With the upcoming start of free agency, the Pittsburgh Steelers have a luxury that many franchises cannot boast: stability.
Fans throughout "Steelers Country" will inevitably debate about the proper offseason strategy that should be utilized by a team that enters 2011 as the defending AFC Champions. Certainly, stagnation is not the key, but an old adage tells us that it's unwise to mess with a good thing.
"If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
The Steelers' engine has run extremely well for nearly four decades, but anybody can tell you that a bit of nitrous oxide can make the fastest cars go faster.
As the team revs up to defend and (hopefully) surpass their Lamar Hunt Trophy from last season, tweaking the roster could help assure last year's six-point Super Bowl deficit becomes this season's surplus.
The roster is laden with a championship pedigree, almost assuring any free agent moves will be subtle and cost effective. Every Steelers fan realizes the Rooney way, an approach to team building that serves as the polar opposite to the headline frenzy and newspaper clashes between franchises in today's sports world.
In a way, a Pittsburgh Steelers summer is more like a bungee jump than full-fledged paragliding. In other words, those Terrible Towel wavers who still cross their fingers in hope of acquiring the pricey corner Nnamdi Asaomugha shouldn't get their hopes up.
The secret to years of winning stems from finding passionate football players who seem to fit like pieces to a puzzle, revealing a brand of football that has seen only seven losing seasons since 1972. Through great coaching, an expectation of excellence and a consistent business model dating back to the AFL-NFL merger, the Pittsburgh Steelers have put together the most consistent franchise of the National Football League's modern era.
Fans, like myself, speculate about the comings and goings, but the team rarely fails to impress. Naysayers would argue that the recent championship squads have failed to live up to expectations in the subsequent season.
As the team makes its evaluations and decides who to sign, they'll surely be mindful of the clear-and-present day window of opportunity for a few of Pittsburgh's aging veterans to hoist another Lombardi Trophy. For these great athletes, like other iconic Steelers of the past, the opportunity to slip rings onto their fingers is right now.
The goal only requires that a few needs are addressed. After all, there is a fine line between "Lombardi" and "Lost Barely!"
What is the biggest area of improvement that the Steelers should address in free agency?
With that in mind, the franchise's brain trust is aware that nothing radical is necessary to sustain their consistency.
Quarterback? Check... and an immediate edge on nearly half of the NFL's rosters.
Game changing safety? Check. More teams are scratched off of the list!
Yet, for all of the positives, there are a few focus areas that could add that final piece to the aforementioned Pittsburgh puzzle of 2011.
A majority of the roster ranges from very good to great, and while talent alone would be an ideal barometer of things to come, money keeps the projected lineup from having any clarity. Unfortunately, contract negotiations are offl imits to the majority of the NFL viewing public, leaving our predictions in the hands of generalizations and player talent.
Which offensive tackles will the team keep?
Can the Steelers afford to resign Ike Taylor with a long-term deal still in the works for LaMarr Woodley?
Will the franchise's trio of young, fast receivers provide enough firepower for their franchise quarterback, or will the return of a former team wideout solidify the group?
Despite any perceived weaknesses, the reality is that each of the groups mentioned has shown championship mettle. Both the offensive line and defensive secondary take far too much flack. Yet, these are not the only areas of potential change.
Outlined below are the team's focus areas.
THE OFFENSIVE LINE
The key question on the offensive line is how to address a unit that is returning to health for the first time since 2009. The signing of Marcus Gilbert, who is able to fill in for vacancies at either tackle or guard, could provide the team some flexibility in deciding who to keep.
In addition to last year's crucial drafting of Maurkice Pouncey at center, the potential for improvement on the offensive line in 2011 is greater than most fans currently suspect.
Willie Colon is an eligible free agent, and Flozell Adams seems entrenched as the starter at right tackle. Personally, I'd prefer to see the team release Adams from his expensive second year (and from his infatuation with yellow handkerchiefs), while keeping Willie Colon and moving him to his more natural guard position.
However, even if the team keeps Adams and loses Colon, they should be able to sign one of their other free agent tackles, such as Jonathan Scott or Trai Essex. With Max Starks returning to health, the offensive line should show consistent improvement over the course of the upcoming season.
