What's New for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2013?
Turnover is a part of the NFL. Obviously, the degree of turnover and change on a team will vary greatly from franchise to franchise.
It seems that successful teams are such because they are consistent—no drastic changes and just small moves to critical pieces.
On the flip side of that, it seems that bad teams seem to turn over rosters, coaches and philosophies every couple of years. The problem is, it never really seems to work they way they want.
I mention all this because the Pittsburgh Steelers have become something of a contradiction this season. They are traditionally one of the most successful teams in the NFL year after year, but had more turnover and change than any time in recent memory.
So with that, let's take a look at what's new for the Pittsburgh Steelers for the 2013-14 NFL season.
New Starters on Defense
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No one should be shocked the Steelers let veterans leave via free agency rather than overpay for them. But when they let their best cornerback and outside linebacker leave in the same year, it's cause for concern.
Keenan Lewis was the best defensive back the Steelers had for a big chunk of the season in 2012. What he did with that was parlay it into a big, fat free agent contract with the New Orleans Saints.
James Harrison was the best pass-rusher on this team, not just last year, but for the previous five seasons. His exit was as much about his age as any financial disparity between him and the Steelers.
None of this changes the fact that two of the five best players from the top defense in the league are gone and are never coming back. Fingers crossed their backups can step up and fill the void.
New Faces on Offense
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A high point for the Steelers offense last year was, while Ben Roethlisberger was healthy, the passing offense really hummed. Roethlisberger had excellent chemistry with his targets and was on track for a great year.
This year, he's going to have to start from scratch. His favorite target, tight end Heath Miller, is out for the first few weeks of the season recovering from a knee injury.
And if that wasn't enough, Roethlisberger's best wide receiver, Mike Wallace, is also gone. And unlike Miller, he won't be back on the field around Halloween. Not for the Steelers anyway. He chose to follow the money and sign a fat free agent contract with the Miami Dolphins.
In their place, Roethlisberger will be throwing to the speedy Emmanuel Sanders at wide receiver and youngster David Paulson at wide receiver. The Steelers are going to count on Big Ben to get these guys up to speed in a hurry.
More Efficient Offense in Year 2
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Last season all the talk was about Todd Haley's new offense and how much it was going to help Ben Roethlisberger and this team succeed. Personally, I bought it hook, line and sinker.
But for all the hype Haley brought to the party, it was clear Roethlisberger wasn't fully on board. The strengths of his game often operate well outside the parameters of the offensive game plan.
While we can all appreciate how great Roethlisberger is, it was obvious in 2012, when the offense was running the way is should and according to the plan, it was very hard to stop. So it makes me very happy to see this preseason a little less improvisation and more quick reads and throws.
This team is deep with athletes who can be special with the football in their hands. This offense is designed to take the heat off Roethlisberger and onto them. Count me in.
New Wrinkles on Defense
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The past two seasons the Steelers have shown a level of passivity not seen in recent years. Injuries to key players forced this team out of what they do best. This season that aggressive style returns and with it, more sacks and turnovers.
Asking the defensive line to do more in terms of rushing the passer will be interesting to see. It is going to force the Steelers to use a more thorough rotation and depth players like Al Woods and Cameron Heyward will play a more expansive role.
But perhaps the most exciting new wrinkle is how the Steelers plan to utilize linebacker Lawrence Timmons. During the preseason, the Steelers lined up Timmons at multiple positions, including on the edge as a rush outside linebacker.
At the snap, Timmons can either explode off the edge and turn the corner, twist back to the inside blowing up the gap between the guard and tackle or even drop into coverage. The more the Steelers use Timmons as the focus of the defense, the better it will be.
A Move Away from a Power Man Blocking System
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When you think of the Pittsburgh Steelers you think of a power run game. With that, you think of the power man run blocking scheme they have run for many years. It has made the careers of running backs like Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker.
This season, everyone is going to get a taste of the new stretch zone scheme the Steelers are rolling out. On some levels, it makes sense with athletic interior linemen like David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey. This system plays right to their strengths.
