The 2013 NFL regular season is right around the corner. With that being said, it’s time to launch our team previews. FOXSports.com contributor Taylor Jones will answer important questions for every franchise.
2012 Record: 8-8. Missed the playoffs.
What is the position battle to watch?
The Steelers employed a running back by committee approach last season with Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman splitting time while Rashard Mendenhall missed all but six games after suffering an ACL tear in the regular-season finale of 2011. Prior to 2012, Mendenhall led the Steelers in rushing for three straight seasons but in his absence it was Dwyer who led the team with 623 yards and two touchdowns while Redman tallied 410 yards and two touchdowns. Even with Mendenhall out of the picture, neither were impressive enough to win the starting job outright heading into 2013. With the 48th overall pick, the Steelers drafted a bruiser of a running back, Le’Veon Bell, from Michigan State and was hoping to have a three-way open competition for the starting role.
Now, just three weeks into the preseason, Bell is out at least 6-8 weeks, or potentially the entire season if his lisfranc injury requires surgery. Isaac Redman, the team’s listed co-starter up to this point, has missed time with a stinger as has backup running back Baron Batch. Change-of-pace back LaRod Stephens Howling missed the second preseason game with a knee injury, leaving the only two healthy options as Dwyer and sixth stringer, Alvester Alexander. Forget an open competition … the Steelers would be happy to get to the regular season with three options that are healthy enough to suit up for the first game.
What must the team accomplish to consider the season a success?
The Pittsburgh Steelers missed the playoffs last season for the first time since 2009 and only the second time under the guidance of Mike Tomlin. It was the first time under Tomlin the team failed to finish with a winning record, but don’t let that 8-8 record fool you. Of the eight losses, six of them came down to the final play, including two that went to overtime. So had the outcome of just six plays turned out differently, the Steelers could have finished the season with a league best 14-2 regular-season record and the eventual Super Bowl champions (Ravens) may not have even qualified for the postseason. Given that, even with all the offseason departures and current injuries, the Steelers will be disappointed with anything less than a return to the playoffs. A run at the Super Bowl is most likely out of the question, but Ben Roethlisberger is still a top-five quarterback and anytime you have an elite player at that position, you have a chance.
What is the team’s biggest obstacle?
Keeping their best players healthy. Roethlisberger hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2008. In the three games he missed last year, the Steelers lost two of them. Troy Polamalu has only played one full 16-game season in the last five years and missed seven games in 2012 due to a calf injury. Second-round draft pick, Le’Veon Bell could miss significant time. The Steelers roster was decimated in the offseason and they will need to rely on their star players even more this season than in years past. Without Big Ben and Polamalu playing a full slate of games, Pittsburgh would be lucky to match last year’s 8-8 season, let alone make a trip to the postseason.
Which rookie stands the best chance to succeed?
With the 17th overall pick, the Pittsburgh Steelers selected one of my favorite players in the draft, Jarvis Jones. He’s the prototypical Pittsburgh linebacker and a natural pass-rusher who has an explosive first step and can really turn the edge along the outside. He had 28 sacks in his final two seasons at Georgia and will now ask to fill the void left by James Harrison. Or will he? The Steelers haven’t started a rookie at the position since 2001 and as it stands today, fourth-year player Jason Worilds is listed as the starter ahead of Jones. In three starts last season, Worilds totaled five sacks and already has one sack this preseason. Worilds isn’t just going to roll over and play dead.
What is the team’s biggest addition/loss from the previous season?
Although leading the team in receiving yards in 2012, Mike Wallace was largely disappointing as he finished the year with his lowest per-catch average in his four-year career. His receiving yards declined for the third straight year going from a high of 1,257 in 2010 to a low of 836 in 2012. With all that said, he is still the toughest player to replace on a roster that saw at least seven major contributors leave this offseason. It isn’t always about the statisitics for a player like Wallace, he can be just as impactful to a play in which he doesn’t even touch the ball. Teams have to account for his speed and ability to stretch the defense vertically while leaving the underneath more susceptible to easy receptions. The Steelers drafted Markus Wheaton in the third round to fill the void, and while you can’t discount him simply because of his draft position (Wallace was also a third round selection), he just doesn’t have the game-breaking speed that Wallace has. Wheaton ran a respectable 4.45 40-yard dash during April’s combine but that is full .12 slower than Wallace’s 4.33.