Sports Illustrated football guru Peter King says the Steelers will go 8-8 and finish third in the AFC North behind Baltimore and Cincinnati.
Sounds about right.
Black and gold blinders often keep Pittsburgh from seeing the Steelers as they really are. That can make a fall all the more disappointing. The Steelers are an extremely flawed, frayed and fragile team propped up by the best money quarterback in football, but not much else.
James Harrison is among the best outside linebackers in football. But he might not play very much.
Troy Polamalu is among the best safeties in football. But his breakneck style and accrued wear and tear mean the end comes sooner, not later.
Nose tackle is a critical position in the Steelers’ 3-4 defense. Casey Hampton is close to his expiration date.
The problems are many. Some are great. Inexperience at corner opposite Ike Taylor. Ziggy Hood regressed last season. The top half of the 2012 draft class got blown up. David Johnson is out for the year; so much for resurrecting the fullback position. Running back lacks tenure and pedigree.
When you pile it all together, anything better than .500 seems a bit of a reach. The Steelers are beat up already, and the regular season hasn’t yet started.
But Ben Roethlisberger gives the Steelers a shot at the playoffs, the division, postseason success, the Super Bowl, just about anything. Mike Wallace is back, the deep threat, the cherry on top of an excellent receiving corps. David DeCastro’s injury depletes the offensive line, but if Willie Colon stays healthy, he’s a major upgrade.
There’s not necessarily more bad than good, but there’s much more shaky than certain.
It comes down to Roethlisberger. Can he, at 30, find another gear as he enters what should be his prime? Will new offensive coordinator Todd Haley spotlight Roethlisberger and help Wallace chase Larry Fitz money, or lean on Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer by way of appeasing Art Rooney II? "Look, granddaddy, we run the ball!"
Hopefully, Roethlisberger shoulders the burden. If the Steelers lose, he’s going to get blamed no matter how much he’s asked to do, so let him drive the bus.
Speaking of which, can Dwyer wrest the top running back job (or at least significant carries) from Redman? He’s a bit more bruising, a bit more in the Steelers mold. He’s got a bit more pedigree, too: Georgia Tech vs. Bowie State.
Running the ball is crucial from one standpoint: The less that creaky Steelers defense is on the field, the better.
Of all the potential negatives, Harrison’s condition is paramount. Without an effective pass rush, this version of the Steel Curtain really isn’t too difficult to deal with.
Here’s betting Harrison is sidelined more than he plays. Uh-oh.
The AFC North may work in the Steelers’ favor. The Ravens are as old and shopworn as the Steelers, especially at key positions, and their quarterback isn’t as good. Whatever it is the Bengals never had, they still haven’t got.
It’s a crapshoot. But given the early injury concerns and a defense that’s fragile in every sense of the word, 8-8 is my call. Mike Tomlin likes to say “the standard is the standard,” but you can’t sprinkle black and gold pixie dust on Chris Carter and turn him into Harrison.
If the Steelers do miss the playoffs (or go one and done), it’s time for some very hard personnel decisions. Do you risk keeping ‘em too long, or risk ditching ‘em too early?
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).