After a great run in the 2008-2009 season and their sixth NFL title, Pittsburgh is finally on the decline. Failing to add depth to a team comprised of aging veteran leadership, effectively hanging their franchise quarterback out to dry by failing to add protection, and the vast improvement of the AFC leads me to the prediction that Pittsburgh's time at the top is over.
Here are the top 10 reasons why.
1. Improved Division and Conference
The main reason I say Pittsburgh will not repeat has to be this one: the improvement of the conference and division. In the conference, Tom Brady has returned to the Patriots, while the Colts are healthy and have a new weapon in Donald Brown. The Jets' new defense has turned them into contenders, and the Dolphins are coming off a playoff year.
In the division, the Bengals are no longer a joke, healthy with the best offense and defense they've had in years. The Ravens will continue to compete with Derrick Mason returning and Joe Flacco more experienced. Cleveland under new management has improved on both sides of the ball, and last year the Browns were only beaten by four points in the first meeting between the two.
2. Lack of Offensive Line
Steelers QBs were sacked 49 times last year, resulting in 15 interceptions and another Big Ben injury courtesy of the Cleveland Browns. If they want to have success with fewer WR options, the line is going to need drastic improvement.
3. Receiving Corps
There is no depth on the roster in the WR position, and considering they do not have solid options at the No. 3 and 4 slots, this could be disastrous with Hines Ward's injury issues. Santonio Holmes will need to step up this season with the departure of Nate Washington, and the Steelers will also need a big return from newly added Shaun McDonald.
The secondary, with the loss of Bryant McFadden this year, has only declined. Now relying on players such as Deshea Townsend, William Gay, Ike Taylor, and Keiwan Ratliff to fill in the gaps.
At safety, Ryan Clark will be in the free safety role, while the Flyin' Hawaiian will be back at the strong safety position. With little depth on the team, the big question is, can Troy Polamalu stay healthy this season finally and be a shutdown back again like he was in 2004 and 2005?
5. Thin at Running Back
Willie Parker has yet to turn into the superstar back like they've invested in him. He's been plagued with injuries and inconsistency and has started 16 games in a season only once before. Rashard Mendenhall, the No. 2 back, was inactive all season after being injured by Ray Lewis. He's likely to experience some rust this season.
Frank Summers was drafted to be a short-yardage back in the vein of Jerome Bettis, but with the often injured starting backs, he may see even more action this season.
6. Mediocre Draft
The big pickup was Evander "Ziggy" Hood, a defensive tackle out of Missouri, who was tagged as lacking explosiveness and quickness. Hood was more of a luxury pick than a necessity pick, such as the mediocre offensive line, which the Steelers did little to address.
One of the only players they picked up was at the tackle position, a third round pick out of Wisconsin named Kraig Urbik with bad footwork and balance issues. They also picked up a center in A.Q. Shipley in the seventh round; scouts say he lacks the size to be a premier player in the league.
7. Key Offseason Losses
Suitable replacements still have not filled the depth of Pittsburgh. Any injuries could be catastrophic this season for them with the offseason losses of CB Bryant McFadden, WR Nate Washington, ILB Larry Foote, QB Byron Leftwich, and S Anthony Smith.
8. Aging Defense
With Clark, Casey Hampton, James Farrior, James Harrison, and Townsend well into their 30s, the aches and pains are piling up. The Steelers need to start offsetting their age with young, fast players that are hungry and explosive before they go the way of the Dallas Cowboys.
Let's face it, it takes longer to recover the older you get. With all the young, smashmouth players coming into the league, this defense is in for its share of bruises this year.
9. Rape Distraction
Whether it happened or not, the accusations will keep coming all season from opposing fans and media. Ben Roethlisberger has never faced a character accusation like it before, there's no telling how heavily it will weigh on his mind and play. Don't say I didn't tell you so when Ben throws a pick after the chants of "Ra-pist" start in Baltimore.
10. The Departure of Dan Rooney
For the first time in nearly four decades, the team isn't being steered by Rooney, after he was appointed U.S. Ambassador to Ireland. The Steelers haven't won a championship without his guidance and direction, and I see no reason for that to change now.