Have we overrated Ben Roethlisberger just a bit? In 9 seasons as a starter, he’s had a top-3 scoring defense on his side 6 times. In the 3 years he hasn’t, he’s missed the playoffs, including this year. They weren’t bad or anything this year, allowing 19.6 points per game, 6th in the NFL, including the fewest yards of any team in the NFL. The offense was more of the problem side, scoring just 21.0 points per game, 23rd in the NFL.
Things were fine for the first half of the season as they got out to a 5-3 start, but they lost Ben Roethlisberger to injury week 10 in a game against the Kansas City Chiefs, an eventual overtime victory. Byron Leftwich and then eventually Charlie Batch took over and they went a combined 1-2. However, Batch led an amazing upset of the Ravens in Baltimore week 13 and handed Ben Roethlisberger a 7-5 team that looked like it had a better chance to overtake the Ravens in the AFC North than miss the playoffs, especially with winnable games against San Diego, Dallas, Cincinnati, and Cleveland to close out the season.
However, three losses in three weeks later and that’s exactly where the Steelers were, eliminated at the hands of the division rival Bengals. Roethlisberger deserved a lot of the blame, though it’s very possible he was playing seriously injured. Still, he threw interceptions to set up game winning field goals for the other team against both Dallas and Cincinnati.
Where the Steelers are now is a serious crossroads. Ben Roethlisberger should bounce back. He’s still one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL and you can blame injuries for his late season meltdown. However, it’s not like the Steelers missed the playoffs this year because they played a brutal schedule or because they had any sort of bad luck in close games (4-5). This team lost to Oakland, Tennessee, Cleveland, and San Diego, who were among the worst teams in the NFL. They played the AFC West and the NFC East, among the worst divisions in football. They went 8-8 because they played like an 8-8 team, at best.
Todd Haley looks to be here to stay at offensive coordinator even though he appears to be a terrible fit, which hurts. Finally, the team has a lot of decisions to make on personnel this offseason, with little cap room, several big name free agents, and several more big names that may be at the point in their careers where their abilities no longer justify their salaries. The 2013 Steelers could look a lot different than the Steelers teams of the past few years and they could easily be a less talented bunch, at least on paper.
Larry Foote was one of several over 30 starters on their defense last year. He was by far the worst and it appears that the career journeyman’s skills have completely eroded. He ranked as ProFootballFocus’ 46th rated middle linebacker out of 53 eligible this season. A free agent heading into his age 33 season in 2013, he’s reportedly contemplating retirement. Manti Te’o will get a lot of consideration if he falls to them 17th overall on draft day.
They occasionally got some good performances from their running backs, but they were definitely inconsistent and they struggled on the whole, as they ranked 28th in the NFL, averaging 3.7 YPC. Their struggles on the ground had a lot to do with why they struggled offensively as a unit. Rashard Mendenhall was a late scratch down the stretch and it’s widely assumed he won’t be welcomed back as a free agent. Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer are just too inconsistent to be relied on, while Chris Rainey was just cut after an arrest. There will be plenty of backs for the Steelers to consider on day 2.
Ike Taylor is another over 30 starter, turning 33 in May. He’ll probably be back at his scheduled 6 million dollar salary in 2013, but owed 7 million in his age 34 season in 2014, he might not be and their cornerback depth is suspect. Meanwhile, Keenan Lewis, who played very well this season, is a free agent and the Steelers’ cap situation might not allow them to retain him. They normally use a mid-round pick on a cornerback and it would make sense to do that again this year, regardless of what happens with Keenan Lewis.
3-4 Defensive End
Brett Keisel will be a 35 year old in a contract year in 2013, so it’s very likely he won’t be back with the team in 2014, if he’s even still playing. He’s been a very good player for a very long time, but this year he was just okay. The Steelers have spent first round picks on defensive ends for their 3-4 defense recently, taking Ziggy Hood in 2009 and Cameron Heyward in 2011.
However, Hood looks like a bust as he’s graded out as one of the worst defensive linemen in the league over the past 2 years. He’ll be a free agent next off-season too and his future with the team is murky at best. Heyward, meanwhile, is still a bit of an unknown, playing just 514 snaps combined in his first 2 years in the league. He’ll get a bigger role in 2013, but it still wouldn’t surprise me if they used an early pick on this position for 2014 and beyond.
Here’s another over 30 starter (one of a ridiculous 7 that the Steelers had last season on defense). Casey Hampton is a 36 year old free agent this off-season. The Steelers like Steve McLendon, who played well in limited action this season. He’s a restricted free agent, but he’ll be brought back. The question is if he can play the 500+ snaps that Hampton usually plays on a yearly basis, which is rare for a nose tackle. The Steelers also have Alameda Ta’amu, a 2012 4th round pick, in the mix, but he didn’t play a snap as a rookie and dealt with off the field issues.
Here’s two more over 30 starters. Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark are entering their age 32 and 34 seasons respectively in 2013. Clark seems like the younger player actually as he’s still playing well and relatively healthy. Polamalu is still a big impact player on the field, even when not at full strength, but it seems like he misses more games than he plays. He’s owed 7.5 million next season and 8.25 million in 2014, so the Steelers may have a very interesting decision to make with him in one of the next two off-seasons. The Steelers will need some youth at the position behind them.
The Steelers are prepared to go forward with youngsters Mike Adams and Marcus Gilbert at offensive tackle next season. However, they could use some veteran depth. Re-signing Max Starks or signing someone comparable would suffice.
Willie Colon has ended the last 3 seasons on IR. He actually played most of this year before eventually getting hurt, which is much better than 2010 and 2011, when he playied in just 1 game combined. However, injuries have forced him to move to guard, where he’s simply not worth the 5.5 million he’s owed next season. A very injury prone player, the Steelers will reportedly cut him and replace him with Kelvin Beachum. Beachum struggled some at right tackle this season, but might be a better fit at left guard in his 2nd year in the NFL. Still, only a 7th round pick in 2012, the Steelers need some veteran competition. Re-signing Ramon Foster or signing a comparable player would suffice.
Here’s their final over 30 starter. James Harrison will be owed 6.57 million in 2013, his age 35 season, and with declining abilities and a recent history of nagging injuries, the Steelers may just decide he’s not worth that, especially given their cap situation. Jason Worilds and Chris Carter have been inconsistent when asked to step in for him over the past few years, but they’ll be given an opportunity to replace him if he is cut. That won’t stop the Steelers from bringing someone else in the mix.
Mike Wallace is not expected to be retained as a free agent. The Steelers didn’t like the way he handled himself last season, nor did they like the way he played when he finally ended his holdout. He’s not a good fit for Todd Haley’s offense and the Steelers flat out down have the cap room to pay him what he wants. The Steelers will probably be fine going into 2013 with Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders as the starters, but it wouldn’t hurt them to bring in some more competition.
Heath Miller tore his ACL in December and will be in a race to play week 1. The Steelers should bring in a better backup because they don’t have anyone else that catches passes well on their roster and the tight end is a big part of Haley’s offense.
Chris Rainey used to be their primary kick returner, but he was cut after an off the field incident.
Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders were their primary punt returners last season, but, as they take on bigger roles on offense with Mike Wallace likely leaving, the Steelers may want to bring in a specialist just to decrease the likelihood of injury to two guys that figure to be big parts of their offense.