5 Areas That Must Improve for the Pittsburgh Steelers to Be Contenders

Chris GazzeCorrespondent IJune 26, 2012

5 Areas That Must Improve for the Pittsburgh Steelers to Be Contenders

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    Most years, a 12-4 record would be good enough for a division title and a deep playoff run, but that was not the case for the Pittsburgh Steelers last season.

    Despite their incredible record, the Steelers failed to win the AFC North after losing to the Baltimore Ravens twice during the regular season.

    The result was a fifth seed in the AFC and a first-round exit against the Denver Broncos in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs.

    The lackluster finish to the season meant changes for the Steelers and those changes came in a big way.

    Pittsburgh allowed offensive coordinator Bruce Arians to leave and parted ways with a number of players including Hines Ward, Aaron Smith, James Farrior, Chris Kemoeatu and William Gay.

    That does not mean the Steelers were not aggressive in upgrading the team. While they were not big players in free agency, the Steelers brought in Todd Haley to run the offense and drafted three linemen (two offensive, one defensive) in the first four rounds of the draft.

    These additions should go a long way in helping the Steelers get even better in 2012. With training camp less than a month away, here are five areas in which the Steelers must improve if they want to be Super Bowl contenders.

Improved Offensive Line Play

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    When the franchise quarterback, who just turned 30, has been the most-sacked quarterback since 2006, it is time to get him some help. The Steelers did in a big way.

    While Roethlisberger, who has only been sacked fewer than 40 times in a season once since 2006, needs to tweak his style of play, the upgraded line blocking for him should help.

    Gone are the days of undrafted free agents starting on the line as the Steelers will have at least two first-round picks and a a second-round pick starting, potentially a third if Mike Adams wins the job.

    David DeCastro fell to the Steelers in the first round and they quickly pounced on him. He should be the starter at right guard for the opening week of the season and along with a healthy Maurkice Pouncey at center and Willie Colon at left guard, the Steelers should have a very powerful interior (h/t Ray Fittipaldo, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette).

    Marcus Gilbert, last year's second-round selection, will start at left or right tackle while Adams could win one of those jobs as well. If not, the Steelers could bring back Max Starks, but he must prove that he is healthy and it is his goal to be ready for Week 1 (h/t Jamison Hensley, ESPN.com).

    Regardless of how the line plays out, it does appear to be better on paper and that is the key.

    The most important factor of an improved line is to keep Roethlisberger off of the ground and healthy. An improved line will also help a ground game that will rely on a number of running backs with the ACL injury to Rashard Mendenhall.

    Pittsburgh already has championship-level pieces at the skill positions and they now have potential to have a more than adequate offensive line to go along with them.

Increased Red-Zone Production

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    Pittsburgh's performance in the red zone last season was mediocre as they finished 17th in the league in red-zone touchdown efficiency.

    The 50.91 percent achieved by the Steelers was well-below the league-leading Detroit Lions at a 66.13 percentage rate. What is more alarming is the disparity between home and away.

    At home the Steelers touchdown efficiency in the red zone is a more respectable 58.06 percent compared to a 41.67 percent on the road. This is a part of the reason that the Steelers were 7-1 at home and 5-3 on the road.

    In terms of touchdowns, the Steelers scored 1.6 touchdowns per game in the red zone, well off the league-leader New England Patriots with 3.0 red-zone touchdowns per game. The New Orleans Saints (2.7) and the Green Bay Packers (2.6) round out the top three.

    It should be no surprise which teams lead the league in red-zone touchdowns, as they are lead by the elite quarterbacks: Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers.

    But Ben Roethlisberger is right up there and is a top-five quarterback in his own right and it is imperative that the Steelers must improve their red-zone production.

    Last season, one extra touchdown per game would have vaulted the Steelers from 21st in the league in scoring at 20.3 points per game to fifth in the league.

    It would also ease some of the burden on the defense, which was the top scoring defense in the league last year, as well as not depend so much on the deep ball to Mike Wallace.

    When it comes down to it, there is no reason they shouldn't get better

    Todd Haley will bring a new offensive philosophy, though he has not divulged his red-zone plans yet (h/t  Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette). There is already a plethora of weapons for Roethlisberger, including Heath Miller who is an excellent red-zone option and Isaac Redman who excels at power running.

    With the upgraded offensive line leading the way, Pittsburgh's red-zone production should be improved this season.

Increased Pass Rush

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    When the Steelers sack the quarterback, good things usually happen. At least that has been the case in their three most recent Super Bowl years.

