Steelers face more questions than answers
By Ed Bouchette / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A different kind of problem confronts Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin after their team's worst season in the past six, a problem unlike any they have routinely visited this time of year.
They must again either shed money or move it around to tuck themselves under the salary cap. They must make the hard but not necessarily difficult decisions to say goodbye to longtime contributors. Again they will sift through free agents -- others and their own -- to determine if they want to sign them and whether they can.
They have annual experience with all of that. But, one new, perplexing dilemma exists for them in the first teen-age year of this century: Do they even know what they have?
An analysis of their roster will produce more questions than answers, many of them debated throughout their 8-8 season. Add in the possibility of yet a third offensive coordinator in three seasons because of Todd Haley's candidacy for the head coaching job with the Arizona Cardinals.
Start with that offense, which looked much better at mid-season than it did by the end of it. The Steelers wanted to emphasize the run more in 2012 and instead they were forced to de-emphasize it because no back asserted himself. Jonathan Dwyer led the team with 623 yards rushing, the lowest total by their leader in 21 years. Entering 2013, they do not have a lead back.
Their wide receivers, once the strength on offense, were not in 2012. Even if Mike Wallace would somehow return, can he return to becoming one of the game's most dangerous deep threats or was his slip to third among receptions on the Steelers and another dip in average to 13.1 per catch a trend?
Antonio Brown, fighting some minor injuries, could not match his 2011 production, a year that prompted the Steelers to give him Mike Wallace's money in the summer. Emmanuel Sanders did not have the breakout year many expected.
If the Steelers lose Wallace, their receiving corps looks to be below average, based on the 2012 returns.
The one position that flourished was tight end, thanks to Heath Miller, who led the team with 71 receptions and all position players with 50 points. But he finished the season on injured reserve and had surgery to repair anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments. Will he be ready to go early in 2013, how effective will he be and who takes over at that position until he does? There are only guesses there.
The offensive line looked solid for a while, then injuries forced them to mix and match, and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the running game paid the price. It still can be a strength of the team after all the high draft picks invested into it. Sean Kugler, praised for the coaching job he did through all of those injuries, is gone. Re-signing Max Starks and having a healthy Willie Colon would help, but both may be out of reach. Colon looked strong at his new position at left guard right up until he wound up on injured reserve for the third consecutive season. They will either gamble that he can stay healthy or try to sign one or both free agents, Ramon Foster and Doug Legursky, as insurance. Those two have been keys to holding the line together through all the injuries, and losing both would leave them thin.
Then there is Roethlisberger. Midway through the season, he was on pace to break his own passing yardage team record and led all quarterbacks in third-down passing efficiency. Then, his right shoulder and a rib were injured, he missed three games and was not the same quarterback in his final four games, three of them losses.
Roethlisberger will be 31 next season, still in his prime, and he promised to concentrate on returning to health this offseason. The Steelers, though, need to find him targets. They began the season with only four wide receivers while keeping six backs, including a fullback. Now they may lose Wallace and have a question mark in Miller.
The Steelers defense finished No. 1 for the second season in a row, and for the second consecutive season, it was a somewhat misleading ranking. They have a good defense, but not the kind that savaged opponents and quarterbacks before 2011. They intercepted 10 passes, tying the second fewest in their 80-year history, the fewest in any season of 12 or 14 games. Their cornerbacks provided only three of those.
Those cornerbacks, though, were the strongest area of the defense in 2012. One of them, Keenan Lewis, may not return. They will return Ike Taylor and nickel back Cortez Allen, who will start for Lewis if he leaves.
Safety Troy Polamalu turns 32 and missed nine games with a calf injury. He looked good at the end, but they need him in the beginning and the middle, too. Ryan Clark put together yet another good season at free safety and has bypassed Polamalu as a playmaker at a fraction of the cost.
Their 3-4 defense always has counted on two outside linebackers to pressure the quarterback, and it would seem they no longer can count on James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley even though both likely will return to start. Harrison had knee surgery in August that wiped out his first three games and it took much longer for him to feel comfortable. His back curtailed him in 2011. He looked like the old Harrison near the end of the season, but he turns 35 in May. Woodley, who missed half of 2011 with injuries, was not effective up to his previous standards this past season. Some say he needs to lose weight and get in better shape; whatever it is, they desperately need his playmaking to return.
Before 2011, Harrison and Woodley, two of the best-paid players on the team, each had double-figure sacks in three consecutive seasons. Neither has reached that total in the past two. The Steelers also have not identified a logical successor to them. It's possible Lawrence Timmons could be that player; he has played for Harrison and could move there again. Timmons could have been their defensive MVP, leading them in tackles, with three interceptions and tied for the lead with six sacks, the first inside linebacker in their history to do so.
If Timmons moved outside, it would leave them thin on the inside, particularly if they do not bring back Larry Foote, who had a good 2012 season. Rookie Sean Spence is still a long way from coming back from a serious preseason knee injury, and Stevenson Sylvester remains a good special teams player who has not played much on the inside.
The defensive line will continue to undergo a transition if Casey Hampton leaves and Steve McLendon replaces him. Brett Keisel had another strong season at right end, but neither Ziggy Hood nor Cameron Heyward have lived up to the expectations that come with No. 1 draft picks. While Keisel isn't getting any younger -- he will be 35 in September -- he remains the best end on the team.
As for special teams, their Pro Bowl return man in 2011, Brown, averaged only 6.8 yards on 27 punt returns. Chris Rainey did some good things on kickoff returns. Shaun Suisham had a Pro Bowl-caliber season, missing only three kicks -- one from 53 and one from 54. Rookie punter Drew Butler was inconsistent.
Toss out just some of the 78 starts lost by injuries, and the Steelers would have made the playoffs in 2012. But even without those injuries, 2013 presents them with many more questions than they can answer. And until they do, improvement will be difficult.