Senior NFL Columnist

Big Ben and shrewd GM make Steelers impossible to count out


INDIANAPOLIS -- They are a non-playoff team that plays in a division with the Super Bowl winner. Even worse, they are an aging team, saddled by cap problems with several holes to fill.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, you might say, have issues.

That you can't deny. But they have two things that should make the loud, vocal and wide-ranging Steelers Nation feel good about this team and where it might be in 2013.

They have Ben Roethlisberger and Kevin Colbert.

When you have a franchise quarterback like Roethlisberger and a general manager like Colbert, one of the NFL's best talent evaluators, there is no need to panic.

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Those writing off the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2013 are way off base. In fact, don't be shocked to see them pushing for the AFC North title -- even with the Super Bowl-champion Ravens in the division.

Colbert, one of the most underrated personnel men in the league, met the media here at the NFL Scouting Combine, and naturally the Steelers' supposed mess was a hot topic.

Is it as bad as some say?

"People's perceptions are a little different than ours," Colbert said. "We know we're coming off an 8-8 season. That's over. We're 0-0. We have to make some cap adjustments, probably more than some other teams. That's not something unique this season. We've had to make cap adjustments in the past. That's not really a big deal. Whenever we have to make the adjustments, whatever we have to do, we're going to have enough left to be competitive."

The Steelers were not that far off last year. Were it not for Roethlisberger suffering shoulder and rib injuries that forced him to miss three games and limited him in two others, the Steelers might have won the AFC North and made the playoffs.

Instead it was the Ravens who won the division and went on to win the Super Bowl, prompting a question to Colbert here about whether that will impact what the Steelers do this offseason.

"No, we never prepare for a team within our division, within our conference or within the NFL," Colbert said. "We just try to make the Steelers as good as they can possibly be. Our preparation is to make us as good as they possibly can be."

Being $14.5 million over the cap makes it tough. It means that outside linebacker James Harrison, a big part of the Steelers winning two Super Bowls in the past six years, will likely have to be cut if he refuses to restructure his contract.

It means the Steelers won't bring back free-agent receiver Mike Wallace and free-agent running back Rashard Mendenhall.

They also have to tender restricted free agents Emmanuel Sanders and Jonathan Dwyer to keep in case Wallace and Mendenhall leave.

What that helps is that under Colbert the Steelers have done a great job of finding replacements when veterans leave. That's what good drafting can do.

But with cap issues and age becoming a factor with guys like Harrison, safety Troy Polamalu, corner Ike Taylor and others, it's going to be even more challenging to keep moving this team forward.

"I don't want to say transition because that means you're going to accept anything less than a Super Bowl," Colbert said. "Obviously change has to occur over time, and you hope that you prepared and drafted or signed free agents to deal with that change as it occurs. It's inevitable. We just have to be prepared to deal with it and that's what this whole process is about."

The Steelers have to improve their offensive line in front of Roethlisberger, but injuries crippled that front last season. The only real spot of concern should be left guard if everyone is healthy. Tight end Heath Miller also tore his ACL in the team's final game, so he is a concern as well.

The defense, despite being hit by injuries, finished ranked first in 2012. That's been a constant under coordinator Dick LeBeau.

There was also talk of split among players, brought to light when an anonymous player said linebacker LaMarr Woodley needs to be in better shape. That led receiver Antonio Brown to say the locker room was divided.

That's on coach Mike Tomlin. He needs to stabilize the roster. Colbert needs to improve it.

That brings it back to Roethlisberger. He has two Super Bowl rings and was an MVP candidate before he got hurt last season. He is a franchise quarterback, and when you have one of those it makes it a lot easier to handle rebuilding at other spots.

"The franchise quarterback makes your team better and sometimes it masquerades your deficiencies as well," Colbert said. "It's our job to look through that and understand we do have a franchise quarterback. But what do we need in addition to enhance and take advantage of his abilities?"

Colbert is good enough to do that. Roethlisberger is good enough to keep this team a true Super Bowl contender despite the cap issues and age on the roster.

Give me a franchise quarterback and a shrewd talent evaluator and I will take my chances every single season, which is why the Steelers aren't fading away like some would make you think.

Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.

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