The snag is that the Steelers offensive tackles seem less equipped for the athletic challenges of the scheme. There are obviously multiple variations of the overall scheme, but in a limited sample size this preseason it appears tackles Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams do better when they are part of a double team variation that allows a tight end or fullback to pick up the other edge defender.
Watching the Steelers implement this in preseason, where I saw the greatest success was when they ran LaRod Stephens-Howling off the right side on the stretch play. Stephens-Howling is an excellent one-cut-and-go type of back that fits this new system well.
Expectations on Mike Tomlin Are High
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It has been since 1999 that the Steelers were staring down the possibility of back-to-back seasons under .500. That's not a position head coach Mike Tomlin wants to be in. Steelers fans are loyal to a fault, but they expect to see a winning product every season. Many left 2012 with a bad taste in their mouths.
As Tomlin enters his seventh season, the stamp on this team is firmly his. The expectation is that the Steelers rebound from last year, however many pundits expect them to be the third or fourth best team in the AFC North. This isn't a team that's had to play from the back in nearly a decade. They key will be to come out fast and don't slip up early.
I think the best way to illustrate how important it is for Tomlin to play well this year is to have to look back. This is a franchise that has had exactly three head coaches in the past 43 seasons. Stability, consistency and success are the hallmarks of this franchise.
A Youth Movement All over the Place
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A criticism of this team the past two seasons has been that the Steelers are old. It's the angle experts always point to when breaking down the key weakness of this franchise.
But this year, there is a youth movement in full effect. The starters on the offensive line average just over 24 years old. It's one of the youngest in the entire league.
In fact, among the projected final offensive roster, only four players will be over 30 at the start of the season, and that includes backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski.
Depending on cuts, the defense is also in for a substantial upgrade in the youth department. Looking at possible three-deep depth charts, there could be as few as five players total over the age of 30. Granted, all five of those players will start this season, the depth is young and talented.
This team may lean on some of the older players on the roster, but make no mistake, the Steelers are making moves and getting younger in a hurry.
Exciting Travel Plans
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The Pittsburgh Steelers are part of an experiment by the league to continue to expand its borders by playing football in London. The Steelers will take on the Minnesota Vikings September 23, 2013.
The game will take place at London's historic Wembley Stadium. Personally, I have no interest in the NFL, much less the Steelers making their way overseas on a regular basis. What it typically brings is less-than-inspired football brought on by excessive travel.
I am sure the London crowd will be excited and energetic for the game. For the Steelers, it will be an exciting new adventure across the Atlantic Ocean to take on one of the best running backs in the league.
The End of an Era for Casey Hampton
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It has been 12 seasons since the Steelers have had to give much thought as to who the starting nose tackle will be. The reason is, it has always been Casey Hampton.
Hampton has been a fixture in the middle of that 3-4 defense to the tune of 164 starts—an impressive feat for a massive man whose primary job is to take a beating by multiple offensive lineman while letting his teammates make all the plays.
If you are looking for a prototype for the true 0-technique tackle, his size and strength were unmatched in the league. Sometimes, entire games would go by without the announcers saying his name once. But when you heard the statistics of the linebackers playing behind him, you knew Big Snack did his job.
Replacing Hampton this year will be Steve McLendon. McLendon has been very effective in a reserve role the past two seasons. He is much bigger this year, and looks to be better equipped to stand up to the punishment of being a full-time nose tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
A New Face at Backup Quarterback
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When a team has an elite quarterback, they often take for granted who is backing them up. That became evident for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2013.
The Steelers lost Ben Roethlisberger while in the thick of a playoff hunt, so the chore of running the offense fell on backup quarterback Byron Leftwich. This lasted one game until he too became injured.
Responsibility for the offense was then handed to veteran Charlie Batch. He lasted two games, before a hobbled Roethlisberger was forced back into action to try to salvage the season.
Fast forward to this year, and both Batch and Leftwich are gone. In their place are Bruce Gradkowski and rookie Landry Jones. It is likely the Steelers will only dress two quarterbacks each week, so Gradkowski will get the nod, and Jones will have to be patient, sit back and learn.
While neither Gradkowski and Jones are top-end backups , this team certainly upgraded its quarterback depth chart. Now, let's just hope that in 2013 neither of them have to take a snap.