The sporadic, inconsistent “Five Questions” series continues with a team that has been sporadic and inconsistent in recent years. Since losing Super Bowl XLV, the Steelers have fallen victim to Tebowmania in the 2011 playoffs and then missed the postseason for two straight years.
A habit of reloading has ventured toward rebuilding, but the Steelers showed toughness in 2013. After an abysmal start to the season, Pittsburgh narrowly missed a playoff berth, thanks to a horrendous call in a game involving the Chiefs and Chargers.
This year, the Steelers can get back to the playoffs. And they can have plenty of success when they get there. And they can match the physicality of the best the NFC has to offer, if the Steelers can manage make it back to the game they’ve played in eight prior times.
That’s all premature. For now, here are five questions that could go a long way toward determining how far they go, in 2014 and beyond.
1. How much does Ben Roethlisberger have left?
The Steelers’ only franchise quarterback since Terry Bradshaw turned 32 this year. But Big Ben is an old 32, with plenty of wear and tear on bones and joints weighed down by a large body and a decade of even larger poundings. In lieu of giving him another big contract, the Steelers have opted to wait. By the end of the season, the Steelers will have a much better feel for how well — and for how long — Roethlisberger can keep going as he approaches 35.
It would be a shock if he doesn’t finish his career in Pittsburgh. The more important question is how much longer does he have until he’s finished.
2. Is this the end for Troy Polamalu?
Many expected the Steelers to move on from Polamalu after the 2013 season. Instead, a contract extension aimed at creating cap space puts Polamalu on the team for at least one more year.
To his credit, Polamalu has taken heir apparent Shamarko Thomas under the veteran’s wing, making the second-year strong safety the first NFL teammate to work out with the reclusive and unconventional Polamalu in the offseason. At a deeper level, Polamalu’s gesture could be interpreted as a sign that he’s in the process of passing the baton.
If that’s the case, Polamalu will want to go out with a bang. Even as his body betrays him, Polamalu seems to be the kind of guy who can will himself to recapture his prime and make one last run at what would be his third NFL title.
3. Who will emerge at the top tailback?
Coach Mike Tomlin has said that the regular-season touches at running back will be determined via competition in training camp and the preseason. For now, Le’Veon Bell shows up as the starter, followed by LeGarrette Blount and likely third-down option Dri Archer.
Bell is poised to become the lead dog, but Blount showed remarkable ability late last year for the Patriots. In the end, the Steelers will have to choose between revolving-door approach and the use of whoever has the hot hand.
4. Are these the best linebackers in the NFL?
In their glory days of four decades ago, the Steelers boasted Jack Lambert and Jack Ham at linebacker. Since then, the franchise has seen plenty of great players at the position. It’s possible that, currently, the Steelers have the best linebacking unit in the league.
The four starters includes three first-rounders (Lawrence Timmons, Jarvis Jones, Ryan Shazier) and a guy deemed good enough to get the eight-figure transition tag (Jason Worilds). Sean Spence sits on the verge of one of the great comebacks from a knee injury in recent memory, and at least for now Howard Jones has made Steelers fans forget about outdated orange motor lodges and/or puffy-haired synth-pop singers.
While the 3-4 defense needs a stout defensive line to allow the linebackers to do their thing, these linebackers could be good enough to do their thing without a lot of help from the nose tackle and defensive ends.
5. Who will step up and catch passes?
The good news for the Steelers is that they’ve done a great job finding receivers in the lower rounds of the draft. The bad news is that those guys eventually want to get paid. Antonio Brown, a sixth-round pick and two-time team MVP, became the one the Steelers rewarded. Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders became the ones who walked away.
Now, the Steelers need to hope that Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant become good enough that someone else will want to pay them more money than the Steelers will.