The Pittsburgh Steelers did not meet the standard in 2012. An 8-8 finish left them in third place in the AFC North and on the outside looking in on the playoffs.
But a down season does not change the expectations for the 2013 season. Championships are the standard in Pittsburgh, and that will be no exception this year.
Though not the ultimate goal, winning the AFC North is one way to guarantee a spot in the playoffs.
Pittsburgh had an opportunity to win the division title last season, but injuries, turnovers and failing to make the necessary plays at the critical junctures of the game were too much to overcome.
The Steelers didn’t necessarily have a problem overcoming their opponents—they had a problem overcoming themselves.
So what do the Steelers have to do in 2013 to get back in AFC North contention? Let's take a look.
Injuries may have been the single biggest contributor to the Steelers' struggles in 2012.
Troy Polamalu, LaMarr Woodley, Ike Taylor, Antonio Brown, David DeCastro, Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams were just some of the players who missed significant action due to injuries.
The defense was slowed without several of its best playmakers on the field—or at least on the field healthy. As a result, the pass rush lacked and opposing quarterbacks attacked the young, inexperienced players in the secondary.
But even so, the defense held tight and kept things close virtually every week.
The same could not be said regarding the injuries to the offense.
Without Brown, the offense lacked one of its best receivers. Adam’s absence led to a decline in the ground game. Then the Steelers lost Heath Miller at the end of the season with a torn ACL.
But none of these injuries were as significant as Roethlisberger’s.
Roethlisberger was a different quarterback after he injured his shoulder and ribs against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Prior to the injury, Roethlisberger was having one of the best seasons of his career.
He completed 66.1 percent of his passes for 2,287 yards and 17 touchdowns. During this time, he only threw four interceptions and was sacked just 18 times—including three sacks on the final drive against the Denver Broncos.
After the injury, Roethlisberger wasn’t nearly as sharp. He completed just 56.4 percent of his passes for 978 yards, nine touchdowns, four interceptions and was sacked 12 times.
More important than the stats, the Steelers were 6-3 with a healthy Roethlisberger compared to 1-2 without him in the lineup and 1-3 after he returned.
As long as Roethlisberger is healthy, the Steelers will be able to compete with any team in the league. They may not have one of the prolific offenses in the league, but they will be competitive each and every week.
Improve Production on the Ground
Injuries are an issue that is difficult to control. A balanced offensive attack is not.
While the passing game has been solid for the Steelers, the running game has been nothing short of pathetic.
Last season, the ground game was one of the worst in the league with 96.1 yards per game, and it only produced eight touchdowns.
That put the pressure on Roethlisberger to produce points through the air. While he did throw 26 touchdowns, it was not enough to make up for the lack of production on the ground.
Establishing a strong running attack will be important in 2013.
The Steelers face tough defenses in the AFC North and cannot be one-dimensional if they are going to compete.
Besides this, they are without their top scoring receiver from 2012—Mike Wallace—and may be without their top scoring tight end—Heath Miller—for a portion of the season.
Each player had eight touchdown receptions last year, and the Steelers will have to find a way to match this production.
Neither Antonio Brown nor Emmanuel Sanders have a history of putting up big touchdown numbers, and rookie Markus Wheaton is unproven.
The only way that the Steelers can realistically replace that type of production and improve upon it is to get more points on the ground.
Pittsburgh solidified its offensive line last season by drafting DeCastro and Adams. This year, it added a running back to carry the load.
Le’Veon Bell has the look of an every-down back. Not only is he a physical runner, but he has above-average hands out of the backfield and is a capable blocker.
Between the 20s, Bell’s overall effectiveness will help establish a play-action passing attack. Drawing defenders near the line will help free up the smaller receivers on the outside on downfield passes.
But where Bell is really going to make his money is inside the 20s.
The Steelers red-zone offense has struggled to put the ball in the end zone, but it has improved.
Pittsburgh scored touchdowns on 55.10 percent of its red-zone opportunities in 2012 compared to 50.91 percent of its attempts in 2011, via Team Rankings.
Bell’s efficiency running the ball near the end zone will be the key to the success of Pittsburgh’s offense.
The Steelers' current group of receivers are either easily knocked off the ball or lack the ability to get open in the end zone.
Let’s just say that the Steelers don’t have a savvy veteran like Hines Ward who could find the soft spot between defenders in the end zone.
A balanced attack will help solve that problem. No longer will the Steelers have to depend on the pass to move the ball and score.
It will not be a return to the “three yards and a cloud of dust” offense, but rather a balanced attack that will keep opposing defenses on their heels.
The AFC North may be known for its defenses, but the offenses are nothing to be ashamed of either.
There will always be arguments to Joe Flacco’s status as an elite quarterback, but none of that matters right now because he is a Super Bowl champion quarterback.
The Baltimore Ravens have quite a bit of skill on offense with Flacco, Ray Rice, Torrey Smith as well as a pair of talented tight ends that make them dangerous on offense.
They have nothing to sneeze at in Cincinnati either. The Bengals have put together a very talented group of offensive players.
Quarterback Andy Dalton has a ton of talent to throw to this season, including one of the premier receivers in the game, A.J. Green.
Besides green, Mohamed Sanu is an intriguing young receiver to keep an eye on as well as their two talented tight ends—Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert.
These two offenses ranked 10th and 12th in the league last season, respectively, and have potential to be even better this year.
In order to win the division, the Steelers must first and foremost defeat their divisional opponents.
Since they may have difficulty putting a lot of points on the board, the Steelers must once again depend on their defense to keep them in games. Therefore, they must find a way to stop these.
The Ravens and Bengals are going to continue to throw the football and attack downfield with their big-play threats at receiver. One way to stop this is to have an attacking defense.
Pittsburgh’s coaching staff has already made some changes and added talent to make this happen.
Cortez Allen will add a much-needed playmaker in the secondary.
Last season, he showed signs of having a nose for the football with two interceptions and three forced fumbles.
But it isn’t the cornerbacks who make the plays for the defense, it is the linebackers. That is why they drafted Jarvis Jones in the first round.
Jones may not start early, but you have to believe that he will get on the field sooner rather than later. He was one of the top pass-rushers in college football, and the Steelers are in desperate need of a pass rush.
A healthy Woodley will provide a huge boost, but using Jones on pass-rushing situations could make all of the difference.
To force turnovers in this league, defenses have to apply pressure and force the issue. This is an area in which the Steelers have failed in during recent years.
Jones has a history of getting to the quarterback and forcing turnovers. He won’t be another James Harrison in year one, but he can help as a situational rusher.
Besides Jones, Dick LeBeau must continue to adjust his defensive scheme to the players who are going to be on the field.
Having Woodley and Polamalu healthy will help diversify the playbook, and if Jason Worilds can put up 10 sacks, the Steelers “Blitzburgh” defense will be right where it needs to be.
The defense will have to keep the Steelers close as the offense continues to find itself. It may actually even need to steal a game or two for the Steelers.
But if all goes well, the Steelers will be in contention for the AFC North. They must get back to playing “Steelers football,” and if they can play their game for a full season, there is no doubt that they will be a contender in 2013.
All stats courtesy of NFL.com.