Suspect Steelers in unusual position
In Ozzie they trust.
That's the mantra in Baltimore. Players come and players go, but Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome has proved he can evaluate, pinpoint and draft talent. It is why the Ravens aren't panicking over the mass exodus from their Super Bowl team.
They will miss Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and the other defensive starters who left, but the truth is, Baltimore's defense actually might be better this season than it was a year ago, not worse.
That's because of Ozzie.
For a long time, a similar thing was going on in Pittsburgh. The Steelers always had the next guy ready. There was always an answer, particularly on defense. It was as though Pittsburgh treated the lower half of its roster like a minor league farm system. Then when time, they would call up the next guy, and then the next, with no drop-off in talent or production. There was always a suitable replacement waiting in the wings.
But at some point between drafting Ben Roethlisberger and Jarvis Jones, the Steelers' first-round pick in April, Pittsburgh slipped. The Ravens saw it and came to believe that because of a superior scouting department and because of Ozzie, they could draft better than the Steelers and thus have better results.
And the Ravens were right.
This is a pivotal year for the Steelers, who fell apart last season after Roethlisberger suffered a scary rib injury and finished third in the AFC North with an 8-8 record. Gone are wide receiver Mike Wallace, outside linebacker James Harrison, nose tackle Casey Hampton, running back Rashard Mendenhall and offensive tackle Max Starks, among others.
The Steelers have gotten younger, at least on offense, but have they gotten better?
Pittsburgh opens training camp Friday in Latrobe, Pa., in the unusual position of looking up at not one divisional foe but two. It no longer is the pace-setter. It must chase Baltimore and, yes, even Cincinnati, because the talent and depth have eroded.
There are significant questions entering camp.
The first is the health of the quarterback. Roethlisberger had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in early June to clean up some lingering damage. He has said his knee feels brand-new, which is a good sign.
But Roethlisberger hasn't played a full 16-game season since 2008, the only year of his career in which he did. For years, he has been hammered behind an inadequate offensive line, a problem that Pittsburgh has spent recent years addressing in the early rounds of the draft. The line this year will be one of the youngest, most athletic in the league, but it also will include a player in left tackle Marcus Gilbert who is switching positions and coming off an ankle injury and a player in right tackle Mike Adams who continues to recover from being stabbed.
Can Roethlisberger make it through a 16-game schedule? And presuming he can't, can Bruce Gradkowski be a more serviceable stopgap than Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich were last season? Just as important, can Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Todd Haley peacefully coexist?
Also, can the Steelers help Roethlisberger with any semblance of a running game? They were atrocious running the ball last season, ranking near the bottom of the league in yards, yards per attempt and touchdowns. It is difficult to move the chains when you average 3.7 yards per attempt.
Just who exactly is going to be the featured back? Will it be Isaac Redman, who gained 410 yards last season? Will it be Jonathan Dwyer, who gained 623 yards last season? Or will it be rookie Le'Veon Bell, whom the Steelers picked in the second round of the draft out of Michigan State?
In letting Wallace walk in free agency, the Steelers lost the only deep threat they had at wide receiver. The good news is Antonio Brown is poised to have a breakout year, and Pittsburgh matched the offer sheet Emmanuel Sanders signed from New England. But Jerricho Cotchery isn't a lock to make the team. Neither is Plaxico Burress. Tight end Heath Miller is coming off a significant knee injury he suffered in Week 16 last season and might not be ready for the season opener against Tennessee.
The projected starters on the Steelers' defense have an average age of 29 years, two months. Five starters -- defensive end Brett Keisel, linebacker Larry Foote, cornerback Ike Taylor and safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark -- are 32 or older. Although Polamalu is still one of the most feared safeties in the game, he is injury-prone. When healthy, the Steelers have a high-quality secondary, but they need to develop better depth behind the starters because if one goes out, the drop-off in talent is significant.
In Pittsburgh, there is no such thing as playing for second place, and there is no time for patience. But the balance of power in a division the Steelers once owned has shifted, and Pittsburgh will open the season looking up at the Ravens and the Bengals, an odd position for them, indeed.