|Getting Ben Roethlisberger to take fewer hits is a major priority. (Getty Images)|
The Pittsburgh Steelers failed to reach the Super Bowl last season, and I know what you're thinking. So what? So, the past three times they reached the Super Bowl they didn't win a playoff game the following year. In fact, twice they didn't even make the playoffs.
They should this season, even though they go into the season without running back Rashard Mendenhall and with a passel of unanswered questions. But it's not Mendenhall who's the key here; it's quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the team's linebackers and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.
They have kept the Steelers at or near the top of the AFC for most of the past seven seasons, and nothing has changed there. Only once since realignment has Pittsburgh gone consecutive seasons without winning a division championship, and then it tied for first -- losing only in a tiebreaker (2005).
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QB: Ben Roethlisberger isn't just the best quarterback in the division; he's one of the best quarterbacks in the game. He has a flair for making the right play at the right time, something that carried the Steelers to three Super Bowl appearances in six years. But he absorbs too many hits, and it cost him ... and the Steelers ... again last season, with Roethlisberger handicapped by a fractured right thumb in midseason. Then he suffered a high-ankle sprain that reduced his effectiveness down the stretch and basically ended Pittsburgh's chances of a Super Bowl repeat. Injuries are part of the game, but Roethlisberger invites them with the number of hits he takes. That has to end, and it's not the only aspect of his game that changes. He just turned 30. He lost his most trusted receiver in Hines Ward. His offensive coordinator, Bruce Arians, is gone, replaced by the fiery Todd Haley. And the team president, Art Rooney, suggested Roethlisberger needs to "tweak" his game, all but calling on him to take fewer hits. Stay tuned.
RB: A severe knee injury to Rashard Mendenhall should have him starting the season on the PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) list and may keep him out for the season. So now the question: Who replaces him? There aren't many options, with Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman the most immediate. General manager Kevin Colbert said last week that he's confident with them, but coach Mike Tomlin indicated the club probably won't stand pat in this area. Redman has one career start but ran for 121 yards vs. Denver in the playoffs. Dwyer, a sixth-round choice, has shown flashes but has little experience (25 carries). Nevertheless, he ran for 107 yards in a game vs. Tennessee. Look for the Steelers to spend at least one of their picks on this position.
WR: Mike Wallace is the team's top receiver, but will he be back? He's a restricted free agent, and so far nobody has signed him to an offer sheet. Teammate Antonio Brown thinks Wallace returns, and, if so, that's nothing but good news for the home team. Nevertheless, he must play better than he did down the stretch, when his play tailed off from the first half of the season. All I know is that he's the team's most dangerous threat, though Brown is a star on the rise. He not only was the Steelers' second-leading receiver; he averaged 16.1 yards per catch and was one of the game's top punt returners. His teammates thought so much of him they named him the team MVP. Emmanuel Sanders is a decent third option -- provided, of course, he overcomes his foot and knee problems -- but the possible departure of Jerricho Cotchery and the uncertain future of Wallace mean the Steelers must address this position in the draft.
TE: Heath Miller is one of the league's most versatile tight ends, a guy who is as adept at blocking as he is catching passes. Backup Weslye Saunders is young and promising, but he will miss the first four games because of a league suspension. That means the next option could be fullback David Johnson, who is more like an H-back, or Jamie McCoy.
OL: No quarterback has been sacked more the past few years than Roethlisberger. Part of that is that he holds the ball longer than most QBs, but most of it is that the pass protection hasn't been all that good. With left tackle Max Starks out of the picture for now, Marcus Gilbert is expected to move from the right side to replace him. Tomlin is high on the guy and thinks the move should be seamless. While Colbert said the club could consider re-signing Starks, who tore his ACL in the playoffs, Pittsburgh has Gilbert penciled in at his position. Doug Legursky returns to left guard after replacing Chris Kemoeatu, who was released in a salary-cap move. After years of waiting on Kemoeatu, the Steelers tired of his mediocre play and costly penalties. Center Maurkice Pouncey is one of the game's top offensive linemen, and the Steelers suffered when a high-ankle sprain removed him from the lineup down the stretch. Look for Willie Colon to take over at right tackle after missing all but one game the past two seasons, though there's always the possibility he could step in at right guard, but Ramon Foster seems more likely there. It's a reshuffled lineup, but what's new? The Steelers had 10 different offensive lineups last season.
DL: Tackle Casey Hampton is another starter sidelined by a knee injury, though Tomlin thinks he will return and contribute this season. Ziggy Hood could move to take his place in the starting lineup, with Steve McLendon a capable backup with experience. Hood played defensive tackle in college, and there is talk of a possible move -- with no decision at this point. Aaron Smith was released, but that's not the blow it may appear. In fact, the move was expected. Smith, who once was an indispensable part of the defense, had been hampered by injuries that limited him to 15 games the past three years. Plus, he's 35. End Brett Keisel is a solid player but is coming off a serious groin injury, while Cameron Heyward looks like a future starter despite playing inconsistently as a rookie. The Steelers could start him at end if they move Hood inside. If there's a need, it's at tackle, with Hampton turning 35 this season. With the retirement of Chris Hoke, the Steelers have only five players here with experience -- including two (Keisel and Hampton) coming off significant injuries.
LB: Linebacker James Farrior, who had been with the Steelers since 2002, is another salary cap casualty who will be missed. While he was slowing down, he still was one of the team leaders and an invaluable presence in the huddle. But Farrior is 37, and the Steelers had to trim their roster. In his place, the club has a couple of options -- young Stevenson Sylvester or the experienced Larry Foote -- but it's unclear if Foote can be an every-down player. Sylvester seems promising, but the Steelers could use depth at the position. Injuries to outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley had an impact on the usually reliable Lawrence Timmons, whose play dropped off while splitting time at outside and inside linebacker. Woodley and Harrison are superb outside rushers, but Harrison turns 34 in May. Still, he averaged nearly a sack per game last season.
DB: Bryant McFadden and William Gay are gone, with Gay the more significant loss. He played well after regaining his starting role but must be replaced -- with Curtis Brown and Kennan Lewis the logical choices. Brown has all the physical tools to be a suitable replacement, and he and Lewis, who played on Pittsburgh's nickel defenses, have bright futures. Ike Taylor is one of the game's top cornerbacks when he plays as he did the first three quarters of last season. But he tailed off down the stretch, with Taylor the victim on Denver's 80-yard touchdown in overtime that ended the Steelers' season. Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark are solid at safety, with Clark coming off what might have been his best season. Ryan Mundy and Will Allen are the backups. The play of the secondary improved significantly under the direction of former Steelers star Carnell Lake. But it's hard to erase the memory of that loss to Denver when Tim Tebow shredded the Steelers' defense for a career-high 316 yards, two touchdowns and a memorable upset.