As has been the case several times in recent Pittsburgh Steelers history, consecutive playoff seasons gave way to a marginal campaign in 2012 that saw the Steelers post an 8-8 record, missing out on the playoffs behind the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North.
General manager Kevin Colbert promised changes in the Steel City this offseason, and he certainly delivered. Mike Wallace was left to walk in free agency (inking a massive contract with the Miami Dolphins), and oft-injured linebacker James Harrison will be facing his former team at least twice this year in the black and orange of Cincinnati.
Longtime nose tackle Casey Hampton remains without a contract—due in part to Pittsburgh’s lack of cap room and in part because of injury issues. And while Rashard Mendenhall had a few very productive seasons in Pittsburgh, his injury problems and poor attitude necessitated a change as well. He signed a one-year contract with the Arizona Cardinals to play for former Steelers offensive coordinator and new Arizona head coach Bruce Arians.
But this offseason wasn’t all about cleaning house and starting fresh.
The Steelers still have a solid core in place for the 2013 season, including linebackers Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley, wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown and two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback Ben Roethlisberger—to name just a handful.
Colbert also made his mark as he so often does with a strong 2013 draft class that features multiple starting-caliber players, including first-round linebacker Jarvis Jones and second-round running back Le’Veon Bell. Pittsburgh isn’t known for rushing its rookies into starting roles, but both players could be in line to see substantial playing time this season.
The 2013 season holds a lot of question marks for the six-time Super Bowl winners, though.
Todd Haley took the reins of the offense last season with underwhelming results. While injuries to Roethlisberger and general sloppy play from the likes of Mendenhall and Wallace didn’t help matters, it was obvious the Steelers' offense would need more time to adjust to Haley’s system.
But with a year of experience under their belt, the Steelers will be in much better position to take another run at the Super Bowl champion Ravens in the AFC North. Provided Roethlisberger can stay healthy—and Bell stabilizes a running game that finished 26th in the league last season—there’s no reason Pittsburgh can’t be a dominant force in the AFC again this season.
Dick LeBeau is one of the best defensive coordinators in the history of the league, and he continues to churn out top-three units year in and year out. This season should be no different, but a few fresh faces will have to step up.
2009 third-round cornerback Keenan Lewis had a tremendous 2012 campaign after earning the starting role to begin the season. However, much like with Wallace and Hampton, salary cap restrictions forced the Steelers to allow their best corner to walk in free agency. He signed a five-year, $26 million contract with the New Orleans Saints in March.
Lewis’ departure proves LeBeau has faith in 2011 fourth-rounder Cortez Allen and third-rounder Curtis Brown to fill his shoes, but Colbert also orchestrated the return of former Steelers corner William Gay to aid in those efforts. Allen is a favorite to get the nod across from Ike Taylor, but Brown and Gay should still play a sizeable role this season, especially in nickel and dime packages.
Pittsburgh may not have experienced its usual success last season, but Mike Tomlin will have his squad prepared to turn things around in 2013. Here, we’ll take a closer look at some of these storylines and break down several key position battles to watch this offseason.