Five Vital Questions For The Steelers In 2013
By Marc Jenkins
It’s no secret that the Pittsburgh Steelers want to place their mediocre 2012 campaign behind them and look forward to regaining their position within the AFC North this upcoming season. This season is full of hope for an organization – which already has six Lombardi trophies in its grasp – is due partly to the state of flux not only within their division, but the entire conference as well.
The Cincinnati Bengals possess the talent to be the AFC North’s top team but not quite possibly the mental fortitude being that it is unchartered waters for the group. The Baltimore Ravens – the defending Super Bowl champion – are almost certain for the traditional letdown season which we are accustomed to seeing during the salary cap era following a year when a franchise wins it all. And, of course, the Cleveland Browns are, well, the Cleveland Browns, so the expectations there are about as low as a driveway’s curb. It is this chaos that leaves the division ripe for the picking and the Steelers in prime position to once again establish their dominance within it.
Before the Steelers can truly begin to claim what was once rightfully theirs they must address certain questions which are bound to potentially halt them in their tracks unless answered. Some are issues that had lingering effects last season and others are newly-found problems which have occurred due to personnel turnover, but all need to be addressed in order for this team to reach their collective potential in 2013.
1. Will The Running Game Improve?
For as long as the modern-day NFL has existed when the Pittsburgh Steelers have had successful seasons they have been synonymous with running the football and playing defense. As of late they haven’t stopped playing lights out on the defensive end of the football, however, the running game has dwindled to the point where it has reached depths that the franchise hasn’t witnessed in quite some time.
Last season, the Steelers ranked 26th overall in the league in rushing yards (1,537 yards) as well as rushing yards per game (96.1) while finishing in a tie for 27th place in rushing touchdowns scored (eight). Those numbers are frightening by themselves but when you factor in that three running backs singlehandedly produced more rushing yards (Adrian Peterson with 2,097, Alfred Morris with 1,613 and Marshawn Lynch with 1,590) and 10 backs reached the end zone via the run more times than the entire Pittsburgh running corps did last season, the numbers become simply appalling.
In 2012, the Steelers produced their lowest rushing numbers in total yards since 2003 (1,488 yards) and rushing touchdowns since 1998 (eight), which truly illustrates exactly how vital it is that they get this aspect of their offense back on track.
Exit oft-injured and at times problematic RB Rashard Mendenhall and enter second-round draft pick out of Michigan State, Le’Veon Bell. Bell is expected to enter the season as the Steelers’ top option at running back and that is probably half via his skill set and the other half by default due to lack of superior options. Those options would be 2012 team rushing leader Jonathan Dwyer (156 carries for 623 yards and two touchdowns) and Isaac Redman (110 carries for 410 yards and two touchdowns in 2012). Now while Bell is going to looked upon to carry most of the load for this offense, the two veterans will still have to produce in order to assist the rookie as well as helping this team achieve success.
2. How Much Will WR Mike Wallace’s Absence Mean?
During the offseason, Wallace inked an enormous five-year, $60 million deal with the Miami Dolphins, leaving a huge void for Pittsburgh to fill within their receiving corps. Over the past four seasons (Wallace’s rookie season), the wideout out of Ole Miss led the Steelers in total receiving yards (4,042), targets (404), average yards per reception (17.2) as well as receiving touchdowns (32) and trailed only tight end Heath Miller in total receptions (Miller 240 and Wallace 235).
Where will QB Ben Roethlisberger look to find the yardage, receptions and end-zone trips on the outside sans his former go-to-guy? This is where the two lesser-known members of the former self-proclaimed wideout group “Young Money Family” – Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders – will have to step up. As the No. 2 receiver last season, Brown hauled in 66 passes for 787 yards and five touchdowns while Sanders caught 44 passes for 626 yards and just one touchdown; those numbers will have to improve drastically in order for the Steelers’ passing attack to remain the focal point of their offensive game plan as it has in recent years.
