For years, the Steelers have consistently reloaded. As older and/or expensive players exited, younger, cheaper, and in most cases nationally-unknown players stepped in and stepped up.
That trend hasn’t held in recent years. It started along the offensive line, even though the team thrived for several seasons without a stout, highly-effective five-man crew of blockers. The phenomenon spread the last two years, with the Steelers missing the postseason and creating a sense that the front office and coaching staff have had their skills at finding young and talented replacements go the way of the Steve Blass fastball.
It’s not entirely true. The team has developed an uncanny knack for drafting quality receivers in the middle and late rounds, a feat few franchises have accomplished. Defensively, however, the Steel Curtain mystique has faded a bit as the team has struggled to swap great old players with competent young ones.
Still, the Steelers have missed the playoffs for two straight seasons. While no one has sounded the alarm just yet, another less-than-stellar campaign from the Steelers will lend credence to the reality that reloading finally has yielded to rebuilding.
NFL teams either have a franchise quarterback or are looking for a franchise quarterback. The Steelers have one, and while he continues to be less-than-beloved by the locker room at large, Ben Roethlisberger continues to have the full belief of the organization. For good reason. He has more Super Bowl wins that Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Joe Flacco, Tony Romo, Matthew Stafford, and Matt Ryan (all of whom make more money than him), and Roethlisberger continues to perform at a high level amid a supporting cast that often doesn’t. Eventually, the player and the team will face a contractual dilemma; for now, Roethlisberger remains the guy, and his presence ensures that the Steelers will at least be on the fringes of contention each and every year.
After a few seasons that created a sense of meandering, the Steelers have put together a potentially potent depth chart at tailback, with Le’Veon Bell, the still-underrated LeGarrette Blount, and dynamic rookie Dri Archer leading the way. Together, they could give Roethlisberger the right balance to make it easier for him to get something positive out of a work-in-progress receiver room.
The offensive line continues to have plenty of question marks, but there’s no ambiguity about the team’s attitude toward center Maurkice Pouncey. Despite having a year left on his rookie contract and recovering from a torn ACL that limited him to one game in 2013, Pouncey signed a contract that eclipsed Alex Mack’s transition-tag offer sheet from the Jaguars, which the Browns matched. Put simply, the Steelers got a glimpse of life without Pouncey, and they saw enough to know they don’t want it to happen again. His presence in the center of the line will definitely make the team better, not worse, in 2014.
Defensively, the Steelers continue to be all about the linebackers. Even with LaMarr Woodley gone, the Steelers have Lawrence Timmons, transition-tagged Jason Worilds, second-year first-rounder Jarvis Jones, and fleet-footed and versatile rookie Ryan Shazier. To a large extent, their effectiveness depends on the ability of the defensive line to keep blockers away from them. This group may be nearly good enough that it won’t matter.
Beyond any personnel group, the Steelers continue to be the Steelers. Guided by the steady, patient hand of the Rooneys, the folks employed to run the football operations can do so without worrying about hot seats or any of the other short-term, win-now pressures that plague the decision-making of most other teams. It allows the organization to make decisions without regard to saving jobs and with the sole focus of pursuing championships. While another year or two of missed playoffs could test that vibe, the Steelers lack the sense of reckless urgency that other teams with a pair of failed seasons would demonstrate.
No unit has seen more talent exit the franchise in recent years than wide receiver. Mike Wallace cashed in with the Dolphins in 2013. This time around, Emmannuel Sanders opted for the Broncos, and Jerricho Cotchery helped fill the pass-catching void in Carolina. Entering camp, the position in Pittsburgh consists of Antonio Brown and a bunch of guys who may or may not make much of a difference. Some of them could. Rookie Martavis Bryant and second-year product Markus Wheaton possibly will follow in the footsteps of Brown, Wallace, and Sanders as unheralded prospects who become high-impact players. Less will be expected of veterans Lance Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey, who were available to be signed as free agents for a reason.
