While the Steelers have always bounced back the following year, there is some extra tension around the team this time.
With headlines of a locker room in disarray and unnamed player criticism of LaMarr Woodley, this could be a team on the brink of sustained mediocrity without some serious changes taking place. Not only do the Steelers have to get back on top of the AFC, but they have lost control of the AFC North to the Baltimore Ravens the last two seasons.
There is no key area of improvement to focus on for the team in 2013.
When everyone is healthy and playing at the level they are capable of, the Steelers continue to have a Super Bowl-caliber team. The problem has been the inability to get everyone playing well together.
The lack of team chemistry most likely is the direct result of the missing leadership the team has seen since parting ways with long-time veterans such as Hines Ward and James Farrior. For as much as Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu have led the way on their side of the ball, neither is imposing enough to take lead of this team in that manner.
From the players to the coaches to the front office, everyone in the Steelers’ organization must do a better job of being accountable for their mistakes and finding a way to correct them.
Offensive line: The broken record
It would be too easy to pick the offensive line as the weak link (again) that holds this team back.
Better play from the unit would give Roethlisberger more time to operate with his receivers, expose him to fewer hits, open up more holes for the running game and help the offense score more points. More points would mean fewer close games, which the Steelers have not been winning their share of, and likely more wins overall.
It really is that simple.
Singing the need for a better offensive line has been merely a broken record. The line has just not been good the last seven seasons, and that is with two head coaches, three offensive coordinators, three offensive line coaches, and countless different starting linemen.
At that point you can probably stop blaming schemes, and start putting the blame on the team’s inability to fill these positions with durable, legitimate starters.
Jack Bicknell Jr. will take over as the offensive line coach for the 2013 season.
Bicknell will have his work cut out for him, but at least the talent is there. At least allegedly so. The Steelers boast four linemen who are first or second-round draft picks: tackles Mike Adams, Marcus Gilbert, guard David DeCastro and center Maurkice Pouncey.
Yet with a series of injuries in 2012, the line never built any continuity.
The running game was a disaster outside of a three-game hot streak that preceded Roethlisberger’s injury, which ruined the passing game for the second half of the season.
Fortunately this is one problem that the Steelers hope they can solve internally in 2013. Gilbert will likely start at a tackle position, while DeCastro should be better after missing much of 2012 due to a preseason injury. He was shaky in his three starts, but that learning curve was really disrupted with the early injury.
Pouncey struggles to stay healthy as well and his reputation exceeds his talent, but at least that is one position with a clear starter. Adams will have to prove he belongs on the field, and even he was injured last season.
On multiple occasions the last two years the Steelers have come one injury away from having to do something drastic like put a tight end or defensive linemen into the game. The line has been stretched thin as it can go due to injuries and lack of depth, and it is about time the Steelers have a bit more luck in the health department.
But first and foremost, these young players must start playing better or the search will continue on to find their replacement. By the time the Steelers find a competent line, how old and capable will Roethlisberger even be?
That is the difficulty of building an NFL team.
With limited resources, you have to be lights out with your moves, or else by the time you fix one problem, another has opened up.
For example, trying to rebuild an offensive line versus adding youth to restore a defense is a dilemma the Steelers know all too well.
Defense: Stealing the ball is legal in the NFL
On paper the Steelers’ defense would appear to have few problems. Last season they allowed the fewest yards in the league, while in 2011 they allowed the fewest points.
But those kinds of team rankings can be misleading, and for the last two years, Dick LeBeau’s defense has failed to seal the deal more often than not.
Since 2011, the Steelers have allowed four game-winning touchdown drives of at least 80 yards, which is how many they allowed from 1990-2010 combined (21 seasons).
In 2012 the defense allowed a game-tying, go-ahead, or game-winning drive in seven of the 16 games.
Sure, they can hold the Thad Lewis-led Browns to 10 points and shut them out in the fourth quarter, but when faced with tougher competition (namely better QBs) the defense becomes a weakness rather than a strength.
