Troy Polamalu leads the fearsome Steelers' D.
The Pittsburgh Steelers came oh-so-close to winning their seventh Super Bowl championship last season (which would be an NFL record). One legendary Aaron Rodgers performance later, their dreams were dashed.
Here are five things to concentrate on to get back on top.
5) Shore up the secondary
The notion that the Steelers' secondary is weak is overblown. There may be no better safety combination in the league than that of Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark. Bryant McFadden and Ike Taylor are a solid-if-not-spectacular starting combination at cornerback.
Most of Aaron Rodgers' 304 passing yards were a case of great coverage being defeated by a better pass. The windows were tiny, but Rodgers hit them. Still, depth is an issue. Remember, it wasn't Greg Jennings or Donald Driver that hurt the Steelers.
It was third receiver Jordy Nelson. Even with a couple big drops, he finished with nine receptions for 140 yards and a touchdown.
There is a lot of talent within to push incumbent William Gay for this spot. Rookie Curtis Brown did not have impressive statistics his final year at Texas, but maybe there is a reason he was barely thrown to all year.
At six feet tall, he has ideal size for the position. Like with all young players, the lockout hurts his chances, but the Steelers may want to give him a look when work resumes. Second-year man Crezdon Butler has a year in the system, and deserves a shot, too.
Who will win the Super Bowl?
4) Find a route runner
Ben Roethlisberger's biggest punishment for his offseason misconduct? Not the suspension. Not the loss of credibility in the public's eye. It's the loss of Santonio Holmes.
That should have been a dominant duo along the lines of Peyton Manning and Reggie Wayne for a long time. The proud Steelers' franchise just couldn't have two stars brushing the law. Mike Wallace is a great football player, and may be the fastest player in the league, but does not run routes with the precision of Holmes.
That fourth down pass that was broken up on the Steelers' final possession? Holmes' precise route-running is probably the difference between a first down and broken up pass.
Second-year man Emmanuel Sanders could be that guy. He impressed with 28 catches after he was activated in week six, and had a big game in the playoffs against arch-rival Baltimore. He seems like the type of player that if he is going to find a niche in this league, it is going to be as a precise route runner.
3) Pound the rock
Ben Roethlisberger made some noise this offseason, wishing the offense had opened things up a bit more. You have to love that kind of confidence in your quarterback, but the Steelers need to stay the course. Running the ball is key to not only 'Steeler football' but winning football.
It keeps your franchise quarterback from getting banged around too much, and keeps your all-world defense fresh throughout the season.
Rashard Mendenhall has as much ability as any back in the game, and is a true game-breaker. Still, Pittsburgh may want to look into divvying up the carries to keep their money back fresh.
They don't want to "run him until his wheels fall off" like they did with Willie Parker. Jonathan Dwyer showed a lot of potential coming out of Georgia Tech, and at 230 lbs., is the ideal size to get the tough yards through the tackles.
He will have to push the incumbent power back Isaac Redman, who impressed in his first season seeing some action with 4.8 yards per carry. Dwyer may have a higher ceiling than Redman, and a second year in the system should help him exponentially.
Remember, Mendenhall didn't see a lot of action in his first season before going down with a shoulder injury, and he was a first-round pick. Too many 230 lb. backs competing for carries can never be a problem, especially for the Steelers.
2) Play hungry
The Steelers seem to have their best seasons when nobody picks them. Most of the preseason predictions had the Steelers finishing third last season. They of course missed the playoffs the previous year, failing to defend their 2008 championship season. They missed the playoffs following their 2005 Super Bowl season, as well.
Now they are in an in-between spot. They didn't win it all, but still had a dominant season, and should be favorites to win the AFC.
There have already been some distractions, both fun (Hines Ward's Dancing With the Stars win) and controversial (Mendenhall's tweet). Still, I can't see Mike Tomlin allowing this bunch to be happy with second best.
And with a team full of veterans, I would expect being so close to number eight, and the third for many of the current group, has eaten them up all season. Look for the Steelers to start the season full of aggression, and ride that momentum through the playoffs.
1) Keep Troy Polamalu healthy
The last two seasons have proved that Troy Polamalu is truly the most valuable player in the NFL. Pittsburgh missed the playoffs after winning the Super Bowl with virtually the same roster, minus an injured 'Malu. The Pittsburgh defense again dominated last season, then Polamalu injured his calf/achilles late in the season.
Yes, he played every game in the playoffs, but he was a shell of himself after that exciting pick six touch down dive against the Bengals in week 14. But that's the kind of player Troy is, 100 percent all the time, and there is no way he was being held out of a playoff game in preparation for a potential Super Bowl.
It is imperative the Steelers get big leads on lesser opponents to rest their superstar safety.
They have to win the division comfortably, and rest Polamalu in week 17, plus the bye week, to get the true Troy Polamalu for the playoffs. He is the difference between breaking up some of those third-and-long Rodgers passes, and the passes going for first downs and stealing momentum for Green Bay.
It won't be easy, and it is a long season (provided there is one). But follow these steps and Pittsburgh should be back on top of the NFL.