May 21, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu (43) wipes sweat from his eyes while being interviewed by members of the media after participating in organized team activities at the UPMC Sports Complex. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Four Steelers who need to step it up this year

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With just a little over ninety days before the NFL regular season kicks off, every team believes that they have a shot at the Superbowl. For teams like Oakland, the Jets, Browns, Jaguars and Chiefs this may be nothing more than a pipe dream at this point. To me the 49ers, Seahawks (if they can collectively stay out of prison), Broncos and Ravens are the front runners to be playing for all the marbles come February.
For the Pittsburgh Steelers, they are in no-man’s land right now, their 8-8 record in 2012 indicative of where they are at as a franchise. Ed Bouchette, writing in Lindy’s pro football magazine had this to say about the Steelers ” Several Steelers spoke out about internal issues they had in 2012, calling it a fractured locker room. There has been a leadership drain that began last year and continued with the loss of several more veterans. There is more selfishness,especially among the young receivers. It’s not the best of situations, certainly un-Steelers like.” Sometimes the truth hurts and whether or not Steelers fans want to admit it, this is the state of the team right now. With the history of success the team has had, it’s easy to shrug off a lackluster season like 2012. Fans can boast the level of consistency and sense of calm in the front office, evidenced by having only 3 coaches in the last 40 years when other teams have that many in three years. We can boast six Superbowls in eight appearances. Only Green Bay and Chicago can rattle off as impressive a list of Hall of Famers as Pittsburgh with at least two more potential ones of the current roster (Troy Polamalu and Ben Roethlisberger).
All this said, I still feel this is one of the most critical seasons in memory for the team. Many of you feel differently, feeling 2012 was a mere speed bump on what has been a smooth road for so long. Some of you pointed out the team lost 5 games by 15 points as well as the fact that the Steelers had the number one pass defense statistically and have ranked in the top four in the last six years in fewest yards allowed. I hear how Tomlin is a solid coach, taking the team to the Superbowl twice, winning once and how 8-8 is no cause for alarm at all. However, even before reading Bouchette’s summary of the team I have felt uneasy about the state of the Steelers. Our running game is a mess, the defense (stats aside) is aging and does not create turnovers, there is no established deep threat among the receivers, the special teams and offense lines continue to have issues, and there is a definite lack of passion with this current group. But those trusty Steelers fan continue to tell me to get over myself, 8-8 is nothing, and everything is just fine in Steel town. I mean forget that 5 of our 8 losses came to losing teams, I mean we beat four playoff teams, including the Superbowl Champ(it still hurts to write that) Baltimore, so I must be crazy, laundry list of issues be damned, right?
So, with a happy, reassured smile on my face, here are four Steelers who I feel must step up just a teensie bit to return the dandy fine feeling to Pittsburgh.

1. Troy Polamalu
Yes I believe Polamalu is a future Hall of Famer. Both he and Ed Reed have helped re-define the safety position over the last decade, so it may come as a surprise that I list him at the top. We all love Troy for his aggressive, body be damned style, after all his style of play and his hair are what have defined him. When he’s healthy and on the field he is a difference maker, one of those rare defensive players who can change the game in a heartbeat. Problem is, it’s this style of play that has caused him to miss many games, even parts of seasons over the last several years. The team has shown it can win without him, but it as also shown that without him, creating turnovers is a real issue.
For the team to get back on track in 2013, it needs a healthy Polamalu at his turn over- creating best. And while he is one of the least vocal players on the team, he can be a leader by his hard work and example if nothing else. On a team with no real veteran leadership, it’s Troy’s time to step up and be one in his own way.