While the limitations of LeBeau’s defense have existed since the 1980s, perhaps the most troubling part is the recent lack of takeaways. In fact it has been a historically bad performance in that department.
Thanks to four turnovers by the Browns in Week 17, the Steelers finished in a second-place tie for the fewest takeaways in a two-year span in NFL history. We actually had three current teams (Colts and Dolphins as well) in the running.
Pittsburgh’s seven takeaways in the final two games of the season really helped them avoid the all-time worst stretch.
The Steelers like to measure themselves against rival Baltimore, who has also been known for great defense for so long. So what do the Steelers think when they see the Ravens come away with four interceptions of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in the playoffs, while the LeBeau-era Steelers have intercepted those two players a combined four times in 10 games?
Andy Dalton was the only quarterback who threw multiple interceptions against the Steelers in 2012, while players like Manning, Tony Romo and Robert Griffin III threw none. Griffin even had nearly a dozen of his passes dropped by Washington receivers, giving him a very deceptive stat line.
A lot of turnovers are the result of pressure, and that just was not there with the Steelers last year.
Sacks were down to 37 with no player having more than 6.0—James Harrison, who will be 35 and not interested in a hometown discount. Woodley battled injuries as well and only had 4.0 sacks in 13 games.
The pressure from the front seven was not finishing plays, which makes it hard for an overmatched secondary.
Ike Taylor has never been a big playmaker. He has played 153 games with 119 starts, but only has 14 interceptions, which is one of the lowest totals ever for a player with that much experience.
So much of the defense’s success was built around Troy Polamalu’s ability, but he again was riddled with injuries and played in only seven games. He will be 32 this season. Lawrence Timmons actually led the team in interceptions (3) and co-led in sacks (6.0) as the defense’s bright spot in 2012.
While some big turnovers doomed the Pittsburgh offense in a few games this season, the defense failed to deliver the same type of plays to help the offense. With LeBeau returning to run the same defense with many of the same players, it could be a repeat year in 2013.
Coaches: Every game matters
Mike Tomlin is entering his seventh season as head coach and is coming off a career-worst scoring differential of just 22 points in 2012. On his first year on the job, essentially taking over Bill Cowher’s team in 2007, the Steelers outscored their opponents by 124 points.
Games are getting tighter for Pittsburgh, thanks in large part to the way they have approached the “little games” on the schedule, especially in recent years. This falls hardest on the coach, as the Steelers rarely look prepared to take on the league’s lesser teams, thinking they can win by simply showing up.
Pedigree means little anymore in the NFL, and the Steelers have to treat every game as being very important.
Truthfully, they are.
In the last three years it was really one game that would have made the difference between being a playoff team and not.
For all teams, just getting into the tournament is what matters.
Few expected the Baltimore Ravens to go on such a run, but they did, and they even lost to these Steelers at home with Charlie Batch at quarterback.
There was no better example of this underachieving than the Week 10 game against Kansas City (1-7).
The Steelers were at home in prime time, and fell behind 10-0 to a team who had not held a single lead in regulation all season long at that point. It was embarrassing, and the second half was when Roethlisberger suffered his serious rib and aorta injury.
Scraping by the lowly Chiefs for a 16-13 overtime win should not meet the “standard” Tomlin is always talking about.
Had the Steelers taken care of business early against an inferior opponent, Roethlisberger may have never been trying to do something special on that fateful play, and the AFC North was very much in sight for the Steelers.
The outcome of the 2012 NFL season may have shifted greatly on that one play given what Baltimore went on to do.
Speaking of that game, offensive coordinator Todd Haley is the other member of the coaching staff that will be under much scrutiny this season.
He frankly took the air out of the ball and limited much of the playmaking ability of Roethlisberger and his fast receivers in 2012. Even with the emphasis on shorter passes, Roethlisberger still suffered the most career threatening injury of his career.
