Steelers humbled but optimistic after 8-8 finish

The Pittsburgh Steelers have seven long months to think about

what exactly happened in 2013.

Are they closer to the team that looked lost and overmatched at

times during a 2-6 start? Or are they closer to the one that went

6-2 over the final eight weeks and came within a shanked field goal

and a botched penalty call in San Diego from making the

playoffs?

The answer is both.

And while coach Mike Tomlin saw progress during one of the

wilder 8-8 seasons in recent memory, the end result was a second

straight 8-8 campaign that left the Steelers on the outside of the

playoffs looking in … yet again.

So forget about the illegal formation penalty that wasn’t called

on San Diego in the final seconds against Kansas City on Sunday

night. Ditto the Chargers’ apparent fumble on a fake punt in

overtime. The way Tomlin looks at it, if his team is relying on a

series of breaks thousands of miles away to get into the

postseason, the only people to blame are the ones wearing black and

gold.

”We stepped into 16 stadiums this year with an opportunity to

state our case and we didn’t state a strong enough case,” Tomlin

said.

No, but they did create a compelling one.

An offense that sputtered during an 0-4 start found a rhythm

when coordinator Todd Haley incorporated a ”no huddle” attack

that gave quarterback Ben Roethlisberger more freedom. Running back

Le’Veon Bell shook off a shaky preseason to set a new team record

for total yards by a rookie. Antonio Brown put together arguably

the greatest season ever by a Pittsburgh wide receiver, catching

110 passes and setting a franchise mark for yards receiving in a

season with 1,499.

A defense that couldn’t sack the quarterback, take the ball away

or tackle for long stretches – including a horrific 55-31 loss to

New England on Nov. 3 that was the worst statistical performance in

Pittsburgh’s 81-year history – recovered somewhat over the final

two months.

Safety Troy Polamalu didn’t miss a game and made the Pro Bowl

despite spending most of the season out of position as a linebacker

in passing situations. Jason Worilds emerged as a difference maker,

playing so well at left outside linebacker when LaMarr Woodley went

down with a calf injury that the Steelers took the unusual step of

moving Woodley to the right side during his brief return.

The result, however, was nothing more than window dressing of

sorts for a team that doesn’t use moral victories as the standard

for success. Pittsburgh will miss the postseason in consecutive

years for the first time this millennium. As encouraging as parts

of 2013 were, it didn’t represent a step forward.

”I don’t think anybody’s goal in this locker room was to go 8-8

and be sitting at home during the first week in January like we’ll

be doing this year,” tight end Heath Miller said. ”So, in that

regard, it certainly was an underachievement.”

One that will lead to more than a little soul searching as the

core that helped the Steelers to three Super Bowl berths since 2005

continues to give way to a youth movement designed to help

Pittsburgh keep up with Cincinnati in the new-look AFC North.

Safety Ryan Clark will be a free agent. So will defensive end

Brett Keisel. Both are in their mid-30s. Both say they want to play

in 2014. Both will likely have to do it elsewhere next year if they

end up playing at all.

Woodley, who hasn’t played a full season since 2010, suddenly

looks expendable. Cornerback Ike Taylor could fall into the same

category unless he agrees to help the salary cap-strapped club by

reworking a deal that currently counts nearly $12 million against

the cap next year.

Offensively, the Steelers need to find a No. 2 receiver with

Emmanuel Sanders all but out the door as a free agent. Then there’s

Roethlisberger’s contract status. Pittsburgh typically reworks the

contracts of its quarterback when there are two years remaining on

the current deal.

Roethlisberger’s base salary for 2014 is $12.1 million, a

pittance by NFL standards for a multiple Super Bowl-winning

quarterback. Despite reports at midseason he was unhappy,

Roethlisberger ended up putting together one of the finest seasons

of his 10-year career. He played all 16 games for just the second

time and reached a detente of sorts with Haley.

”I feel like we are a team on the rise,” Roethlisberger

said.

Even if the ascent isn’t as rapid as the Steelers are used

to.

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org