It's no big secret that the Steelers have struggled through their cap concerns over the last few seasons. Those issues, coupled with an aging and declining team, have led to the franchise parting ways with some of their most prominent players of the decade.
But those moves did more than save Pittsburgh a few dollars. In fact, they nearly crippled the long-standing leadership structure the team had in place through two Super Bowl runs in the 2000's.
Although the Steelers got themselves out of the contracts of aging stars like Hines Ward, James Farrior, Aaron Smith and (most recently) James Harrison and Casey Hampton, it also made a major impact on one of the most valuable assets in the NFL. Leadership.
In 2012, the Steelers looked like a team without a voice. When things didn't go their way, disaster struck. Pittsburgh routinely lost games to lesser opponents (Oakland, Cleveland, San Diego) by making mental mistakes and showing an inability to recover from them.
Conversely and despite a slew of major injuries to star defenders, the Steelers' arch rivals in Baltimore pushed through adversity and set themselves up in a position to win their second Lombardi title.
Pittsburgh showed flashes of leadership throughout the season, beating three playoff caliber teams in a row in the middle of the season in Washington, Cincinnati and the Giants, but it wasn't enough to get them into the postseason.
This year will have to be better and there's a handful of players Pittsburgh's players should be looking to in their time of need. Here's four guys who need to step into the leadership roles in 2013.
Maurkice Pouncey, C
The Steelers offensive line has been in a constant state of flux over the last five-or-so years. The one constant up front has been center Maurkice Pouncey.
Pouncey is far-and-away the team's best offensive lineman and is actually now the longest tenured consecutive starter on the Steelers front.He has been a Pro Bowler in each of his first three seasons as well as an All-Pro. But come this season, just being a good player isn't going to be enough for the Steelers or Pouncey.
With the constant influx of new offensive linemen who will certainly be rotating into Steelers' oft-injured front, these young players will need a figure to look to when the going gets tough. That player has to be Pouncey.
Pouncey has stated all offseason that he, too, feels it's time for him to become a more vocal part of the offense. It's a good start to recognize what he needs to do, but now he needs to put his thoughts to practice. Young players like Marcus Gilbert, Mike Adams and David DeCastro will need him to be the rock of this line.
Lawrence Timmons, ILB
Traditionally, inside linebackers usually assume the role of leader on defense. There's a great lineage her in Pittsburgh in that regard as well. From Jack Lambert to James Farrior, Pittsburgh has always seemed to find a leading-linebacker.
Now it's time for the next inside linebacker to fill those shoes.
Lawrence Timmons was arguably the Steelers' best defensive player in 2012 and was a major reason this defense ranked, again, in the top five of the league. But like Pouncey, it won't be enough for Timmons to simply play well in 2013. The Steelers need him to lead.
Timmons has been surrounded by enough good linebackers in his time (Harrison, Farrior, Larry Foote) to understand what it means to lead a defense. Now, it's time to put that knowledge into use.
Pittsburgh has a veteran-laden defense, but guys like Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor have never really been outspoken leaders on the field. The Steelers are expecting that from their game-changing linebacker this year.
Ben Roethlisberger, QB
In recent years, the Steelers have been labeled an "old" or "aging" team. But those sentiments should be reserved for the defense.
When it comes to the offensive side of the ball, this is a relatively young team. In fact, only three players on the offense have multiple Super Bowl rings with Pittsburgh. Those being tight ends Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Like inside linebackers, quarterbacks are the traditional leaders of the offense. And to give Roethlisberger credit, he's become much more of a leader over the last few years. But with such a young core offensively, Pittsburgh will look to the 31-year-old to grow in that role in 2013.
Roethlisberger has an uncanny ability to remain calm under pressure and perform at a high level. This is evident by his 29 career game winning drives, currently ranking him 4th among active players and 14th all-time in the category.
The Steelers could stand to have Ben install some of that cool on the rest of the young offensive weapons around him. Especially on an offense that fumbled the ball 20 times in 2012, losing 13.
Ryan Clark, S
If there's one player on this team any of the Steelers defenders should be looking at in a big-game situation, it should be safety Ryan Clark.
Mark Kaboly of the Tribune-Review called Clark "the unquestionable leader" of the Steelers in 2012, and he was absolutely right. Clark is a hard-working, self-made player who every player in the locker room should be looking up to.
Clark's impact truly shows in the time Troy Polamalu spent on the sidelines with an injured calf in 2012. During the longest span (from week 6 to week 12), the Steelers' secondary allowed just one passer over 200 yards and gave up an average of only 167.5 yards per game to opponents through the air. All while player quarterbacks like Joe Flacco, Eli Manning, Robert Griffin III and Andy Dalton.
Clark, without a doubt, had his fingerprints all over those numbers.
It was great to see Clark step up in such a big way for Pittsburgh last season, but the Steelers desperately need him to do the same in 2013. I'd doubt Clark would take an issue with that task.