No Mike Wallace. Emmanuel Sanders could be torn away at any moment for just the cost of a front-loaded offer sheet the Pittsburgh Steelers cannot match. Heath Miller is recovering from a major knee injury. The run game is just a series of question marks. Like the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the offensive line is still a work in progress.
So what is Ben Roethlisberger to do?
Roethlisberger has been the Steelers' rock since becoming the starter in 2004, despite his many injuries. His ability to extend plays, take punishment and make seemingly impossible passes is a major reason—if not the reason—why the team has reached the Super Bowl three times with him under center.
But another reason for Roethlisberger's prolonged success has been the supporting cast around him. The Steelers have always been able to provide him with weapons—Plaxico Burress, Santonio Holmes, the aforementioned Miller and Wallace—but now, those weapons have dwindled.
There's still Antonio Brown, poised to take over Wallace's role as the team's No. 1 wideout, but it's a role that may or may not be well suited to him—only time will tell. Sanders is still around, but again, the threat is that his original-round tender worth just over $1 million this year will result in another team taking him away (the New England Patriots are top contenders to do so according to Field Yates of ESPN Boston; the deadline for any such offer is April 19).
Burress is back for one more season, but chances are the Steelers would prefer him in a reserve role, providing depth and a few strategic red-zone targets but not playing a full complement of snaps. They also have Jerricho Cotchery, who may very well be forced into more playing time depending on Miller's health and what happens with Sanders.
It's a more thrown-together group than Roethlisberger has had to deal with in the past. Though the offense has changed thanks to Todd Haley and his conservative, high-percentage, ball-control style, the most valuable component of that style—Miller—may not be ready to play until well into the season. Potentially not having that tight end on the field will do more to hurt Roethlisberger's game than the absence of Wallace.
There are two ways to mitigate the effects of Miller's injury and any attendant potential downturn in the Steelers' passing game that may come from it and from Wallace moving on in free agency—improve the run game and find someone in the draft who can contribute as a receiver immediately. Without doing both of these things (just one is not sufficient), then Roethlisberger is in very real danger of having a disappointing season, or at least a down first few weeks.
Currently, the Steelers have Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer and Baron Batch as their running backs. They lack someone shifty and elusive, which is something they'll need to find in the draft. That back, whoever he is—perhaps Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell or Wisconsin's Montee Ball—as well as the other three, also needs to start catching more passes, even though it's not a hallmark of the Haley offense, if only to find Roethlisberger another safety valve as Miller heals.
Of the Steelers' backs in 2012, Redman had the most catches with 19, while Dwyer had the most targets at 25. To make up for Miller, there needs to be more passes to running backs. Haley must embrace this concept, and Roethlisberger must execute it—something he's certainly capable of if we look back to the Bruce Arians days and all of the bubble screens he had Roethlisberger throw to Rashard Mendenhall.
If Sanders does in fact go elsewhere this month, then receiver becomes an even higher priority for the Steelers in the draft. But if he doesn't, that doesn't mean the Steelers can make the position an afterthought, one to address in the final three rounds. The only way to make sure that Brown can be successful in his expanded role is to pair him with someone who can catch defensive attention and prevent Brown from being constantly double- and triple-covered, which will do neither Roethlisberger nor the Steelers as a whole any favors.
The Steelers must take a receiver no later than Round 3; if Sanders leaves, then they would be quite smart to make the move in the first round. This isn't a matter of simply depth—in an ideal world, Burress and Cotchery would provide that—this is a matter of literally having enough dynamic receiving options for Roethlisberger.
In a time when the Steelers defense isn't what it used to be, meaning that it cannot be counted upon to carry the team in a time of offensive weakness, the offense is its motivating force. The circumstances that have put the Steelers in this current position can be dealt with successfully, but it will require aggressiveness.
When Week 1 begins, the Steelers will be without their receiving yardage leader and their target leader, respectively. This could be thought of as a crisis situation for Roethlisberger, and it cannot continue into the season if he's going to be successful.
Roethlisberger made a name for himself by making something out of nothing, for turning seemingly busted plays into first downs or six points. While the Steelers' offensive situation isn't quite in the "nothing" category, it's teetering ever closer, and Roethlisberger himself, alone, cannot fix it.
He can only be as good as the players around him—his receivers, his pass-protectors—and without enough of them, he'll never be able to reach the level he's been at in previous seasons, with touchdowns in the 20s and interceptions held close to 10. How well will Roethlisberger play this year? At this point, it appears to be up to everyone but himself.
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