The benefit of a lineman warranty in Gilbert will alleviate the stress produced by the inevitable wear and tear down in the trenches. It should also make the team's difficult decisions a bit more bearable. Indeed, the Steelers have a contingency plan in place to prevent an encore performance of last year's line disaster.
One area that could see almost complete revamping is the special teams, specifically the kicking game.
While he did a capable job of replacing the formerly reliable Jeff Reed, Shaun Suisham's shank-u-licious Super Bowl cannot inspire much confidence from a team that was within single digits of a seventh championship.
Finding a competent replacement to kick in the swirling winds at Heinz Field should be simple, right?
Additionally, Daniel Sepulveda, for all of his potential, has seen significant time lost due to injury. This has created an annual circus around a punting game that should see little attention if it's working well.
The Steelers will likely avoid signing a big name along the o-line. The same rules may not apply at wide receiver.
The prospect of a return for Santonio Holmes or Plaxico Burress has been enticing to many in the 'Burgh. While the latter may be a possibility, Holmes will not be in a reasonable price range for the Steelers to consider, much to the chagrin of a few hopelessly optimistic (irrational) fans.
Considering the current receiving corps, Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, and Emmanuel Sanders are dangerous triplets. If Hines Ward can return to 2008 form (which is not a stretch), his ability to deter defenders from the young trio, combined with Rashard Mendenhall's rushing behind a healthier line, could create fireworks in the Steel City.
If management were to consider adding a threat at the position, it would have to be Plaxico Burress. Given recent history, his talents should come at an ideal price, and his drive to reprove himself on the NFL landscape would only benefit a team whose optimum window of opportunity could be the upcoming season. Holmes burnt some bridges in Pittsburgh, while former teammates of Burress have spoken about their willingness to welcome back the receiver with open arms.
Most importantly, the addition of Burress, minute in likelihood at best, would give the team a size dimension at the position it lacks on the current roster.
Another decision the Steelers face on the offense is whether to re-sign running back Mewelde Moore. With the addition of Baron Batch and the hard running of Isaac Redman, the Steelers have a perfectly complementary two-hand punch: a short yardage monster and an able receiver capable of making explosive plays. The signing of Batch, the team's seventh round draft selection, would be cost-effective and fill the void lost with Moore's departure.
With a number of the pending roster decisions addressed, it is only fitting to save the best question for last:
How will the Steelers handle their cornerback situation?
In past seasons, the defense has struggled in nickel and dime packages against premiere opponents such as New England and Green Bay. Popular thinking among fans is that the franchise should acquire a shutdown corner, but the price for such an elite athlete would cost the team in other key areas. Instead, the focus will be on retaining or acquiring a solid corner who can handle the duties and complexities associated with Dick Lebeau's sophisticated schemes.
He may not be the shutdown guy who fans desire, but he will be the athlete who most benefits the team as a whole.
For his experience, the ideal scenario would be re-signing Ike Taylor, and this should be the team's top priority. If they are unable to sign Taylor, expect the team to acquire a capable (and, you guess it- cheap!) defensive back such as Josh Wilson or Johnathan Joseph.
For those who dreamed of soon-to-be former Raider Nnamdi Asomugha trading in his silver for gold, not all is lost. No, the defensive stalwart is not coming to the Steel City. And, no, neither is Champ...
Yet, the reality is the Steelers secondary is already a great unit! Lost is the quality of their play, sucked up by large volume numbers facilitated by teams' inability to run the ball against our vaunted front. Many will argue that point, but the team's defense held the opposition to 5.2 yards per pass. This was the second best mark in football, behind only the Green Bay Packers' 5.1 yards.
The league average was nearly 6.5 yards per attempt.
Despite these accomplishments, the unit's performance will inevitably be held up to the standard set by the Steelers' remarkable run defense. By such a comparison, the pass coverage unit had to be considered the weak link last season. It will be expected to improve in 2011.
In fact, that is the beauty of the NFL offseason. Every unit, like the secondary, will enter the upcoming year with a fresh start. Expectations will be high in a football city that has a lot of reason to be excited, all of those who bleed Black n' Gold dreaming of endings that are Big n' Bold.
If history is any indicator, the franchise is already hard at work to make the necessary changes to field a Super Bowl contender for years to come!