Steelers team evolves, strives for improvement

Last season was a rough one for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The team went 8–8 and missed the playoffs for the third time since quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s rookie season in 2004. As expected, the Steelers made several off-season moves to get the team back to its winning ways. Nearly every position on the team experienced major changes in an effort to improve.

Big Ben is still firmly entrenched as the starter, but his backups have changed quite dramatically. Bruce Gradkowski spent the last two seasons in Cincinnati backing up Andy Dalton. While Gradkowski hasn’t started a game since his 2010 season with the Oakland Raiders, he represents a big upgrade over the combination of 38-year-old Charlie Batch and injury-prone Byron Leftwich. The Steelers also drafted University of Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones. With both Roethlisberger and Gradkowski in their 30s, the Steelers wanted a young quarterback to follow the veterans. Hopefully Gradkowski and Landry don’t see the field this season, but with Roethlisberger having not started a full season since 2008, they will likely be called on at some point.

Last year, running back Rashard Mendenhall was rehabbing a torn ACL suffered during the regular season finale of the 2011 campaign. He missed the first six games of the season and was quickly injured and out again until November. By that time, backups Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer had combined to deliver a solid game even while battling injuries of their own. Due to Mendenhall’s displeasure with being replaced, the team let him leave in free agency and drafted Le’Veon Bell in the second round.

Unfortunately, the Pittsburgh running backs have been bit by the injury bug again, with Redman and Bell out. To compensate, the Steelers picked up LaRod Stephens-Howling to be the third down back and traded for former Dallas Cowboys first-round pick Felix Jones, who had been training with the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Steelers are currently without both their top wide out and tight end from last season. They lost wide receiver Mike Wallace through restricted free agency to the Miami Dolphins, leaving Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown to pick up the slack. Plaxico Burress was hoping to make a contribution as the third receiver, but a torn rotator cuff has knocked him out for at least the season. Tight end Heath Miller has been injured for most of training camp but is due to return sometime in September. Until then, former Chicago Bear starter Matt Spaeth and last year’s seventh-round pick David Paulson will fill in.

The main difference between this year’s offensive line and last season’s is health. The same five linemen starting this year would have been starters last year if not for injury. Left guard Ramon Foster and center Maurkice Pouncey were the only healthy starters for the majority of last season. Second-year right guard David DeCastro missed most of his rookie season with an injured right knee, second-year left tackle Mike Adams missed time with an ankle injury, and third-year right tackle Marcus Gilbert missed time with a severe ankle injury. This group of guys should give Big Ben the best protection he’s had in a while, if they remain healthy.

The defensive line was one of the few consistent positions for the Steelers, with only nose tackle Casey Hampton leaving from last year’s main rotation. Pittsburgh is counting on Steve McLendon to fill Hampton’s very large shoes. Defensive ends Ziggy Hood, Brett Keisel, and Cameron Heyward are all returning and hoping to build on one of the few bright spots left from last season.

The Steelers’ linebacking corps has been one of the strengths in recent years. Arguably their best outside linebacker, James Harrison, left this off-season after declining performance. He signed with division rival Cincinnati and is trying to revive his career. Otherwise, the Steelers still have a great group of linebackers with LaMarr Woodley, Larry Foote, Lawrence Timmons, and Jason Worilds. The only real worry for Pittsburgh is keeping these veterans healthy since their only comprable backup is rookie Jarvis Jones.

Similar to the linebacker position, the Steelers didn’t lose much in their secondary. The main loss was backup safety Will Allen to the Cowboys. Otherwise, Pittsburgh just benefited from getting starting corner Ike Taylor and nickel corner Curtis Brown back from season-ending injuries. Going forward, this position could turn from a strength to a weakness with perennial Pro Bowler Troy Polamalu nearing the end of his career and Taylor turning 34 next off-season. There isn’t much depth at either position, but Ryan Mundy was picked up from the New York Giants this off-season to try and ease the transition.

Overall, most of the Steelers’ roster changes are on the offensive side of the ball, with the defense hoping to bounce back after an injury-filled season. But the defense is aging and each year comes closer and closer losing their edge.