Before I begin, let me state that by “wild-card” I do not mean that the Steelers will earn a “wild-card berth” and qualify for the postseason in 2013. In fact, I’m not even sure if the Steelers will qualify for the postseason this year. My use of “wild-card” though refers to the fact that a still-talented team like Pittsburgh does possess a number of pressing questions to deal with and answer over the coming months.
Despite the fact that there are some big questions surrounding this team as they head into the 2013 season, one still has to admit that this team has the tools to surprise if some of them are indeed answered.
I don’t want to sound like a “Negative Nancy,” but Pittsburgh’s offense in particular has huge question marks at each and every positional unit except quarterback. Pissy attitude of the recently departed Mike Wallace aside, he was the Steelers’ leading receiver from the last three years.
Compounding the loss of Wallace are questions regarding whether or not Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery, Plaxico Burress, and rookies Markus Wheaton and Justin Brown can pick up the slack for their departed teammate. I should add that Ben Roethlisberger’s job is not any easier with the health and effectiveness of his tight end, Heath Miller, up in the air to boot due to the knee injury the Pro Bowl player sustained in Week 16 of last year.
The biggest question marks for the Steelers on the offensive side of the ball are at the offensive tackle and running back positions. While Pittsburgh has a solid interior triumvirate of Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, and Ramon Foster, the problems exist on the edges with the talented but unproven Marcus Gilbert and the recently-shanked Mike Adams.
At running back the Steelers must have Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman, Le’Veon Bell, or some combination of the three step up and take control of the ground game. In a perfect world, Bell would be able to take hold of the starting job on “Day 1” of training camp, while Dwyer and Redman contribute as solid “battering ram” compliments.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Steelers must once again plug some important holes left by some of their most important veteran contributors.
During this past offseason, nose tackle Casey Hampton and outside linebacker James Harrison. Although Steve McLendon is chomping at the bit to replace “Big Snack,” the depth behind him is largely untested in the forms of Alameda Ta’amu, Hebron Fangupo, and 2013 UDFA Omar Hunter.
Jason Worilds and 2013 1st round pick Jarvis Jones are sure to have a heated competition for Harrison’s spot, but both also have question marks of their own. Worilds has performed well at times in relief of Harrison and LaMarr Woodley over the first three years of his career, but injuries have cost the 2010 2nd round pick valuable backup reps.
Jones on the other hand is a “wild-card,” particularly due to the fact that rookies on the defensive side of the ball have seen almost zero playing time during Dick LeBeau’s second stint as the team’s defensive coordinator. While talented, Jones is still raw and has yet to play a down in professional football.
What Happens If the Questions Are Answered?
I understand that these personnel & schematic questions which Pittsburgh must address over the coming months will be no easy task. Moreover, I have alluded to many times over the course of the offseason that my expectations are tempered when it comes to the Steelers solving their most glaring issues as early as this year.
Nevertheless, the thoughts have recently crossed my mind as to what could happen if some of the Steelers’ biggest problems can be solved this year, particularly on the offensive side of the ball.
Before his injury, Roethlisberger was in the midst of a career year, and this was with Wallace’s effectiveness as a deep-threat being negated as the season wore on for Pittsburgh. An improved and gelled offensive line and a serviceable running game will only make the Steelers’ two-time Super Bowl winning signal-caller even more dangerous for his competition to deal with on a weekly basis in 2013.
Although the personnel losses over the last few seasons have been tough for Pittsburgh’s defense to deal with, Worilds and Jones are sure to be hungry to emerge out of the shadow of James Harrison this year. As far as the rest of the defense is concerned, 2013 could be the “last hurrah” for many of the team’s long-time starters like Ike Taylor, Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, Brett Keisel, and even Larry Foote.
In the event that the unit can improve upon their pass-rush and turnover numbers, the talent is still there for this unit to be successful in spite of the recent personnel-turnover.
People have begun to dismiss the Steelers during the last two seasons, and I for one cannot blame them. Like every professional football franchise, they have had to wade through the “rebuilding waters” recently and their recent struggles have been front-page and national news.
While the Steelers are not as strong “on paper” as they were during the middle of the last decade, pieces are still in place and are ready to step in for this team to play competitive football in a wide-open A.F.C. this fall. Although I believe that a nine-win season is more likely for Pittsburgh than a 12-win campaign, the worst thing that the Steelers’ competition can do is underestimate them.
The Steelers have the tools to surprise this year, and they will always have a chance to win with “number seven” at the helm. If he receives some help in the blocking department and via the ground, then he will only improve. And despite the fact that the defense is veteran-heavy, there could be enough piss-and-vinegar left in those salty veterans for one last postseason run. Plus, the defense will only improve if Worilds and/or Jones prove to be capable replacements for “Deebo.”
I know full well that there are too many “what ifs?” which the Steelers must address over the coming months to consider them to be a “lock” for postseason contention, let alone for a winning record. Yet I do know that if some of those issues are solved, then the Steelers will turn a few heads this fall.
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