After football season ends, I have an emptiness inside that doesn’t go away until April’s draft. I love the NFL. Specifically, my Pittsburgh Steelers. My reflection periods of the past decade have been filled with looking back on successful seasons, complete with championships and consistent playoff appearances. My reflection period on the downward spiral that was the 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers has been everything but.
In a nutshell, the Steelers’ rocky finish to a disappointing 8-8 season has led many in the football world to believe they are heading for a down period. I mean, every team has rebuilding years and rough stretches, right? Well, I’ve been spoiled as a Steelers fan, but I also saw enough from the team in 2012 to know that they can never be counted out as contenders. Let me explain why.
Some people have told me that however many points a team loses by doesn’t matter, because they are still losses. I think that just simply isn’t true. The Steelers lost five games by three points in 2012. They lost by six to the Browns without Ben Roethlisberger and turning the ball over eight times. Eight times! But the mere fact that they were competitive in every game in 2012 outside of an uninspired, 34-24 home loss to the Chargers gives me hope. What I take away from this is that even through countless injuries, a new offensive system, and the defense getting older and transitioning, the Steelers still had their chances to get into the playoffs. I like the fact that an 8-8 season while losing a handful of games they were winning in the fourth quarter is considered a down year for the Steelers, because 8-8 isn’t even a losing season.
The number one reason the Steelers can’t be counted out or overlooked is Ben Roethlisberger. Year in and year out, Big Ben plays through injuries and is one of the fiercest competitors in the NFL. Before his unfortunate injury against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Steelers were 6-3 and had won four straight after a shaky start to the season. Roethlisberger was in the mix in regards to MVP talk, and was having one of his finest seasons as a pro. Through nine games, Big Ben had amassed 17 touchdowns, only four interceptions, and 2,287 passing yards. Before his injury, it looked as if the Steelers were ready to go on a huge run with the offense playing efficiently and the defense being ranked number one. We all saw how the season played out after the injury and that Ben’s play was inconsistent after he returned. But there’s no reason offensive coordinator Todd Haley and Big Ben can’t get back on the same page to emulate the success the offense was having before the injury. As long as Big Ben is the captain of this ship, the Steelers will be fine.
The second reason the Steelers can’t be counted out is of course, the defense. They ranked number one in yards allowed even with some of the guys aging and younger guys being transitioned in. It’s no secret that there’s going to be some changes in the Steel City, and those changes began when the Steelers recently released longtime staple James Harrison. But, just because there are going to be changes made does not mean the Steelers defense will be any less effective. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is a master of his craft, and over the last ten years we’ve seen that no matter who the personnel is on the field, he puts them in positions to succeed.
The defense had a down year in terms of sacks and interceptions, however. They only had 37 sacks and ranked near the bottom of the league in interceptions with ten. Even with a lackluster pass rush and not creating many turnovers, the Steelers still excelled in keeping the opposition out of the endzone and not giving up big plays. I expect that trend to continue as well as an improvement in sacks and interceptions. Defensive linemen Cam Heyward and Ziggy Hood also have to get it together and realize their potential as top-tier draft picks.
CB Keenan Lewis had the equivalent of a Pro-Bowl season, and I am curious if the Steelers are seriously pursuing re-signing him. Whether they do or not, they have enough young guys ready to step up and answer the bell. Behind Lewis, assuming he leaves, is Cortez Allen. Allen showed a tremendous upside in limited playing time at the nickel corner spot. He forced three fumbles and had two interceptions after being thrust into the starting lineup after Ike Taylor was injured against the Browns November 25th. I fully believe that although Keenan Lewis should be a priority, Cortez Allen has what it takes to fill his spot if he signs elsewhere.
The last reason the Steelers can’t be counted out is the organization itself. When the draft rolls around in April, the Steelers brass will work their magic like they always do. Needed immediately to come in and produce are a rush linebacker to replace Harrison, a dynamic running back to compliment Jonathan Dwyer’s power running, and a receiver behind Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders to replace Mike Wallace. There’s virtually no chance for the Steelers to hold on to Wallace, and Sanders is a restricted free agent. I expect Sanders to still be in Pittsburgh in 2013 and finally have the breakout season we’ve been waiting for. Adding a third receiver who can stretch the field will help in replacing Wallace. But as long as Big Ben is healthy and playing at a high level, the receivers will flourish no matter who’s on the field.
Taking everything into account and running the risk of being called a homer, I see no reason to hit the panic button. The situation in Pittsburgh isn’t as urgent as everyone seems to think it is. They’re a top-notch organization who use the “next man up” philosophy better than any team in the league. With first class coaching, a solid draft, a number one defense and a healthy Roethlisberger returning, look for the Steelers to “shock” the football world and return to the playoffs in 2013.