Heath Miller continues to be one of the favorite Steelers of the past generation, but there’s a strong sense that he’s close to the end. Roethslisberger recently broke out the rose-colored beer goggles, claiming that Miller is back to his old self more than a year after tearing an ACL. Even if the Steelers ultimately take a chance on a guy like Jermichael Finley, the position isn’t as strong as it’s been in the past.
Aaron Smith was one of the best 3-4 defensive ends to ever agree to embrace the anonymity of tying up blockers, and the Steelers have had a hard time replacing him. With Casey Hampton long gone and Brett Keisel possibly not returning, it’s a time of flux for the defensive line. The play of the front three needs to improve or the string of failed seasons will match that number, and possibly exceed it.
Cornerback Ike Taylor has said he’s pissed about the pay cut he had to take to stay in Pittsburgh, but the truth is that the Steelers are the only team that would have given him as much as he’ll get this year. He’ll get that much because the Steelers need him. They need him because they’re otherwise not very good at the position.
For a team that has enjoyed contention through consistency, the Steelers have endured plenty of changes in recent years. The departure of Sanders has made receiver the modern-day equivalent of the revolving door at linebacker a generation ago. Then again, that door is still spinning; Woodley went West against his wishes while Worilds opted to stay, at least for one more year.
Disappointing first-rounder Ziggy Hood exited via free agency, and safety Ryan Clark opted for Washington once it became clear that the Steelers weren’t interested in extending his stay, thanks to the restructured deal with Troy Polamalu and the arrival of Mike Mitchell.
As coaches go, there was plenty of speculation that offensive coordinator Todd Haley and/or long-time defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau could take the fall for the team’s struggles. Instead, offensive line coach Jack Bicknell, Jr. got the boot — replaced by Hall of Famer and former Titans coach Mike Munchak, who given the competition could possibly still win a backup job on the team. If he can get the line to play better than the sum of the parts, the Steelers could get back to the postseason and make some noise once there.
The depth chart at receiver will be a work in progress, with Antonio Brown the clear-cut No. 1 and the rest of the players jockeying for position. Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant will likely vie for the No. 2 job, with Lance Moore penciled in as the slot receiver. Heyward-Bey in theory could be a factor, but he also could be gone by the time Week One rolls around. Dri Archer will play running back and receiver, making him an intriguing option on third downs — especially if he lines up in the backfield and then motions to the slot or flanker.
Archer also will be a factor at running back, where Le’Veon Bell is presumed to be the starter and LeGarrette Blount serves as the backup. Coach Mike Tomlin has said that training camp will determine the ultimate division of labor. That’s a diplomatic way of saying the best guy will be the starter, and if he’s sufficiently better than the rest he’ll be the workhorse. It would take a lot for Archer to leapfrog the other two, but given his speed it’s not impossible.
Cam Thomas arrived via free agency to challenge Steve McLendon for reps at nose tackle. It’s a position where the Steelers definitely need improvement, now.
William Gay and Cortez Allen are expected to battle for one of the starting cornerback jobs. If Ike Taylor’s play dips, it’s not completely out of the question that he’ll end up out of the starting lineup in what appears to be his final season in Pittsburgh.
At safety, Troy Polamalu is back, somewhat unexpectedly. That relegates Mike Mitchell and Shamarko Thomas to compete for the right to replace Ryan Clark. With more and more teams loading up on quality safeties and with the Steelers not as good as they could be at cornerback, it could make sense to find ways to get all three on the field.
When little is expected, the Steelers tend to overdeliver. Last year, a horrible start to the season nearly became a highly unlikely playoff berth. This year, the improvements the team has made should be enough to put the franchise back in the playoffs.
If they get there, the Steelers could be dangerous — especially if they can get back to the plug-and-play-well system that has helped the Steelers remain relevant for decades. The key spots to watch will be receiver and defensive line. If those areas produce, and if fleet-footed rookies Shazier and Archer can run that way on the choppy sod of Heinz Field, the Steelers will once again be winning in January.
If they fail, the franchise could have a different atmosphere come 2015. Especially since a fourth straight season without a postseason appearance would match the longest drought since Chuck Noll became the head coach in 1969.