213 yards and a score. With Rashard Mendenhall's ACL injury, Redman could very well be the top back heading into training camp.
Steve McLendon: Injuries to Casey Hampton and Chris Hoke mean that McLendon is the only healthy nose tackle on the roster. If nothing else, he should be a quality backup.
The Steelers currently have $140 million committed for next year, and that is not including any free agents or draft picks.
One free agent to-be, Chris Hoke, has likely played his last down due to a neck injury, and the probable loss of Aaron Smith (see the next slide) will leave the Steelers defensive line very thin.
"Football is a great sport to play, but there's a lot of life after football, and those two guys will have to make that decision themselves," said Brett Keisel.
Besides the defensive linemen, the Steelers have plenty of other areas to look at, particularly backup quarterback.
Unrestricted Free Agents
Byron Leftwich: Leftwich was injured again, but when healthy, is the best option. He should be brought back on a one-year deal.
Charlie Batch: Batch did a fine job as the backup, but they need a younger player who can last for a few weeks given Roethlisberger's style of play. Batch wants to play again next year and should be brought back only if there are no other options.
Dennis Dixon: Dixon has had his chances. It is time to move on for both parties.
Mewelde Moore: Moore has been a fine third down back for the Steelers, but they have a younger and potentially better option with Baron Batch. Moore can be signed late in free agency if depth is still needed, but look for the Steelers to go younger.
Jericho Cotchery: Cotchery provided valuable depth at receiver and would be a nice player to keep for depth. Chances are another team will provide a better offer.
Trai Essex: Essex can play every position on the offensive line, and that is good enough to keep on as a backup.
Max Starks: He was a virtual lock to be re-signed prior to his ACL injury that may require surgery. Now it is a wait and see approach for depth, but the Steelers must find answers elsewhere.
William Gay: Gay stepped up his play this year and has earned another contract. However, the hope is that the younger players surpass him on the depth chart.
Daniel Sepulveda: Too many times on the IR for Sepulveda and Jeremy Kapinos is not much, if any, drop off.
A great career likely came to an end this year.
One of the finest defensive ends of his era, Aaron Smith went about playing football the right away. He was a hard-nosed, physical presence on the defensive line and made it virtually impossible for the opposition to run the ball on the Steelers defense.
But even the great players bodies break down, and Pittsburgh's greatest 3-4 defensive end is no longer a serviceable player.
"When you play as hard as he does and you compete like he does, these things happen," Keisel said.
"I don't think [the neck injury] was the result of any one play. I think it was just wear and tear. His body just wore out."
Smith will likely retire after struggling with injuries at the tail end of his career, and he will not be the only one that has to make that decision.
James Farrior: One of the Steelers' greatest free agent signings ever, Farrior has been a defensive captain and team leader. However, the NFL is very much a young man's game, and Farrior does not have the athleticism to compete at the highest level any more. If he doesn't retire, he is a likely candidate to be released.
Hines Ward: The face of the franchise, Ward is one player that no one would want to see retire, but everyone has a limit. Ward has been surpassed by three young receivers and carries a $4 million cap hit. Ward says that he is not ready to retire; he will have to come back at a significantly reduced rate.
Chris Kemoeatu: Kemoeatu's moments of brilliance are outnumbered by his moments of incompetence. There are just too many penalties and missed blocks to justify keeping him.
Arnaz Battle: Does he really have a role on this team? There are plenty of young players who can play special teams.
Casey Hampton: ACL injuries and very large men in their 30s are not a good combination.
Larry Foote: Could be released and brought back at a reduced rate.
Bryant McFadden: McFadden has lost his effectiveness and finds himself at the bottom of the depth chart. There is a ton of young talent at the cornerback who will more than fill the void.
While there are other considerations, there is no reason to cut the entire roster in January. Of course, there is always the option of releasing a number of players and bringing them back at a lower cost.
