Are the Pittsburgh Steelers Too Old to Continue Their Winning Ways?

Nick SignorelliSenior Writer IJune 21, 2012

Are the Pittsburgh Steelers Too Old to Continue Their Winning Ways?

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    "Old, Slow, Over." Those were the famous words spoken by former Tampa Bay Buccaneer and Oakland Raider Warren Sapp on a broadcast after the Pittsburgh Steelers were pounced in their Week 1 game of 2011 against their hated rivals, the Baltimore Ravens.

    According to Sapp, the Steelers were no longer the competitive team they had been over the last two decades, and he predicted that they would not make the playoffs.

    Fast-forward 16 weeks, and the Pittsburgh Steelers finished the 2011 season with a record of 12-4— second, by the tiebreaker, to those same Baltimore Ravens for the AFC North crown. The Steelers did in fact make the playoffs, which translates to Sapp simply being wrong.

    Fast-forward to June 20, 2012. Shaun King, former quarterback for those same Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was asked in an interview with ProFootballTalk.com which playoff teams from 2011 would not make the playoffs in 2012.

    Go to the 9:00-minute mark of the video to see when King starts talking about the Steelers.

    King starts off by saying the first problem is that Ben Roethlisberger, though he is an elite player, is going to have a difficult time transitioning to the new system by Todd Haley. Then, King goes on to say that the absence of Rashard Mendenhall is going to hurt the Steelers as well because Isaac Redman may not be a capable replacement.

    The next excuse is that Mike Wallace is currently not under contract and that "cloud of Mike Wallace hanging over the organization."

    As for the defense, King states that the defense is "transitioning." King then goes on to say that "they are getting older in some spots, they're trying to get some young players to come in and perform at that level."

    "Troy Polamalu has some issues staying healthy for a whole season, so I think Pittsburgh is going to be that kind of Marquee team that maybe takes a step back "

    Not that anyone should simply take what Shaun King has to say as biblical—or even at face value. I wouldn't want anyone to take what I say in that same way either.

    Rather than say what I think is going to happen, the best way to predict the future is to look at the past. Here is my opinion as to why I believe the Pittsburgh Steelers are not only going to make the playoffs but be serious contenders as the AFC representative for the Super Bowl.

Coaching/Front Office

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    Every organization starts at the top, and in Pittsburgh, that responsibility falls on the shoulders of the only general manager in the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Kevin Colbert.

    Colbert has carried on the Steelers tradition, started in 1969 by Chick Noll, of not spending money on other teams' free agents but using the money you have to keep your players who already know the coaches and playbooks.

    Colbert has done an amazing job at that, keeping the young core of players such as LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons and securing second and third contracts for players such as Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor.

    Colbert has also done a fantastic job at drafting players, with a first-round success rate higher than any other team in the NFL.

    With later-round selections (Antonio Brown and Ike Taylor) and undrafted players (James Harrison and Willie Parker) who have not only been successful but Pro Bowl quality, it is hard to imagine any other GM could have led the Steelers to the success they have had.

    Mike Tomlin took over for the legendary Bill Cowher, and many people believe that Tomlin's success is because of the team that Bill Cowher built. But, as proven above, that team was not built by Cowher but for him. Tomlin deserves the same credit as Cowher for winning the Super Bowl, but Tomlin did it faster.

    Tomlin is a player's coach, and the Steelers love to play for him. He is considered the best young coach in the NFL and is talked about with coaches that have a lot more experience than he does, such as Bill Belichick and Andy Reid.

    As coordinators go, no one can question the resume of Dick LeBeau. The defense has not finished outside of the NFL's top 10 over the last eight years and finished first in total defense in 2011, 2008, 2007 and 2004.

    LeBeau also led the Steelers defense in 2010 (second), 2009 (fifth), 2006 (ninth) and 2005 (fourth).

    For that reason alone, there is no reason to believe that the Steelers defense is going to be called any differently than it has been or that the Steelers defense is going to be weaker in 2012.

    Yes, I will address the "old" allegations, but this slide is about coaches.

    Speaking of coaches, the Steelers parted ways with Bruce Arians and hired Todd Haley to take his place. Some people, like Shaun King, believe that this is going to hurt the Steelers. I beg to differ.

    Bruce Arians was able to help the Steelers move the ball, but when it came time for situational play-calling, that is where Arians hurt the Steelers the most.

    In 2011, the Steelers total offense was rated 12th in the NFL—not bad but could have been much better.

    Since Arians took over the Steelers offense in 2007, they have finished 17th (2007), 22nd (2008), seventh (2009) and 14th (2010).

    In 2006, the Steelers finished seventh in the NFL.