    In 2005, 2008 and 2010, Pittsburgh finished in the top three in the NFL in sacks, including their most recent trip when they led the league during the regular season with 48 sacks.

    That number drastically fell last season to only 35 sacks, which ranked 17th in the league.

    The main reason behind the low number were the injuries to LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison. Neither player was able to play to their abilities due to their health and the team's production fell as a result.

    Both Woodley and Harrison finished the year with nine sacks. The next closest was Jason Worilds, who had three sacks, and he wasn't particularly much of a pass-rushing threat when given the opportunity.

    Possibly the most disappointing season came from Lawrence Timmons, the team's most athletic linebacker.

    While he was asked to drop into coverage more than any other linebacker on the team, Timmons did play some at outside linebacker where he was virtually ineffective as a pass-rusher. He only had two sacks on the year.

    Part of the reason the backups did not have strong performances (besides the talent level) was the defensive line play.

    Early in the year, Aaron Smith's age had shown and he was no longer effective. Ziggy Hood's presence helped, but his play still has room for improvement.

    Hood has put the time in to add muscle this offseason and this should benefit him on the field (h/t Mark Kaboly, triblive.com). Cameron Heyward, who flashed potential last year, should also have more of an impact this season.

    The most important key is the man plugging the middle.

    Casey Hampton no longer commanded the double-teams that we have become accustomed to seeing from him. Instead, it all too often took only a single lineman to block Hampton.

    The combination of Steve McLendon and rookie Alameda Ta'amu could be more effective than an aging Hampton.

    As long as the Steelers can control the line of scrimmage, and keep their linebackers healthy, the sack numbers should climb back to above 40 this year.

Generate More Turnovers

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    The lack of pass rush was a big reason for the lack of turnovers and this must change in 2012.

    As I previously wrote, the Steelers should generate more turnovers this season.

    It really shouldn't be that difficult as they only produced 15 turnovers (11 interceptions and five fumble recoveries) last season.

    An increased pass rush will go a long way into the team forcing more turnovers. They need to pressure the quarterback and force them into making mistakes. And the roster appears to be ready to do so.

    Woodley and Harrison are back to being healthy this year and they have a younger defensive line in place that has fresher legs than the older, less effective defensive line that started the season last year.

    Pittsburgh will also have some serious competition at cornerback with Keenan Lewis, Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen all competing to start at left cornerback.

    No matter who wins the job, the young trio should all see the field, and this will be the most talented group of corners that the Steelers have had in years.

    The Steelers will need to have a big year from Troy Polamalu as well. He had a down year in generating turnovers last season, and Pittsburgh needs to have a version closer to the 2010 Polamalu, who had seven interceptions.

    If the Steelers cannot generate more turnovers in 2012, it will be difficult for the defense to replicate its top scoring effort that it had last season.

Team Health

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    While the Steelers could improve in all of the previously mentioned areas, it might not happen if the Steelers cannot stay healthy.

    While "the standard is the standard" according to Mike Tomlin, Byron Leftwich cannot do what Roethlisberger can do and Ryan Mundy is not capable of replicating Polamalu's abilities. The list can go on and on.

    Injuries to Woodley and Harrison left the defense handicapped as Timmons moved outside, thus weakening two positions. James Farrior, Larry Foote and Stevenson Sylvester all missed games as well.

    Both Smith and Chris Hoke were placed on the injured reserve, weakening the depth on the defensive line. And at various points of the season the Steelers were without Allen, Brown and Bryant McFadden in their defensive backfield.

    In all, the Steelers defensive unit missed 77 games to injury (h/t Rebecca Rollett, behindthesteelcurtain.com).

    Things were not much better on offense, particularly the offensive line which was in shambles for what seemed like all season.

    Kemoeatu missed the start of the year due to an arthritic knee and the Steelers lost Willie Colon for the season in the opening week against Baltimore.

    Throughout the season, Doug Legurksy, Ramon Foster, Jonathan Scott and Max Starks all missed games or portions of games.

    The most significant injury on the line was Pouncey, who had an ankle injury that lingered for a large portion of the season and hindered his play.

    But the worst injury was to Roethlisberger's ankle. It really limited his ability to move around the pocket and in essence ended the Steelers chances in the playoffs.

    Pittsburgh has made it through OTAs and minicamp without any major injuries but will likely be without Mendenhall and Hampton to start the season.

    However, if the Steelers can stay relatively healthy, they have a roster in place that is ready to win a championship with the infusion of young players and rookies ready to make their mark on the team.

     

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