One of the NFL’s most treasured franchises may find itself in some hot water following the 2012 campaign.
As the Pittsburgh Steelers address the issues they have this offseason heading into the draft, they will have quite a long list to check off.
Injuries to the backfield and a dismal performance by the offensive line resulted in a very disappointing ground game in 2012.
The defense was again strong, despite a shaky start. The veteran secondary excelled as the Steelers' pass defense finished first in the NFL.
Still, defense can’t win games alone, which is why the fate of the 2012 season fell into the hands of star quarterback Ben Roesthlisberger.
The 30-year-old signal-caller led the NFL's 14th-best passing attack (236.7 yards per game)—a fairly solid ranking given Roethlisberger’s injury problems during the middle of the season.
He did have the weapons to be successful. Emmanuel Sanders, Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace headed an effective receiver group, while Heath Miller stood out as one the best tight ends in the NFL. Then again, this group also had its problems this season: Wallace finished a contract year with a career-high number of drops, and Brown's production suffered in comparison to his 2011 season.
Sanders saw an increase in production but only because he saw an increase in playing time.
Will Steelers make the playoffs next year?
Miller was enjoying a fruitful year before undergoing surgery following a knee injury against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 16.
Wallace will be leaving. Brown will need to fix his struggles in order to become a true No. 1 receiving threat. And Roethlisberger will need to decide whom to trust the most with a suddenly depleted group of receivers.
There’s also the issue of Roethlisberger's health. Like it or not, he can’t allow himself to take such a pounding as he has done so far in his career. The big quarterback suffered an SC joint sprain along with rib damage against the Kansas City Chiefs midway through the season.
In his absence, the Steelers realized just how much they need the veteran QB, and they may very well take some extra measures in the NFL draft to get him some reliable offensive linemen.
Pittsburgh will lose several other important veterans. In fact, the Steelers are in danger of losing nearly all of their free agents this offseason. As the team is far above their salary cap, Pittsburgh's only options are either salary cuts or player cuts.
Roethlisberger could see a possible change in his $11.6 million dollar contract, although the likeliness of that isn’t clear. Troy Polamalu may get a new contract that includes a salary cut. Maybe more. Linebacker James Harrison could be cut.
Other veterans who could potentially be cut include running back Rashard Mendenhall, nose tackle Casey Hampton, guard Willie Colon and linebacker Larry Foote.
Releasing these players could leave an opening for either the Baltimore Ravens to return as AFC North champions or the Cincinnati Bengals to challenge for the crown.
The Steelers face an extensive rebuilding project over the next few years just to get back to Super Bowl contention. And Pittsburgh fans may have to realize that a rebuilding process, when done right, can take time.