    The play-calling of Bruce Arians is so amazingly predictable that the Steelers were horrible in obvious passing situations and obvious rushing situations because it was so easy for defensive coordinators to know how to stop the Steelers attack.

    The Steelers finished 23rd in the NFL in third-down percentage, converting on 68 of 192 attempts.

    The biggest obstacles that the Steelers have are to learn the new terminology of Todd Haley and how to execute the plays as Haley calls them.

    Considering that the Carolina Panthers of 2011 started a rookie QB with a new offensive system and rose from 32nd place in 2010 to seventh in 2011, I think an elite QB like Ben Roethlisberger with an entire offseason to work with Haley will do as good as a rookie with no offseason who never played a down in the NFL.

Quarterback

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    The most important position on any NFL field is the quarterback position. A great QB can take a poor team and make them playoff-caliber. Don't believe me? Look at the Colts last year without Peyton Manning.

    Roethlisberger is entering the prime of his career. At 30 years old, Big Ben has already won the AFC Championship three times, he is a two-time Super Bowl champion and a two-time Pro Bowl nominee.

    Having an elite field general like Ben Roethlisberger gives the Steelers an advantage over most of the other teams in the AFC. Only Tom Brady of the Patriots has done more in his career than Ben Roethlisberger, and Brady has been in the league four years longer.

    If Ben were to get injured, the Steelers have two capable backups in Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich.

    Though no one would want to replace Roethlisberger with either Batch or Leftwich, the Steelers have two solid backups with Super Bowl and starting experience to look to if Big Ben gets injured.

    There are not too many teams in the NFL with QB depth like the Steelers.

Running Back

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    Though many people point to the injury of Rashard Mendenhall as one of the reasons the 2012 Steelers will struggle, they are not looking at the team as a whole.

    With Todd Haley calling the plays this year, the Steelers will likely be shifting to a running back by committee.

    Players like Redman, Dwyer and Mendenhall will make up the power part of the rushing game. They will have Chris Rainey and Baron Batch as the quick backs for the edge rushes and swing/screen passes.

    If he wasn't injured, the Steelers simply would have given the carries received by Redman and Jonathan Dwyer to Mendenhall, but Mendenhall would not have been featured any more than Redman is going to be this year.

    With Haley, the Steelers have also moved David Johnson from the tight end position to the fullback position.

    Though some that don't understand the game of football would not realize, there is a big difference between being a fullback who is actually a fullback and a tight end who is playing the fullback position.

    No longer will Johnson be sitting in on the tight end meetings or practicing catches and route running. Now, he will be able to devote 100 percent of his time learning how to actually play the fullback position.

    Yes, I would have preferred that the Steelers signed a true fullback, but with the time and coaching, Johnson will still be better at the position than he has ever been and the Steelers will actually have an improved running game because of it.

Wide Receiver

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    There are two reasons that people outside of the Steelers organization say that the Steelers receiving corp is going to suffer in 2012.

    For starters, they say that the retirement of Hines Ward is going to hurt because there is no veteran leadership. While it did hurt to lose Ward, Jerricho Cotchery has stepped in and will be the veteran leader who helps the young Steelers receivers get better.

    Losing a player like Ward will hurt any team, but the loss of Ward will not be reflected in the stat sheet or in wins or losses.

    Ward had career lows in many offensive categories—including yards, receptions and touchdowns. The Steelers made a concerted effort to get Ward to the 1,000-reception mark and, in doing so, took many plays away from players such as Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace.

    It was the right thing to do at that time, but now that the Steelers are no longer obligated to give Ward looks that would have done better going to other players, the offense will most likely be more lethal.

    The other thing people point to is the "Cloud of Mike Wallace."

    Look, Mike Wallace is not known for his amazing hands, and he certainly isn't known for his amazing route running. Wallace is simply the fastest man in the NFL. His strength is his amazing ability to run the length of the field in less time than anyone else.

    Wallace is the home-run hitter—the deep threat. That isn't learned. Regardless of the playbook (that Wallace does in fact have), the route that he is the most dangerous at is the fly route. As long as Wallace can run that from the first day of the season, he is doing his job.

    Being away from the Steelers may have actually been a benefit because there was not the risk of injury to Wallace which may have existed if he was at these unimportant (for him) practices.

Tight End

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    Heath Miller is one of the best tight ends in the NFL.

    No, he is not the best blocker, but having to play more of a blocker's role, Miller was never able to get the receptions that he could have because the Steelers offensive line was, well, so offensive.

    Miller is now going to be able to play more of the passing game, and though he is never going to be considered the best catching tight end, he is most likely going to have one of his best years ever.

