Pittsburgh is one of the feel-good stories from 2010, a team that overcame a raft of adversity to graduate to Super Bowl XLV.
The surprise, of course, is that the Steelers didn't close the deal. Ben Roethlisberger hadn't lost a Super Bowl, and the organization was six for seven. But lose they did when Roethlisberger failed to recreate the last-minute magic that makes him one of the league's premier quarterbacks.
Now it's up to the front office to make something happen, and there are few teams I trust as much as Pittsburgh when it comes to the draft. The Steelers seldom miss early and always find a contributor at or near the top of their board.
|Five possibilities: Steelers|
Mike Pouncey, G, Florida: It makes too much sense not to happen, right? If he lasts to the 31st pick, which he probably won't, he could step in next to his brother and solidify a porous offensive line.
Gabe Carimi, OT, Wisconsin: He could be there when it's Pittsburgh's chance to choose. He's a powerful run blocker with great size, and he could solve the left-tackle position.
Aaron Williams, CB, Texas: Next to the offensive line, cornerback is the neediest position, and Williams should be available at 31. He has size and usually matches with opponents' best receivers.
Jabaal Sheard, DE, Pittsburgh: He has pass-rush ability, is strong vs. the run and could fit in as a 3-4 linebacker. Plus, he developed quickly, which means there could be a lot of upside.
Derek Sherrod, OT, Mississippi State: He's capable of playing immediately at right or left tackle. He's consistent, smart and durable, which makes him attractive to anyone looking for a tackle.
A year ago it was center Maurkice Pouncey. In 2009 it was Ziggy Hood. The year before, Santonio Holmes. I think you get the idea. These guys know talent, one reason the Steelers are one of the most consistent and successful franchises anywhere. In an era where dynasties aren't supposed to exist, the Pittsburgh Steelers continue to excel ... year after year after year.
One reason is that they have a franchise quarterback who knows how to win. Another is they have the league's best defense, headed by the league's most respected coordinator. But the key is the continuity of an organization that believes in a formula, sticks with it and remains one of the most constant and consistent teams out there while others keep changing.
That doesn't mean the Steelers can't make changes. Like everyone else, the club has needs, some of which were apparent in their Super Bowl XLV loss to Green Bay. The difference, of course, is not everyone will fill them as well as Pittsburgh.
QB -- Roethlisberger isn't just a franchise quarterback. He's a franchise quarterback who's been to three of the last six Super Bowls, winning two of them. Not bad, eh? It gets better. He's only 29 and just completed one of his most efficient seasons anywhere. But Roethlisberger absorbs a lot of hits, so it's always good to have a backup around. Charlie Batch turns 37 this season, so a young guy to groom isn't a bad idea.
RB -- The Steelers let Willie Parker walk because they were confident in Rashard Mendenhall, and he rewarded that faith with a personal-best 1,273 yards and 13 TDs. Coach Mike Tomlin wanted to make the Steelers a running team again, and with Mendenhall's help he did. But there's not much behind Mendenhall, unless you consider Isaac Redman a reliable option. So consider running back an option in the second or third days.
WR -- Hines Ward is 35 and on the decline. His numbers last year were down across the board, with Ward producing fewer catches (59) than at any time since 2000 and his yardage at its second-lowest ebb in the past decade. He's still a dangerous go-to receiver for Roethlisberger, but he's not the Steelers' premier pass catcher. Mike Wallace is. Not only did he lead the club in receptions and receiving TDs, he averaged a whopping 21 yards a catch. More significant, when Roethlisberger had to make a play on fourth down in the closing minutes of the Super Bowl it was Wallace, not Ward, he tried. Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown are up-and-comers, but the Steelers could try another wideout to develop as Ward is winding down.
TE -- Ward and Heath Miller are the team's most reliable receivers, and I'll be honest: I was puzzled Roethlisberger didn't dial either on that failed fourth-down pass that ended the Steelers' Super Bowl run. While Miller's receptions dropped considerably from his 2009 total (72) they were consistent with other seasons. Plus, he was used more as a blocker and missed two games. Anyway, the bottom line is this: He's solid, and he's a weapon. Matt Spaeth is OK as a backup, used primarily to block.
OL -- This was a landmine all season. First, it was right tackle Willie Colon who was injured. Then it was Max Starks, with the Steelers plugging in former Dallas starter Flozell Adams at right tackle and Jonathan Scott at left. Somehow, the Steelers managed to survive, and don't ask me how. Adams turns 36 this spring and was supposed to have little left, while Scott was a part-time starter who didn't last in Buffalo or Detroit. Nevertheless, Pittsburgh found a way to make it work, and now that Starks and Colon are healthy the Steelers have a dilemma -- namely what do they do with Colon? Do they re-sign him? Do they let him walk and take their chances? How concerned are they about his ability to recover from an Achilles injury? The offensive line in general must be upgraded, with the Steelers starting here. Look for them to spend an early draft choice -- maybe its first -- on a tackle because they absolutely, positively must improve their depth at the position. Basically, the Steelers must get better at tackle and guard -- with tackle the more urgent need -- to regain their spot atop the AFC. Roethlisberger is one of the top quarterbacks in the business, but he takes way too many sacks, and, yeah, part of that has to do with him extending plays by holding on to the ball. But part of it has to do with the offensive line, too. It needs help.
DL -- The good news is that former first-rounder Ziggy Hood had a breakout season, and the guy just turned 24. The bad news is that everyone else of consequence here is over 30, including starter Aaron Smith, who turns 35 this season. Now let's be honest: This isn't exactly an area of need, not with Smith returning to a line that features Hood, Brett Keisel and Casey Hampton, but it is a line that's growing old. Hampton is not the dominant presence he has been and turns 34 this season, while Keisel turns 33. Plus, the Steelers failed to produce much, if any, pressure on Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers with their front three -- or front seven -- in Super Bowl XLV. If you're looking to pad yourself for the future, start here. The Steelers are fine for now, but they could use another young body to develop as a future starter.
LB -- James Harrison was the only Steelers' linebacker named to the Pro Bowl, but the club believes it has the best group in the business -- and it may be right. But it also has age, with Harrison turning 33 in May and James Farrior turning 36 two months ago. Both are productive, with Farrior having one of his best seasons ever last year, but the Steelers can start grooming replacements. Inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons is not only solid; he led the team in tackles and was a tackling machine. With 10 sacks, outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley nearly matched Harrison's team-best 10.5. Woodley is young, terrific and here for years, and if you're looking for someone to replace Harrison in case of injury, Timmons can play outside with Larry Foote filling in the middle.
DB -- Ike Taylor is the best the Steelers have to offer at cornerback, but his contract is up -- and there's no guarantee where he'll be next season. Bryant McFadden started opposite Taylor, but after a promising start last season he started to unravel with a hip injury. William Gay played capably but seems better suited to a backup role. Bottom line: The Steelers couldn't make the key stops in Super Bowl XLV because they weren't good enough in the secondary, and, yeah, Troy Polamalu's injury had something to do with that, but the cornerbacks are nothing more than adequate. That must change. Polamalu is the star of the secondary, but his aggressive, physical play makes him an injury waiting to happen. At the other safety spot, Ryan Clark was outstanding -- often called on to make plays in the absence of Polamalu.