It just goes to show how random injuries can be, and while limiting the hits on Roethlisberger is wise, you still have to make sure the offense is maximizing its talent, and Haley did not do that in year one under his control.
The relationship between coordinator and quarterback must get better, and there has to be some middle ground reached on the style of the offense. Going into his 10th season, Roethlisberger’s not going to get dramatically better, but his past level of play has been good enough for the Steelers to have success.
Haley must not limit what Roethlisberger can do and force the offense to be historically efficient on third downs to sustain success. Bigger plays have to be generated, and whether that is on designed, vertical throws or playground theatrics, the offense needs more “chunk” plays in 2013.
Kevin Colbert: Where have all the good drafts gone?
For a team who annually does little in free agency, the draft is extra important for the Steelers.
Yet, general manager Kevin Colbert has been getting very little out of his recent draft classes, which is exactly why the Steelers have struggled with depth and replacing starters.
In the past the Steelers did a great job of not overpaying free agents, because they had the next guy ready to step up and take his place. That has not been happening lately, which is why the defense has continued to age without a lot of young players ready to take over.
Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward are first-round picks, but it is hard to say they have proven that value yet. The team continues to start Brett Keisel (35 in September), a former seventh-round pick from 2002, which is also the last time Colbert hit on a seventh-round pick.
One could spend a lot of time on just the Steelers’ draft failures, but the aforementioned offensive line was ignored in the draft for years while the Steelers signed players no one wanted (Jonathan Scott), players on their last legs (Flozell Adams), and then resigned players to absurd contracts they did not deserve like Chris Kemoeatu and Willie Colon.
While the offensive line has been targeted in recent drafts, the on-field results have not delivered yet.
Getting a competent, younger backup QB has also been a big roadblock for Colbert and the Steelers as Roethlisberger is always going to miss some time.
The 2012 draft in general had a disastrous first year for the Steelers. If it was not the injuries to the linemen, it was Sean Spence (third-round linebacker) suffering a gruesome knee injury in the preseason.
If not injury, then it was off-field problems.
Fourth-round pick Alameda Ta’amu had himself a night on the town (DUI), and was released by the team without ever playing a down. He is still listed on the roster, but do not hold your hopes up for him to develop.
Running back Chris Rainey was an interesting prospect taken in the fifth round. Probably underutilized by Haley, he will not be utilized at all in 2013 after the team released him in January following a battery charge involving his girlfriend. More wasted potential.
Seventh-round picks David Paulson (tight end) and Kelvin Beachum (tackle) saw some playing time, but these are backups at best going forward. It was not a productive rookie class at all, but at least DeCastro, Adams and Spence should have health on their side moving forward.
Drafting guys who turned out to have character issues is not exclusively a 2012 problem either. Santonio Holmes was a great pick in 2006, a Super Bowl MVP, but he was gone one year after that magical game-winning touchdown because of his off-field drama.
Mike Wallace was a great pick in the third round to help replace Holmes, but he turned out to grub for money despite not being a true No. 1 wide receiver, and he could possibly be gone this offseason. The Steelers are taking a look at Steve Breaston who had success under Haley before.
hat would be a low-key free-agent signing; the kind the Steelers love.
Joining Wallace on the way out will probably be Rashard Mendenhall, a disappointment not quite to the level of Limas Sweed from the same 2008 draft class, who has had his own share of negative headlines.
The Steelers are badly in need of a draft that can produce at least two long-time starters and two solid depth guys that can contribute for years to come.
They had this in the past. They have not had it lately.
Paying such a veteran team has resulted in the Steelers being up against the salary cap the past two years, yet they have no playoff wins to show for it. The mistakes in team building, specifically in the draft, have limited the depth the Steelers have to overcome injuries, hence the disappointment of an 8-8 season.
This team can get back to the playoffs this year, but not if everyone involved does not push themselves to a higher standard. Anyone can set high expectations for themselves. It still takes hard work and effort to deliver on them.
Enough talk from the Steelers. It is time for work.
Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.