Let's get down to business; this is the one that everyone is really interested in. Well, you may not like what Tomlin said regarding his coaching staff, particularly bringing back both offensive coordinator Bruce Arians and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.
"I anticipate it, but of course, we all understand what the end of the season is about," Tomlin said.
"Movement is apart of it in today's NFL. We're going to work to maintain continuity as we always do. We believe that's a benefit to us. But we also understand things happen and we'll deal with those things as they arise."
The key word in that statement is "but." Tomlin definitely leaves the door open for change, but will this be the year that he makes a move?
There was a lot of frustration vented towards LeBeau following the game plan this past Sunday and the lack of adjustments when Tebow was taking the Steelers defense to task.
I would not expect him to go unless he is ready to retire. The Steelers had a solid defense throughout the season without a good pass rush due to injuries to LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison and without creating turnovers.
Of a greater interest is whether or not Arians and his 21st-rated scoring offense will return.
The complaints are there regarding Arians: He is too predictable, he doesn't run the ball enough, he calls too many deep routes, etc.
The biggest problems are that the Steelers have to settle for too many field goals in the red zone and hence are ranked low in scoring despite all of the offensive talent.
If LeBeau goes, expect linebackers coach Keith Butler to get the promotion.
If Arians goes, Pittsburgh would probably look from within first, possibly quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner.
My analysis is that the Steelers struggled with some of their defensive personnel with injuries, and that hurt them throughout the season. However, LeBeau can still get the job done.
The offensive personnel is too good to rank in the bottom third of the league in scoring, and we have seen that same problem year in and out. It is time to make a change on the offensive side of the ball.
Antonio Brown went from a little-known sixth round pick who was looking to contribute as a special teams player and fourth receiver to the first player in NFL history with 1,000 receiving yards and 1,000 return yards in the same season.
Brown took advantage of his opportunities in training camp with a number of injuries to the receivers and made the most of it.
Over the course of the season, Brown became one of the Steelers best playmakers and became Roethlisberger's top target over the second half of the year.
There are a number of players who could step up next season:
Cameron Heyward: An injury to Brett Keisel's groin may mean that the Steelers will have to rely more on Heyward this fall. Keisel is aging, and Heyward flashed potential in his limited play-time this season. He should have a significantly increased role next year.
Stevenson Sylvester: With the potential loss of Farrior, Sylvester could split time with Foote (if he is kept) in the base defense.
Cortez Allen: Allen was very raw coming out of school, but had a good training camp, and that translated into the season when he got time in passing situations. He has an upside to start and could be the full-time nickel or dime back next year.
Curtis Brown: Brown made his mark on special teams and will be expected to make a jump next year with the defense. He will be competing with Allen and could potentially develop into a nickel back or even starter.
The Steelers are a talented team, but still have a number of needs for next season. In no particular order, here are the top needs for 2012.
Offensive Tackle: Willie Colon will be coming off of an injury, and Starks' ACL injury means that Marcus Gilbert is the only healthy tackle. Pittsburgh needs healthy and talented tackles.
Offensive Guard: Guard is the weakest spot on the offensive line. Kemoeatu is a potential cut, and Legursky and Foster are not long-term answers. The Steelers could use an upgrade on their offensive line interior.
Running Back: Rashard Mendenhall, even at a young age, will have some trouble coming off an ACL injury. The Steelers need more than Isaac Redman and their current crop of backups. An early name that I like: LaMichael James.
Defensive Tackle: Hampton did not have a great season, and the Steelers need to find a new breed of nose tackle, one that is good against the run and can rush the passer.
Inside Linebacker: The Steelers need an upgrade to play next to Timmons.
Outside Linebacker: We all saw the lack of pass rush with injuries to Woodley and Harrison. Unless Jason Worilds takes a Keenan Lewis-like jump in development next year, he is not the answer, and Chris Carter is a question mark. A big pass rush is so important with how passing is in the NFL now.
Safety: Both Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark are over 30, and the Steelers need a potential starter for the future, as well as a player who provides quality depth.
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