The Steelers also have to find viable third and fourth options this season at the receiver position and this is where veterans such as Jericho Cotchery and Plaxico Burress as well as rookies Justin Brown and Markus Wheaton will have to make their presence felt. If the combination of Brown and Sanders along with one or two of the latter aforementioned wideouts doesn’t produce for the Steelers, then all of the offensive pressure will shift to their running game.
3. How Will The Offensive Line Hold Up?
Since Roethlisberger has taken control of the Steelers offensive huddle on a full-time basis in 2005, the Pittsburgh offensive line has seemed to be amongst the league leaders each year in sacks allowed. One of the major reasons why this has occurred is because the line had aged; the other is because at times Big Ben just holds on to the ball too long.
Over the past few seasons the Steelers’ front-office brass of owner Dan Rooney, GM Kevin Kolbert and coach Mike Tomlin have definitely made a conscious effort to select talented offensive linemen early and often during the draft. These decisions began to show last season with the Steelers young and gifted offensive line of T Mike Adams (second year), G Ramon Foster (fifth), C Maurkice Pouncey (fourth), G David DeCastro (second) and T Marcus Gilbert (third) allowing just 37 sacks – down from the 42 the team allowed in 2011 and 43 from 2010.
The 37 sacks were the lowest total that a Pittsburgh front line had allowed since the 2005 season when they only allowed 32. The Steelers are not only going to need the same effort again from their big uglies, but they are also going to need Roethlisberger to get rid of the football quicker in certain situations to insure that he remains healthy and on the field for the duration of the year.
4. Can S Troy Polamalu Stay Healthy?
For the better part of his 11-year career safety, Polamalu has been the heart and soul of the Pittsburgh defense. Unfortunately for that unit, he has failed to be on the field for large periods of time during the latter four seasons of that duration.
During his initial six seasons in the league (2003-08) Polamalu played in 88 of the Steelers 96 total games, recording 433 tackles (72.2 per season) and seven sacks (1.1 per season). Over the past four seasons (2009-12) the reckless safety has competed in just 42 of the teams’ 64 games, recording 208 tackles (52 per season) and just three sacks (0.75 per season). During those first six seasons, Polamalu was Mr. Reliable, playing in all 16 games in four of the six years. Now, it appears his body may be breaking down as he has appeared in all 16 of the Steelers’ contests just once over the past four campaigns.
Various injuries such as a strained right calf, sprained MCL (medial collateral ligament) in his left knee and several concussions have kept the seven-time Pro Bowler out of action for lengthy periods at a time. The Steelers need Polamalu to minimize injuries in order to maximize not only his playing time but production as well. The Steelers are just a better team when he is on the field.
5. Will The Defense Increase Their Takeaways?
The Steelers defense was a stout as ever allowing just 185.2 passing yards per game (first in NFL) and 90.6 rushing yards per game (second in NFL) in 2012. However, the unit failed to create the necessary turnovers to give the offense the best possible chance to succeed. The Pittsburgh defense caused just 10 interceptions (tied for 27th in the NFL) and 10 fumble recoveries (tied for 18th in the league), which gave them a grand total of 20 takeaways (25th in NFL). Those types of numbers aren’t going to get it done in any season, unless the offense is scoring at rates like the 1999 St. Louis Rams or the 2011 New Orleans Saints.
That clearly was not the case in Pittsburgh last year with the team averaging just 21 points – good for 22nd out of 32 teams. The team’s 30 giveaways (along with their 20 takeaways) produced a differential of -10, which was tied for 24th in the league. If the Steelers are hoping to climb back to the top of not only the AFC North – but also the conference as a whole – those numbers will need to change in a dramatic way.
It is up to the aforementioned Polamalu being on the field along with the likes of S Ryan Clark, CB Ike Taylor, new starting CB Cortez Allen, LB LaMarr Woodley, rookie LB Jarvis Jones, DEs Ziggy Hood and Brett Keisel along with the entire defensive unit to band together and make a conscious effort to cause more turnovers which, in turn, will provide the offense with more opportunities to score.
Losing Wallace will hurt, as they don't have a true No. 1 receiver on the roster. But I think the bigger issue is the injury to Heath Miller. If he's out for any extended period -- or diminished once he returns -- that may be the hardest obstacle to overcome.