    The Steelers also made one free-agent addition to their team this year, signing Leonard Pope, formerly of the Kansas City Chiefs.

    Not only does Pope give the Steelers a true red-zone target, but he has played most of his career for Todd Haley and knows the plays and system, which should allow him to be a quality contributor from the beginning.

    Now that the Steelers have two true threats at the tight end position, they can both run and throw out of the "big" formations on short-yardage downs and in the red zone.

Offensive Line

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    Anyone that has watched the Steelers on a regular basis in the last five years has seen that this has been the weakest line on the entire team. The Steelers obviously understand this, and over the last three years, they have built their offensive line to be one of the best in years to come.

    It started with Maurkice Pouncey, who was their first-round selection in 2010. In his first two years, Pouncey has been nominated to the Pro Bowl in both seasons and looks to be the next in a long line of Steelers centers who have been considered the best in the game.

    In 2011, the Steelers spent their second-round pick on Marcus Gilbert, a former Gators teammate of Pouncey. Though, to date, he does not have the impressive resume of Pouncey, Gilbert looks to be more than adequate at handling the right tackle position in years to come.

    With their first- and second-round picks of the 2012 NFL draft, the Steelers had two players fall to them who they never should have had the chance to draft.

    David DeCastro was considered by many to be the most NFL-ready player in the draft and the second-best prospect to Matt Kalil, who was selected fourth overall by the Minnesota Vikings.

    DeCastro played in a pro-type offense in college and should not only be able to start this year but could become one of the best guards in the NFL over the next decade.

    No one expected DeCastro to fall to the Steelers at the 24th pick, but needs of other teams forced DeCastro to fall on the draft boards. The Steelers, who were rumored to have a deal in place to trade up with the Jets to select DeCastro (per ESPN), got him without giving up any additional picks.

    Then, in the second round, the Steelers selected a player that most mock drafts had them taking in the first round, Mike Adams out of Ohio State.

    Adam fell because he tested positive at the scouting combine for marijuana use, and the Steelers even took him off their draft board. According to ProFootballTalk.com, it was Adams, a lifelong Steelers fan, who came to the Steelers asking for another chance, saying he was willing to do whatever the Steelers asked of him for a chance to be on the team.

    Pittsburgh gave him that chance and stole a true starting left tackle in the second round.

    The other player in this group is Willie Colon. Colon is known as a player who has missed most of the last two years with various injuries and a player the Steelers are counting on to move inside and take over the guard position that was left empty due to the release of Chris Kemoeatu.

    Some people think Colon may have a hard time moving inside, but what they don't realize is that Colon was actually drafted as a guard and had to move outside because the Steelers didn't have anyone that could play the tackle position.

    Colon was never amazing at tackle but was good enough to be a constant starter in Pittsburgh for most of his pre-injury career.

    If Colon can stay healthy, then the sky is the limit for this offensive line.

Defensive Line

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    The 3-4 defense is predicated on the ability of the defensive line to tie up offensive linemen, so that the linebackers can make plays. That is how it works in Pittsburgh.

    The "old" defensive line that people were so quick to point to in 2011 was Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel and Casey Hampton—all players in their mid-30s and on the downside of their careers.

    Ziggy Hood was selected by the Steelers with their first pick of the 2009 NFL draft. In the three years Hood was not a starter, he was taught the game by Aaron Smith—possibly the best 3-4 defensive end that ever played the game.

    Smith did such a good job with Hood that when Smith was again lost for the season last year, Hood stepped in and played as good, if not better, than anyone thought he could. Smith has retired, and Hood will start at left defensive end—the spot vacated with the retirement of Smith.

    Brett Keisel is still the old man on the line, but his eventual replacement, Cameron Heyward, was selected in the first round of the 2011 NFL draft. Like Hood, Heyward has learned from not only Smith but Keisel as well. Though Heyward will not be called on to be a starter, he still provides depth on the line and will eventually push Keisel into retirement.

    On the inside of the line, the Steelers lost key backup Chris Hoke to retirement. Hoke was a great backup, but a back injury ended his career.

    Hoke was replaced by Steve McLendon, who did an above-average job at replacing Hampton when he was injured, and McLendon will have the ability to push for the starting position until Hampton can return from his ACL injury suffered in January.

    In the fourth round, the Steelers also selected Alameda Ta'amu to be the eventual replacement for Casey Hampton.

    Ta'amu, like Mike Adams, was projected to be drafted in the second or third round of the draft. When he fell to the fourth round, the Steelers traded up to get him and got what may one day be considered the steal of the draft.

    Unlike many of the other defensive positions on the Steelers, where rookies don't get much playing time based on the complexities of the defense, the defensive line has the job of tying up offensive linemen, and that is something that Ta'amu will be able to do from the beginning of the season.

