Biggest Keys to Pittsburgh Steelers' Return to Glory

Joshua AxelrodCorrespondent IMay 21, 2013

Biggest Keys to Pittsburgh Steelers' Return to Glory

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    There are a few big things the Pittsburgh Steelers need to make sure happen in order to become Super Bowl contenders again.

    The Steelers organization and its fans have come to expect nothing less than a Super Bowl ring every season. It is an unreasonable expectation, but it is one born out of Pittsburgh’s history of winning and general consistency in producing a quality football team.

    That is why a conversation about Steelers glory cannot be about anything except lifting the Lombardi Trophy.

    Last season was anything but glorious for the Steelers. They finished the season with a dismal 8-8 record and somehow managed to lose to both the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals in the same season. That is just unacceptable.

    The season before that, the 12-4 Steelers were bounced from the playoffs in the first round by a quarterback who might end up in the Arena Football League. Something is clearly amiss in the land of black and gold.

    To be fair, the Steelers are less than a decade removed from three Super Bowl appearances and two wins. But if the Steelers want to become the league standard again, they need to do everything in their power to make sure certain things fall into place.

    Glory is certainly in Pittsburgh’s reach. They just need to reach out and grab it before it is too late.

Keep Ben Roethlisberger Happy and Healthy

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    Big Ben is by far the most important player on the Steelers’ roster. His ability to lead Pittsburgh’s offense and constantly create something out of nothing is not in question.

    What the Steelers need to worry about is his body and tensions boiling between him and offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Both of those things have the potential to derail a return to form.

    Roethlisberger has accumulated a ludicrous number of injuries since he entered the league in 2004 thanks to playing behind a revolving door of mediocre offensive linemen and his tendency to hold the ball for too long.

    He missed time last season with shoulder and rib injuries, which crippled the Steelers’ offense. Pittsburgh needs Roethlisberger healthy to be a Super Bowl contender. Bruce Gradkowski and Landry Jones will not cut it.

    Of course, a healthy Roethlisberger is useless if he cannot get along with his coaches. He was vocal about his disagreement with Haley’s play-calling. The two eventually reconciled, but they clearly have their differences.

    Haley and Roethlisberger better be on the same page entering the 2013 season. If they are not, there is a solid chance that the Steelers will miss the playoffs for the second year in a row.

A Running Back Must Emerge

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    Pittsburgh’s running back situation was just depressing last year. When Byron Leftwich has the team’s second longest rush of the season, you know there is a problem.

    Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman can both get the job done, but neither has what it takes to be a feature back. It looked like Rashard Mendenhall could be that guy for a while, but the Steelers lost faith in him after he stopped producing and showed a bad attitude as his role on the team diminished.

    One of Pittsburgh’s running backs has to step up in 2013. A one-dimensional Steelers offense that puts too much pressure on Roethlisberger cannot get to a Super Bowl.

    Maybe it will be Dwyer or Redman emerging as a legitimate star in the backfield. Or maybe rookie Le’Veon Bell will make an immediate splash in Pittsburgh’s offense.

    The Steelers are not looking for anyone to become the next Jerome Bettis. Heck, they do not even need a new Willie Parker. What the Steelers must find is a back who can make Roethlisberger’s life easier.

    That is not too much to ask for, right?

Antonio Brown Must Mature

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    The man is a speedy, electric player with the potential to ably replace Mike Wallace as the Steelers’ best receiving option. He has a little growing he needs to do first though before he can become elite.

    Brown graduated from being just a special teams threat to a full-time receiver last season and proved he was more than up to the task. Unfortunately, he keeps getting in his own way.

    For example, the NFL fined Brown $10,000 for running backward into the end zone on a punt return. That same play got him a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and a lecture from head coach Mike Tomlin.

    Brown must keep up his high level of play while learning how to control his occasionally childish tendencies. He needs to set an example for an overall weak receiving corps.

    Maybe veterans like Heath Miller and Jerricho Cotchery can teach the young man some manners. As long as he does not let Plaxico Burress take him under his wing, Brown should be fine.

Turnovers, Turnovers, Turnovers

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    Pittsburgh’s defense was as stout as ever last season, but the one thing it did not do was create turnovers.

    The Steelers ended last season with a turnover differential of -10, which put them at a tie with the Miami Dolphins for the 11th worst rating in the AFC. They only mustered 10 interceptions and 10 recovered fumbles all season.

    This severe lack of turnovers is a product of an ineffective pass rush and an old, inconsistent secondary. A linebacker should never lead a team in interceptions.

    That pass rush should be much improved with the addition of rookie Jarvis Jones and subtraction of aging star James Harrison. A healthy LaMarr Woodley and the defensive terror that is Lawrence Timmons should help fix this problem.

    The secondary is a different animal. Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu have remained effective, though they have both noticeably lost a step or two. Ike Taylor is a shutdown cornerback, but he has no one of note playing across for him.

    The Steelers defense needs to become a turnover machine in order to earn the title of Steel Curtain again. The pass rush should hold up its end of the deal, but the secondary may not. That could be a major roadblock in Pittsburgh’s quest to return to contender status.

No More Distractions or Disappointments

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    The Steelers had too many negative storylines following them around last year. It is incredibly difficult for a team to get that much bad press and stay a Super Bowl favorite.

    Between Wallace’s obvious desire to get out of town, Roethlisberger’s feud with Haley and Mendenhall’s meltdown, it is no wonder the Steelers could not come together as a cohesive unit last year.

    The icing on the cake was when the Steelers released special teams spark Chris Rainey in January after he was charged with battery. It ended the season on an appropriately sour note.

    Pittsburgh is no stranger to enduring bad publicity. Just look at how the franchise has bounced back after Roethlisberger’s sexual-assault allegations.

    But last season’s distractions clearly weighed down the Steelers. They need to stay focused and out of the news. Otherwise, Pittsburgh will be stuck on Sixburgh for a long time.