Are Steelers Hitting the Reset Button or Just Treading Water with Latest Cuts?

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Are Steelers Hitting the Reset Button or Just Treading Water with Latest Cuts?
Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

As next week's deadline to get under the 2014 salary cap for the start of free agency approaches, the Pittsburgh Steelers found themselves in one of the least favorable cap situations in the NFL.

Those cap issues led to a bevy of player moves, including the restructuring of some veteran players and the outright release of others.

Fans may be breathing a sigh of relief that cap relief was created without the release of stars such as strong safety Troy Polamalu, but those sighs may turn to disappointment by the time spring becomes summer and summer turns into fall.

Because if the Steelers continue to drag their feet about the rebuild the organization faces, then 2014 is going to feel a lot like 2013, just like 2013 ended up looking an awful lot like 2012.

Wednesday started out with the announcement the Steelers had agreed to redo the contracts of Polamalu and tight end Heath Miller:

Tom Pelissero of USA Today reports (via The Detroit Free Press) that Miller's extension, which runs through 2016, will save the Steelers over $3 million in cap space this year, while ESPN's Adam Schefter relayed details of Polamalu's new deal:

The Steelers weren't done there. The team's website announced the Steelers have also parted ways with a trio of veterans:

Levi Brown, acquired in a trade with the Arizona Cardinals last year, tore his triceps and never played in a game for the team. According to Josh Alper of Pro Football Talk, his release saves the Steelers over $6 million in cap space. Both Curtis Brown and Larry Foote were also recovering from season-ending injuries.

On their face, all were deals that needed to be made.

The 31-year-old Miller was sorely missed in the intermediate passing game last year, and with the status of free-agent wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders very much in doubt, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will likely be forced to lean heavily on Miller this year.

Polamalu was a top-five safety last year, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). It's the third time in four seasons Polamalu has ranked that high. His 14.1 grade in pass coverage was second only to New England's Devin McCourty.

The 32-year-old will go down as one of the all-time Steelers greats on defense, and Polamalu expressed gratitude that his career will now likely end in Pittsburgh.

The moves also got Pittsburgh into the black. According to the updated salary-cap tracker at Spotrac, all 32 teams in the NFL are now in compliance with the salary cap. The Steelers now have just over $4 million in cap space, and the expected release of linebacker LaMarr Woodley will create substantially more.

NFL Teams With Least Salary Cap Space 2014
Team Cap Space
Dallas Cowboys $.3 million
New Orleans Saints $1.6 million
Pittsburgh Steelers $4.2 million
Carolina Panthers $7.3 million
San Diego Chargers $7.5 million

Per Spotrac

The problem is it's not going to be enough.

Over the past two years, with an aging roster and amid diminishing returns, the Steelers have chosen to stay the course. Roster moves (especially in free agency) were made with an eye more toward repairing than rebuilding.

As Bleacher Report's Justin Onslow told me on Wednesday, "Call it confidence or hubris or whatever, but they [the Steelers] never panic."

That's true, but in the process of not panicking, the Steelers have fallen into the most dangerous, difficult to escape trap in all of the NFL.

Mediocrity.

The Steelers haven't been a bad team the past two years, mind you. They just haven't been very good either.

Pittsburgh Steelers
Year Record Off. Rank Def. Rank Scoring O Scoring D
2009 9-7 7 5 12 12
2010 12-4* 14 2 12 1
2011 12-4* 12 1 21 1
2012 8-8 21 1 22 6
2013 8-8 20 12 16 14

* Advanced to playoffs

Since ranking 12th in total offense in 2011 (the last time the team made the playoffs), the Steelers have fallen outside the top 20 each of the past two years. Pittsburgh hasn't ranked inside the top 15 in that regard since 2010.

Even the vaunted Pittsburgh defense has fallen off. 2013 marked the first time in the past five seasons the Steelers finished outside the NFL's top five in both total defense and scoring defense.

Unfortunately, the odds of getting markedly better in either regard in 2014 aren't especially good.

The Steelers have become a middle-of-the-pack team the past couple of years, and that earns them a middle-of-the-round pick in the first round of the NFL draft.

The "impact" left tackle the Steelers so badly need will be long gone by that point.

Good luck finding one in free agency. Branden Albert is a good (not great) left tackle, and he's about to command every bit of $10 million annually on the open market.

Pittsburgh might be able to add one of the draft's top defensive backs in Round 1, in an effort to bolster a starting secondary with an average age of 32 last year. However, once again the team would essentially be treading water, as cornerback Ike Taylor is expected to be released and free safety Ryan Clark is a 34-year-old free agent.

Besides, most young defensive backs go through some very real growing pains as rookies, so things may get worse before they get better.

That's a theme the Steelers should embrace.

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It's not an easy decision to make. After all, this isn't some football backwater we're talking about. This is Pittsburgh, and fans in Pittsburgh expect success. In fact, they demand it.

The only thing those people want to hear about being rebuilt is America's manufacturing industry.

It doesn't make matters any easier that only two years ago the Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl at 10-6, or that the 2005 Steelers did the same as an 11-5 Wild Card.

Fans point to that Ravens team and that Steelers team as proof these Steelers are "close," and in some respects, they're right. As I wrote earlier, the Steelers are by no means a bad football team.

(Cue fans of another AFC North team about 60 miles west of Pittsburgh nodding and muttering.)

However, the defense that was the Steelers' engine for so many years just isn't what it once was. As veterans such as Foote, Woodley and James Harrison grew older, the youngsters drafted to replace them have, for the most part, failed to meet expectations.

Meanwhile, it would be nice if the line just failed to meet expectations. Maurkice Pouncey is a solid young center and guard David DeCastro showed promise after a lost rookie season, but both tackle slots remain glaring weak spots.

Not good when your 32-year-old star quarterback is starting to show the wear and tear from all the shots he's taken over the years.

Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press
Been far too much of this lately

There are just too many holes and not enough resources with which to address them. By the time one leak is patched, two more appear.

Frankly, the Indianapolis Colts were in something of a similar situation a few years ago. An aging team had plateaued, and it took Peyton Manning's injury (and subsequent release) for the Colts to make the decision to blow the franchise up.

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The result of that "reset" may be a best-case scenario, but it's worth pointing out that in addition to being a rising young playoff team the Colts also have one of the best cap situations in the NFL.

This isn't to say the Steelers should nuke the roster, or that Roethlisberger should be traded. (That's not a crazy idea actually, but it's most certainly a story for another day.)

There won't be any changes that drastic in Pittsburgh this year, but it's time for the franchise to embrace change in 2014 more so than in the past few years. Whether the Steelers want to admit it or not, there's real rebuilding to be done.

Perhaps the Steelers realize that as well, and these are just the first of several moves that will address both the present and the future.

The alternative is staying the course again, and while the football dynasty in Pittsburgh has been built on consistency on stability sometimes you need to know when to shake the snowglobe up.

Because consistently mediocre isn't getting it done.

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