2 & 3. Ziggy Hood/Cam Heyward
I have spent several posts lamenting on what a near bust Hood has been. I even went so far to say I think he should have been purged out of town after another ineffective season. However, you ever positive Steeler fans remind me of the complexities of Dick LeBeau’s schemes and how Hood has a certain role to fill, not necessarily as a play maker. But Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel had and have made plays from the same position Hood plays. Both Smith and Keisel created sacks and played the run exceptionally well. I’m still waiting for Hood to show his status as a first round pick.
But again, I’m labelled crazy or traitorous for even suggesting that Hood is a bust. Luckily, I do have something in print to back me up ever so slightly. In the aforementioned Lindy’s mag, with a review done by Ed Bouchette, it gives this assessment of Hood: “must get better technically, but in his fourth season has made little impact. He has been somewhat disappointing as their first round pick in 2009.” That ain’t me talking and I’m not paraphrasing. I still think he’s a bust, but if he is to have an impact season it will probably be 2013. Why? Well it’s his contract year and as sports have shown us, something magically clicks in a guy when he’s in his contract year. I expect Hood to have a fine 2013 and then wave goodbye as he boards the plane out of Pittsburgh to collect massive bucks in free agency.
Folks, get real and take off the rose colored glasses…Hood was a major whiff.
Which brings us to Heyward. I agree with the idea that Heyward is too talented to not be on the field more. Again, I hear about Lebeau’s complex defense and how it’s hard for any rookie to make an impact in it. But isn’t that what Steelers fans are expecting 2013 1st rounder Jarvis Jones to do? Then why shouldn’t we expect the same from Heyward? True, Heyward has played on the right side, behind solid starter Brett Keisel, but 2013 could be his year. It NEEDS to be his year. In my opinion Hood’s spot if Heyward’s to lose, the two will be competing for the left side job opposite Keisel. With a new starter at NT, either Hood or Heyward need to step up and finally justify their 1st round value. Heyward it simply too athletic and talented to not have made more of an impact yet and that may be a telling sign, scheme or not. We’ve seen guys seemingly have all the talent in the world and yet can never put it together. I don’t know if Heyward is that kind of guy, but 2013 should tell us more.

4. Antonio Brown
Yes, I’m done picking on the defense. Two years ago Brown’s play was rewarded with a new deal, much to the dismay of former Steeler Mike Wallace, who quietly and professionally left town after a great 2012 in which he was the consummate team player. Now, without the deep threat Wallace was on the other side, it’s Brown’s time to step up and justify the new contract. He leveled off severely in 2012, finishing second on the team with 66 catches for 787 yards and 5 TDs. That’s not #1 receiver numbers, which is what Brown is expected to be.The 2011 team MVP can not continue to regress as he did last year or there could be trouble. Brown is the most proven of all the Steeler receivers and will be looked upon to be the corps leader.
Oh, but wait, Todd Haley is in town, that’s right, and Brown may be handcuffed by the type of offense Haley wants to execute. Sorry fans, I totally forgot about that excuse. Silly me. Yes, Haley does prefer the short to intermediate game which may not have the need for a deep threat. Still, in this offense Wallace did catch 8 Tds while averaging 13.1 yds per catch, only three less than Calvin Johnson did with the Lions and 6 less than overall average per catch leader leader Vincent Jackson of Tampa Bay. So Haley’s offense does allow for a deep threat to emerge. Is that Brown? Only he knows and only he can show us. While he’s been excellent on special teams, the Steelers did bring in some other pieces to alleviate Brown’s role so he can better concentrate on honing his receiving skills. It wouldn’t hurt for Brown to be the anti-Wallace and up his level of play for the overall good of the team and not just himself. Wallace proved to be incredibly selfish and Emmanuel Sanders had no trouble signing an offer sheet to leave town, so it’s all on Brown.

With 2012 duds like Tennessee, the Jets, Oakland, Detroit and Cleveland on their 2013 schedule, fans and players alike may like the team’s chance to turn things around. However, three of those duds beat Pittsburgh last year so those teams may be thinking the same thing. It’s on all 53 players and coaches to step up their game this year, but for these four, it’s critical.
Who do you think needs to step up this year??

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