As the Pittsburgh Steelers head toward their offseason strapped with salary cap problems, old players in key roster spots and other maladies that will force them to get creative and make some difficult choices for 2013, several questions confront Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and the team’s front office.
As Pittsburgh prepares to gear up for what it certainly hopes is a run at a seventh Lombardi Trophy, here are seven questions that the team must answer along the way.
It’s hard to trust what Todd Haley says after he didn’t deliver in his first season as offensive coordinator. The Steelers didn’t use a lot of deep passes or no-huddle offense. They tried harder than anyone expected to run the ball without much success.
Overall, it was a dismal season and a step backward for an offense that needed to take a step forward.
Part of the problem is that Pittsburgh employs one of the league’s strongest and best passers, some of the fastest receivers and some of the worst running backs, yet ran so often, particularly down the stretch, that it defied logic.
A good offensive coordinator builds his system around the pieces he has. Look at what Kyle Shanahan did with Robert Griffin III or what Mike McCoy did in Denver with Tim Tebow and then Peyton Manning in successive years.
Haley imposed his will on Pittsburgh’s offensive roster, and the results were disastrous.
In 2013, Haley and the front office must decide how they’re going to approach offense going forward. If they’re going to continue to lean heavily on the run, they must revamp the offensive line and the running back position so the attack generates success with consistency.
If they’re going to go with the personnel that are in place and pass the ball a lot, they’ll need to focus on replacing Mike Wallace, a sure bet to depart in free agency, and on finding running backs that can also go out for passes in the flat.
While the Pittsburgh Steelers may have once again possessed the league’s best defense statistically, their performance left much to be desired on the field and in the results column.
Turnovers weren’t forced, quarterbacks weren’t sacked, running backs weren’t bottled up—the list is almost endless.
This defense is the poster child for anyone who thinks that statistics lie badly. If defense wins championships, how does the league’s best defense generate a team with an 8-8 record?
The problem starts and ends with how poorly the front seven pressured quarterbacks in 2012. Health and age are part of the problem, but flawed scheme and predictability are also to blame.
To put it briefly, Dick LeBeau’s been largely figured out.
Now the question is whether or not he can get his unit back on track. Pressure will generate turnovers because quarterbacks under duress rarely make smart or even logical decisions with the football. They throw errant, erratic passes that defenders can pick off or they get the ball stripped away.
If LeBeau can alter the scheme to generate some new looks and confuse offensive linemen enough to get the jump on them, Pittsburgh will see an increase in turnovers and sacks and a further decrease in points.
For a unit that is stingy in that department already (some statistics don’t lie), that’s a very enticing thought.
Fans do not want to hear the word “rebuilding” attached to next season, but that might be exactly what it is for Pittsburgh in 2013.
Perhaps a more appropriate question here is: “Can the Steelers contend in 2013?”
While this flies in the face of competitive nature, it may be better if they do not. Sometimes, as in the last three seasons at Three Rivers Stadium (1998-2000), it’s better to be just outside contention for a year or two if it means that, in the long run, you’ll be competitive for a long time.
Another 8-8 or 7-9 season isn’t out of the question. There’s simply too many holes and too little space under the cap to fix everything.
The brutal truth is that the front office loaded up during the uncapped 2010 season for another run, handed out some big extensions around that same time and didn’t come away with another trophy.
Now the piper must be paid in the form of some tough choices to get and stay under the cap.
For that reason, expect Mike Wallace to go (which is a good thing, really), Keenan Lewis to likely also depart and for some hardship cuts like James Harrison.
Casey Hampton won’t be brought back because of the expense. Larry Foote could come back, but that money is better spent somewhere else.
The other problem for consistently good teams is the erosion of the roster that comes with 10 or more years drafting late in every round. The Steelers haven’t picked in the top half of the draft since 2004 (Ben Roethlisberger at 11th overall) and will be picking their highest since that season in 2013 (17th overall).
As for where to start the rebuilding of this proud franchise, the best bet is on defense, where the age issues are most prevalent. It’s time to start thinking about replacements for Harrison, Troy Polamalu, Brett Keisel, Ike Taylor and Ryan Clark. None of those players have more than five years of starting left in them barring some strange encounter with a fountain of youth.
