|Free-agency preview: Steelers||
Team overview: Early in the season, it was the defense, then it was injuries and finally, it was the franchise quarterback. Losses to the Raiders and Titans had almost everything to do with a defense that suddenly couldn't stop anybody. It led to the annual "Yep, too old" platitudes, which held some truth but didn't tell the whole story. Lawrence Timmons is quietly becoming one of the NFL's best inside linebackers, and cornerback Keenan Lewis emerged as a legit playmaker opposite Ike Taylor (though Lewis is a free agent and might not return). Then there's defensive end Ziggy Hood, outside linebacker Jason Worilds and nickel cornerback Cortez Allen, who all played well in spot duty.
By the time the defense rounded into form, the Steelers were 6-3. Then Ben Roethlisberger went down with a shoulder and rib injury. Teammates followed like dominoes -- left guard Willie Colon, right tackle Marcus Gilbert, backup right tackle Mike Adams, wideout Antonio Brown, backup quarterback Byron Leftwich and so on. And this list doesn't include Troy Polamalu and rookie first-round right guard David DeCastro, both of whom missed most of the first two-thirds of the season with injuries of their own.
By the time that Roethlisberger returned to the lineup, Pittsburgh was 7-5. Four weeks later, the Steelers were 8-8 and failed to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
What the depth chart tells you: Despite the undercurrent of issues between the franchise QB and the volatile offensive coordinator, Todd Haley's "dink and dunk" ( but in a good way!) offense not only kept Big Ben upright (he was sacked just 13 times through the first 10 games) but also had people talking about him as a possible MVP candidate. Then Roethlisberger was injured, the sacks and interceptions started piling up, and those earlier conversations felt like a distant memory.
When Haley arrived in the spring, one of the first things that he said he wanted to do was get tight end Heath Miller more involved in the offense. In 15 games, Miller led the team in receptions (71) and tied Mike Wallace for first in touchdowns (8). And a day after he was placed on injured reserve after tearing up his knee in the Week 16 loss to the Bengals, Miller was named to his first Pro Bowl.
The offensive line, when healthy (which was rare), did an adequate job of protecting Roethlisberger. Center Maurkice Pouncey also earned a Pro Bowl nod, and Colon transitioned smoothly to left guard after six years at right tackle.
In 2013, the front five could be, from left to right, Gilbert, Colon, Pouncey, DeCastro and Adams. That said, there was speculation after the season that the team could part ways with Colon, who has struggled to stay healthy. In which case, the dark-horse candidate to win the job would be 2012 seventh-rounder Kelvin Beachum, who was impressive in place of Adams last season.
The team suspended running back Rashard Mendenhall in Week 15 for conduct detrimental to the team. And while the organization didn't rule out his return in '13, it's more likely that the free agent plays elsewhere. Same holds for Wallace, who didn't show up for offseason workouts or training camp and went on to have a mediocre year. The Steelers made it clear early in the offseason that they wouldn't franchise him, which means he'll have to find his $10 million-plus annual salary somewhere else ( and he almost certainly will). The organization will also have to decide what to do with 35-year-old nose tackle Casey Hampton, not to mention 34-year-old outside linebacker James Harrison, who was sidelined early in 2012 with a knee injury and has said he's not willing to take a pay cut.
The secondary is old, with Ryan Clark, Taylor and Polamalu on the wrong side of 30. And 26-year-old cornerback Lewis, who had a breakout season, might be too rich for the Steelers' blood once he hits the open market. The team likes backup Allen to step into Lewis' role should it come to that, and they signed former Steeler William Gay as insurance.
Ideal free-agent and draft strategy: Despite their record, the Steelers don't have a ton of immediate needs but certainly lack depth. Adding depth on defense could be a priority, especially in light of the secondary's age. Inside linebacker Larry Foote is long in the tooth, but he has fared well as James Farrior's replacement. Ideally, the team would add a pass rusher to eventually replace Harrison and tap one of the big-play safeties from a deep draft class. The Steelers will also be on the lookout for wide receivers and running backs; the former to mitigate losing Wallace, the latter because, in addition to Mendenhall, Jonathan Dwyer and Ike Redman are restricted free agents. Pittsburgh could find players to fill both needs during the middle rounds of the draft.
NFLDraftScout.com's Rob Rang and Dane Brugler have the Steelers taking Texas A&M defensive end Damontre Moore with the 17th-overall pick. Moore's poor showing at the NFL Combine could cause him to fall out of the first round altogether, but this class has plenty of capable pass rushers should Pittsburgh decide to go in that direction early. Something to watch: if the team parts ways with Colon, and either Chance Warmack or Jonathan Cooper falls to them, don't be surprised if the Steelers pounce on a chance to give Roethlisberger a top-flight offensive line.
What will happen in 2013: If history is any guide, it'll be another year in which the Steelers are preseason favorites to make a playoff run. With a year in Haley's system, the offense should be more efficient. And if the team can avoid a bevy of injuries, they have the depth to compete for the division title. Even if Wallace gone, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Miller provide Roethlisberger with plenty of big-play options. The running game, however, needs to improve, whether it's Dwyer, Redman, long-shot Mendenhall or a yet-to-be-identified dark-horse candidate.
-- By Ryan Wilson
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