    So, as "old" as this line has been, they really are a young group heading into 2012.

Linebackers

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    The Steelers have always been known as having great linebackers, and this year is going to be no different.

    On the outside, the Steelers have James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. Both players have been to multiple Pro Bowls, and Harrison has won the Defensive Player of the Year.

    Yes, Harrison is getting older, but in 2012, he is likely going to be as dominant as he has ever been. Injuries hurt his 2011 campaign, as he missed a total of four games to injury and another due to suspension for a questionable late hit to the BrownsColt McCoy.

    Woodley also had the injury bug bite him in 2011, missing six games with a hamstring injury.

    Combined, Woodley and Harrison missed a total of 11 games, while still combining for 18 sacks on the season.

    On the inside of the linebacking corps, the Steelers have Larry Foote, who will replace the old and slow James Farrior. As great as Farrior had been for the Steelers, he was a liability against the pass over the last two seasons.

    It was so bad that the Steelers were forced to keep Lawrence Timmons to play against the pass and leave Farrior to do the blitzing.

    This caused two problems. Opposing teams knew who was going to be blitzing, so it was more easily picked up, and Timmons was not able to rush the passer, which he is actually better at than covering, but there was no option because of Farrior.

    Foote is not lightning quick either, but in obvious passing downs, the Steelers will be able to replace Foote with Sean Spence, their third-round selection out of Miami.

    Spence is much faster than Foote, Farrior and, probably, Timmons. He also has the ability to cover almost anyone out of the backfield because of his speed.

    This will allow the Steelers the chance to either blitz Spence or Timmons and have the other one run with the tight end or running back, and it will make the Steelers linebackers even better than in previous years.

    When it comes to depth, the Steelers still have Jason Worilds on the outside and Stevenson Sylvester on the inside. Both players could become solid contributors for the Steelers in the future and may push for playing time in 2012.

Secondary

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    In 2011, the Steelers had the NFL's top-rated defense against the pass. Because Tim Tebow had a career game against the Steelers in the 2011 playoffs, everyone thinks that the Steelers secondary is in a ton of trouble going forward.

    None of those people must have actually watched the game because it is obvious to anyone that understands defense that the reason Tebow had such a great game had little to do with personnel, but it was the scheme that the Steelers were running that gave Tebow the game of his life.

    Troy Polamalu is still one of the best safeties in the NFL, and his ability to play the pass as well as the run keeps him head and shoulders above every other strong safety in the league.

    Ryan Clark, who could not play in the Denver playoff loss and will miss the first game of the 2012 season, is still solid against the run and decent against the pass.

    Ike Taylor, who is getting older, still has the ability to shut down many of the game's best receivers.

    But this is one of the other points people look at to say the Steelers defense is old. All of these players are on the wrong side of 30, and people without knowledge of the Steelers think that their ability was gone when they let William Gay leave for Arizona.

    The reality is William Gay was more of a liability than anything, and he was no longer needed because of the young men that are currently on the Steelers roster.

    It starts with Keenan Lewis, who will have the inside track to start opposite of Ike Taylor. Lewis is big and fast, like Taylor, but had not been able to take the starting position away from Gay.

    After Lewis, the Steelers have two players that they drafted in 2011 who will push Lewis for playing time, Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown.

    Like Ike Taylor, neither was selected high in the draft, but having learned from Dick LeBeau and Carnell Lake last year, both players will be pushing for playing time in 2012, and one or both will likely be starters come 2013.

    The thing about the Steelers corners that no one but Steelers fans seem to understand is that all of them are at least six-feet tall and all of them are fast. If the Steelers can keep all four of these corners healthy in 2012, they could again be one of the best defenses against the pass in the NFL.

    And in the pass-happy league that the NFL is turning into, having four quality corners is more than most teams could ask for.

Conclusion

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    Looking at the 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers, people that don't know or understand the Steelers think this is going to be a down year.

    They believe that the Steelers are in "rebuild" mode, and that they have to be down at some point.

    This is a mix between people that don't like the Steelers hoping that they have a bad season and people that don't understand the Steelers not realizing that the Steelers don't rebuild—they reload.

    Over the last few years, the Steelers have done an amazing job at preparing for the future and drafting players before they were needed, so when the time comes, they can step in and continue the Steelers traditions.

    My prediction is that the Steelers finish no worse than 12-4. They will win the AFC North, earn a playoff bye week and make it to at least the AFC Championship game.

    I do believe that this Pittsburgh Steelers team has the tools and the ability to go all the way to the Super Bowl and hoist an NFL-leading seventh Lombardi Trophy.