The Pittsburgh Steelers, one of the NFL’s most dominant franchises in recent history, have been on the decline over the past few seasons. After losing Super Bowl XLV to the Green Bay Packers in 2010, the Steelers have struggled to find success and their last two seasons have yielded just one playoff appearance – a loss to the Denver Broncos. In 2012, Pittsburgh finished third in the AFC North with an 8-8 record, their worst since 2006. Their roster is strong and they improved in the offseason, however, in a division with the reigning Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens and the ascending Cincinnati Bengals, the Steelers will find it difficult to return to the playoffs in 2013.
Offensively, in 2012 the Steelers were too one-dimensional. They lacked their traditional power running game and the lack of a strong rushing attack – the Steelers ranked 26th in the league with an average of 96.1 rushing yards per game – forced the team to rely far too much on Ben Roethlisberger who, despite his rib injury that kept him out for three games, played exceptionally well. Big Ben threw for 3,265 yards with 26 touchdowns and just 8 interceptions, resulting in him posting a passer rating of 97.0. Luckily for Pittsburgh, Roethlisberger and his receivers were able to carry the team at some points, and the team finished the season with an average of 236.7 passing yards per game, which was enough to rank them 14th in the NFL.
In order to try and address their deficiencies in the running game, the Steelers drafted Michigan State running back Le’Veon Bell in the second-round of this year’s NFL Draft. Bell suffered a Lisfranc injury in preseason, which could see him miss six to eight weeks. Mike Tomlin is having further bad luck amongst his running backs, with Isaac Redman (stinger), LaRod Stephens-Howling (knee) and starting fullback Will Johnson (ribs) all battling injuries. Redman’s injury is short-term and due to Bell’s injury, he has the chance to compete with Jonathan Dwyer, the team’s leading rusher in 2012, to earn the starting role in Pittsburgh.
Bell will be missed and his loss hurts an offense that is trying to recover from Mike Wallace’s departure to Miami via free agency, and the knee injury suffered by All Pro tight end Heath Miller – the team’s most consistent offensive player apart from Roethlisberger in 2012 – which will keep him out for the first few weeks of the season.
The loss of Wallace could hurt this offense, however the Steelers tried to address his departure in the draft with the selection of Markus Wheaton (WR, Oregon State). Wheaton is a speedy receiver and I believe he will be one of the Steelers’ most potent offensive weapons this season. Thus far in preseason he has looked good, posting 7 receptions for 114 yards and 2 touchdowns in three games. I believe Wheaton has done enough to earn playing time over veteran Jerricho Cotchery this season, and Pittsburgh’s passing attack looks strong with Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Heath Miller lining up alongside Wheaton.
Despite having some aging stars, the Pittsburgh defense remained elite in 2012 and ranked first in the league in average yards allowed per game with 275.8. In 2013, I expect the Steelers’ defense to be improved. This offseason Pittsburgh lost nose tackle Casey Hampton who has anchored Pittsburgh’s defensive line for twelve seasons. In Cameron Heyward and Ziggy Hood, the Steelers have two recent first-rounders who must both step up in order to fill the void left by Hampton on the defensive line. Hood is set to become a free agent in 2014 while Heyward’s contract runs up until 2015. Both must step up in order to persuade Pittsburgh to sign them to new contracts, otherwise these two could be considered busts.
Along with Hampton, the team lost its best pass rusher of recent years James Harrison to the rival Cincinnati Bengals, and although the Steelers may lose out on a year of good production from him, I believe letting him go was the right decision. Harrison is 35 so he surely doesn’t have much time left in the league. After Harrison’s departure, Pittsburgh selected one of the draft’s best prospects in Jarvis Jones (LB, Georgia). Jones will be the team’s designated pass rusher and I believe in a few years he will emulate Harrison’s production on the edge. Jones is currently missing time due to a chest injury suffered in preseason against the Kansas City Chiefs, which kept him out of the Steelers’ final preseason tie, a 25-10 loss to the Carolina Panthers. With Jones lining up opposite LaMarr Woodley, the Steelers will have a good pass-rushing duo.
On the back end of the Steelers’ defense, former All Pro safety Troy Polamalu is apparently feeling healthier than ever after being plagued by injuries over the last few seasons. However, Polamalu, along with fellow safety Ryan Clark and the Steelers’ best cornerback Ike Taylor, are all over 30. The Steelers injected some youth into their defensive back unit with the addition of rookies Shamarko Thomas (S, Syracuse) and Terry Hawthorne (CB, Illinois) via the draft. Thomas plays with great physicality so it is hard to imagine the Steelers wont fall in love with him. Hawthorne has the speed and athletic ability to start in the NFL, however he lacked consistency in college. This guy is a developmental player and I believe he could start in Pittsburgh in a few years.
Despite having lost some aging stars, Pittsburgh has youth on defense that can help this unit fill the gaps. I expect this defense to remain a top five unit in 2013.
This season, I expect the Steelers to finish with a 9-7 record, and thus they will improve upon their 2012 record. Their schedule is mixed; they have winnable games versus Tennessee, Minnesota, the New York Jets, Oakland, Buffalo and Miami, along with two games against their division rivals Cleveland. However, they also have two of the league’s best teams in their division in the form of Cincinnati and Baltimore. Pittsburgh must also make trips to New England and Green Bay, two of the NFL’s elite teams, in weeks nine and sixteen respectively. Moreover, the Steelers’ bye week is in week five. This won’t help them down the stretch when the team is trying to make a push for the playoffs.
Pittsburgh has had a good offseason, despite the loss of some veteran playmakers on both sides of the ball. I believe this team is solid, however I simply don’t feel they’re as good as Cincinnati or Baltimore, and as a result they won’t make the playoffs in 2013.
This article was written by Rhys Norman. Follow him on Twitter @RhysNorman1 and follow us @cippinonsports.