Steelers Hoping Transition Complete

By Jim Wexell
Posted Dec 19, 2013

Research shows that "dynasties" inevitably crash -- hard. But the worst might be over for the Steelers. Here's what the numbers, players and coaches say:

PITTSBURGH -- Mike Tomlin dismissed talk of a Super Bowl 45 rematch this Sunday in Green Bay by calling it, "bygones."

The rosters say Tomlin's spot on.

The Packers, who came into that Feb. 2011 game with an injury-depleted lineup, are missing 12 starters from that Super Bowl, and probably 13 if Aaron Rodgers can't play Sunday.

It's reflected in the won-loss column, where the Packers are 7-6-1 but hanging in the NFC North race.

The Steelers, barely alive mathematically at 6-8, will be missing 14 starters if Brett Keisel can't play Sunday.

Throughout NFL history, most of the teams that have been successful throughout an era begin to plummet significantly just after losing 14 starters.

Check out the Packers of the 1960s, the Steelers of the 1970s and the 49ers of the 1980s and 1990s, among others.

Clearly the current Steelers have displayed a similar arc, but may have rebounded by winning four of their last six games.

Have they righted their ship?

"Definitely," said Packers coach Mike McCarthy. "It's a clearly different roster, but they have a lot of excellent young players. You can see a team that's probably playing its best football at the end of the year."

The statistics, particularly the Steelers' offensive statistics, support the argument.

In the first half of the season, the Steelers' offense averaged 19.5 points, 2 turnovers and 4 sacks per game. In the second half, they average 27.5 points, 0.5 turnovers and 1.5 sacks per game.

Defensively, in the first half, the Steelers allowed 26 points, forced 0.75 turnovers and recorded 1.6 sacks per game. In the second half, they're allowing 20.7 points, forcing 1.7 turnovers and recording 2.5 sacks per game.

As Tomlin likes to say, the arrow's pointing up.

"We've gotten better throughout the year, no question about that," said Heath Miller. "Part of that is maybe just finding how to play with each other, finding what this group of guys is good at, and playing to our strengths. So I'm encouraged by that. I'm encouraged by the way the guys have come together and keep working at things.

"I'm never going to look at it as a negative, that we're in a downward spiral by any means."

A "downward spiral" would be common for a team that's played so well for so many years but has lost at least 64 percent of the starters like the Steelers have.

Research shows that the Steelers are one of eight NFL teams to have appeared in three Super Bowls within six years and won at least two rings in that time. And all but two of those eight teams suffered significant declines upon losing 14 starters.

The only teams to persevere through severe roster transitions have been the current New England Patriots and the Washington Redskins of the 1980s, who, in 1991, after losing the 14th starter from their last title team (1987), won another Super Bowl.

The current Steelers started 0-4, and were 2-6 at mid-season, but the recent 4-2 run may indicate the decline has abated.

"I hope," Miller said. "I hope five years from now we can look back and say 'that was the bottom and we're far from that.'"

Because the quarterback was one of the final pieces of the Steelers' championship puzzle, Ben Roethlisberger, at 31 and playing some of the best football of his career, is now a building block. And both lines have already been rebuilt since the Steelers' last Super Bowl appearance.

"If you look at the amount of times Ben's been sacked or hit the past few games, it's one of the reasons we've been playing better," Miller said. "I think it's pretty impressive what those guys up front have been able to do."

Miller and Roethlisberger are two of only six Steelers who've been a part of all three Super Bowl seasons since 2005. The others are Keisel, Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor and Greg Warren. Taylor believes the Steelers' decline was a brief one.

"You've got a lot of young guys getting a lot of NFL experience," said Taylor. " A lot of guys were coming from college looking at this situation like 'best-case scenario is I'm going to be playing special teams. I'm going to be a special-teams demon.' And then they're actually starting in the NFL.

"Through all of that you're going to have a lot of inconsistency, but the good thing about it is they're getting game experience. Just seeing the young guys grow and mature, they're coming up late. These guys have really been picking the team up.

"You see it," he said, ticking off the names Cameron Heyward, Jarvis Jones, Jason Worilds, Vince Williams, Terence Garvin, Shamarko Thomas, Al Woods.

"Man, you can go down the line," he said. "I definitely like what I'm seeing here."