Steelers look to avoid downturn at combine

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — The Pittsburgh Steelers have lack of depth at receiver, no proven running back, a jumbled offensive line and several aging stars on defense.

But don’t refer to them as a “transition team.”

“That means you’re going to accept anything less than a Super Bowl,”  General Manager Kevin Colbert said Thursday at the NFL Scouting Combine.

Which is the Steelers way, attitude and approach. But attitude and approach can’t overcome everything, and though Colbert shrugs it off, Pittsburgh sure seems to be entering an offseason of overhaul.

Whether it’s partial or full remains to be seen, but teams that have consistently looked up at Pittsburgh in the AFC North might be starting to see the Steelers come back to terra firma.

Pittsburgh is somewhere around $14 million over the salary cap, about to lose receiver Mike Wallace and running back Rashard Mendenhall to free agency and facing the restructuring or release of several long-time veterans.

When it comes to age, few teams have as much as the Steelers on defense with James Harrison (34), Troy Polamalu (31), Brett Keisel (34), Casey Hampton (35), Ike Taylor (32) and Larry Foote (32) all at the point where it’s time, in the words of Chuck Noll, to ponder their life’s work.

Then there’s the matter of team harmony. This week, an unknown player was quoted anonymously criticizing LaMarr Woodley for being overweight last season.

That led safety Ryan Clark to say it indicated a “fracture” in the locker room, and receiver Antonio Brown to say the team was not unified in 2012.

“Our team was a team last year where guys weren’t really together,” Brown said on ESPN’s First Take.

“As we know in the NFL, you got to have a band of brothers. Everyone (has) to be together and it (has) to filter down from the leadership. And for guys to throw a guy like LaMarr Woodley, a Pro Bowl player, under the bus just shows you the men we had in our locker room. And it’s something that we want to get corrected for 2013.”

This is hardly the picture of harmony, and for Colbert it would seem to represent a challenge.

“It’s been ongoing,” Colbert said of the team’s cap situation. “When you have some success, you’ve probably had good players, some of them have probably been a little bit older and they’re going to move on. We have to be prepared, both from a salary cap standpoint and from a talent standpoint to make those changes. But it’s really not any more sophisticated than previous years.”

To Colbert, the Steelers are going through the natural NFL order. The key to avoid a serious downturn, to minimizing the effect, is preparation.

“Change has to occur over time and you hope that you prepared and drafted or signed free agents to deal with that change as it occurs,” he said. “It’s inevitable.”

That doesn’t mean some tough decisions aren’t coming.

Polamalu probably will be back, but he missed nine games in ‘12 to a calf injury and was a shell of himself when he played.

Harrison won’t be back at his $6.5 million salary (and $9.5 million cap cost), though he might return if he takes a pay cut.

Decisions have to be made on Keisel as well as Hampton; both could go.

Pittsburgh also must retain free agent corner Keenan Lewis, and upgrade at receiver and running back.

But the Steelers constants are strong ones: They have Colbert picking the players, they have Dick LeBeau calling the defenses (No. 1 in the league in ‘12) and they have Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback. And a good quarterback can cover a lot of problems.

Colbert has reshuffled his offensive line the past two years and will have a young group, with Mike Adams and Marcus Gilbert at tackle, Maurkice Pouncey at center and David DeCastro and a player to be named at guard.

It has Jason Worilds to step in for Harrison if he leaves, and Ziggy Hood to play for Keisel if he leaves. But Woodley regressed from the Pro Bowl in 2011 to overweight and hurt last season.

Pittsburgh no longer has strong locker room presences like Hines Ward, Jerome Bettis and James Farrior, but the Steelers somehow seem to find a way to plug in guys for guys who leave.

This offseason, though, the amount of change could be more than even the Steelers and their system can handle.

At least the rest of the AFC hopes that it is.