Mike Wallace won’t sign with Pittsburgh this offseason for a combination of reasons. First among them is that a separation is mutually beneficial. Wallace has worn out his welcome with the fans and likely the players with his protracted holdout and his lackadaisical approach to his job during the year.
Mike Tomlin doesn’t tolerate lack of effort. Wallace didn’t put much effort into his 2012 season.
Emmanuel Sanders is a restricted free agent. Plaxico Burress is unrestricted.
Returning both to Pittsburgh is a key part of this offseason. Losing both would be devastating, particularly with Sanders, whose star is still on the rise.
Burress is important too, because he’s the missing ingredient. He’s tall, he makes tough catches in traffic and he’s good in the red zone.
Jerricho Cotchery was forgotten last year and could be let go if the team gets into trouble with the cap. That’s an easy cut as long as Burress comes back or someone equally as good at production in the slot can replace them.
Assuming Keenan Lewis leaves for a bigger-money contract somewhere else and doesn’t get tagged in Pittsburgh, the Steelers will have a bit of a void at the cornerback position for a second consecutive season.
Cortez Allen is the obvious next man up, but moving him out of the nickel makes that position, which can almost be considered a starting job given how often Pittsburgh uses it, questionable as well.
Curtis Brown still hasn’t done anything to make fans believe he’s the answer. His play improved down the stretch in 2012 as he got more time on the field, but he still doesn’t cover well, and he is a liability against bigger players in the middle.
The rest of the depth chart at the position is a mixture of “who’s that” and “not him again” players that inspire no confidence.
This would be a great time for Kevin Colbert to break tradition and take a corner in the first round. Dee Milliner will be hard to snag by the middle of the round, but it wouldn’t be terrible to trade up for him. If not him, Johnthan Banks from Mississippi State would fit nicely.
Either can slot behind Allen for a year and play in the nickel with Brown as a platoon. If Allen develops into the starter many expect him to become, Banks or Milliner will be a fine replacement for Ike Taylor in a few years.
The answer to this question needs to be yes, but that yes must be tempered by some sanity around what a veteran lineman brings to the table.
Willie Colon will hurt the team on or off the roster, but cutting him frees a roster spot. His injuries and lack of solid play make him a liability, but he’ll be one of the last cuts next fall as the team tries to drum up some trade value for him.
The free-agent market will be full of Pittsburgh players as Ramon Foster, Max Starks and Doug Legursky hit the open market.
While getting younger and advancing Mike Adams and Kelvin Beachum to starting roles is a good idea in that it gets them experience and progress in a season that already looks bleak, having a Starks or Foster around is a good idea as well.
Also, with Maurkice Pouncey prone to miss a game or two, Legursky’s presence as a safety net at center can’t be discounted.
Bringing back all three isn’t feasible. The best plan is to keep one of them (Foster being the best of the bunch at this point), draft a new backup center and draft a tackle late that can be developed.
This is the question that will answer most of the other questions. With the cap staying roughly the same next season, Pittsburgh figures to be well over the mark without accounting for any free-agent additions or draft picks.
That means that Omar Khan and Kevin Colbert have to get to work on restructuring and cutting their way to freedom once again. This year, they’d be wise to really take a hatchet to the roster so that this won’t be an annual rite of passage.
Ben Roethlisberger is the easiest target for restructuring. This has become a yearly deal with him, and he seems to be okay with that.
Beyond him, it gets murky. James Harrison could be a casualty. Troy Polamalu could be released and re-signed at a lower contract number if he’d agree to that. It’s a risky move, but they need to bring down his salary.
Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley may need to restructure their deals as well.
Beyond those players, it’s a matter of letting guys go. Expect the team to bid farewell to most or all of its free agents and to replace them with draft picks and other less-expensive alternatives.
This will be a very rough year with the cap, but Pittsburgh can position itself well for the future if it takes one on the chin in 2013 to get out from under some of these heavy contracts. That’s what it will take to contend in 2014 and for another decade afterward.