It is said that every year a team does not get better, they get worse. The Pittsburgh Steelers spent last off season basking in the glory of their record sixth Super Bowl Championship.
This year, they have to look in the mirror, and address the needs that will keep them in the upper echelon of the NFL.
The Steelers defense went from top ranked in 2008, (1st against the pass, 2nd against the run) to fifth over all (3rd against the run, 16th against the pass).
It is obvious to many people that the defense of the Steelers need an upgrade in order to get back to the top of the NFL like they were in 2008.
Help is on the way, Steelers fans. The Steelers will get two additional players on their team this season, when Aaron Smith and Troy Polamalu return from injury.
That in itself is more of an upgrade than any team in the league is going to get. How often does a team acquire TWO Pro Bowl caliber players on one side of the ball that already know the system and the other players on the team?
NEVER, that is why the Steelers will already be improved before they even go to training camp.
That does not change the fact that there are obvious changes coming to the Steel Curtain.
Once again, the story of the off season is that the Steelers defensive line is getting old. The average age of the starters is over 30.
This is not taking into account that last years first round pick, Ziggy Hood will be a starter this year. Everyone is also forgetting that Sonny Harris, a late round pick by the Steelers has a year of experience under his belt, and will be able to start earning some playing time this year.
The big question, and I mean BIG question, is Casey Hampton, and what the Steelers will do with him this off season. I expect Hampton to get tagged with the Franchise designation.
Will they keep him? Will they trade him? My guess is they will allow him to play this year under the Franchise tag, and get his replacement one way or the other this off season.
That is where this gets interesting.
If the Steelers are going to keep using the 3-4 alignment after the eventual retirement of Dick LeBeau, then they are going to have to address this issue either one way or the other this off season.
They could (even though we all know this is not going to happen) target someone that can come in at a Pro Bowl level, such as Vince Wilfork from the Patriots.
If they are not going to do that, they need to consider drafting someone like Terrance "Mount" Cody with their first round pick.
IF the Steelers do decide to select Cody with their first round pick, think about what the Steelers starting defensive line will be for the next decade.
Ziggy Hood and Sonny Harris on the ends, and Mount Cody in the middle. The biggest defensive question the Steelers have, the age of the defensive line, will now be a strength.
The Steelers Line Backers have always been their strength. They often grab the "tweeners" in the later rounds of the draft, and mold them into the Steelers mold.
LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons are the perfect example of the type of player the Steelers covet at the position. Big, fast, strong and like to hit people.
James Harrison, even though he will be 32 when the season starts, plays much younger, not having the years of wear and tear most 32 year olds have.
The biggest question is James Farrior. Farrior has been an amazing player for the Steelers since joining the team in 2002. It became obvious that Farrior (35 years old) no longer has the speed he used to have.
Farrior has become a liability in pass coverage, and needs to be replaced. Can Keyaron Fox be the man that replaces Farrior as a starter? What I expect to happen, Timmons will take over as the Captain and Farrior will play obvious running downs, while Fox will come in during passing situations.
Many people believe that this is the biggest weakness on the Steelers defense. Hard to argue that, but with Troy Polamalu coming back from injury, the secondary is immediately improved.
Teams will have to start taking where Troy is into account when they drop back. This will help with Ike Taylor and William Gay.
Last years rookies, Keenan Lewis and Joe Burnett will have to do like most second year Steelers have to do, and step up and play like professionals.
This unit could become a strength again for the Steelers.
Again, with Troy Polamalu returning, that answers one question for the Steelers. They still have the question as to who will be playing next to him.
Ryan Clark is still a quality player, and hopefully will return to the Steelers. He plays great with Polamalu, and is a great compliment.
But even if Clark does return, he is getting old, and with his kamikaze style of play, injury is always a concern.
I believe this is where the Steelers need to use their first round pick, drafting the eventual replacement for Clark.
Taylor Mays (USC) and Earl Thomas (Texas) are the most obvious choices, if either or both are available when the Steelers are on the clock. Mays has the size and speed to be able to take on the best in the NFL, but it is hard to believe he is going to slip by the Raiders at with the eighth pick. If he does, we still have Pete Carol and the Seahawks with two picks before the Steelers.
Earl Thomas was originally estimated at being a mid to late first round pick, but his stock is rising. He may not be available when the Steelers pick.
Jeff Reed is, as the Steelers say, their top off season priority. Anyone that can kick in Heinz Field as good as Reed can, needs to be kept on the roster. My biggest knock on Reed, is two-fold. On kick offs, he can not reach the end zone, and then he has a hard time tackling.
My suggestion to fix that problem, is to teach Dan Sepulveda how to kick off. Sepulveda was a walk on Line Backer at the Baylor and likes to hit. If the Steelers could teach him to kick off, they would be set on the kicking game.
Stefan Logan was one of the best free agent pick ups the Steelers have had, other than Farrior and Clark, in years. He has break away speed, and could easily take one to the house any time he touches the ball.