Steelers heading into uncertain offseason
The Pittsburgh Steelers spent most of 2011 trying to prove they weren't old, slow or over.
At times during a solid but not spectacular season, they looked all three.
Still the defending AFC champions persevered, riding their top-ranked defense and key contributions from younger players to a 12-4 record and their eighth playoff appearance since 2000, remarkable consistency in a league where change is the only constant.
Yet Pittsburgh's bid for a record seventh Lombardi Trophy came to a stunning halt in Denver, where Tim Tebow - the league's lowest rated starting quarterback coming in - carved the NFL's stingiest pass defense up for 316 yards including an 80-yard touchdown to Demaryius Thomas on the first play of overtime.
''We acknowledge that there can only be one (champion), and it's not us this year,'' coach Mike Tomlin said.
Tomlin expects to be back in the mix in 2012 but allows it could be an eventful offseason for a franchise known for its continuity.
''I am not going to sit here and pretend like there's not going to be changes,'' Tomlin said.
Huge ones, perhaps.
The defense featured seven starters over age 30 but still led the league in yards allowed and points against. Yet the splash plays that have become the unit's signature under Hall of Fame defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau never materialized. The Steelers finished last in the NFL with 15 takeaways and were merely OK getting to the quarterback, collecting 35 sacks, 19th in the league.
Injuries to linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley didn't help. The duo played alongside each other only sparingly over the last 12 games with Harrison missing a month with a fractured right orbital bone and Woodley spending the second half of the year trying to deal with a strained hamstring that never fully healed.
At least they came back. Defensive end Aaron Smith and nose tackle Chris Hoke both had their season end early with potentially career-threatening neck issues.
Smith lamented last week it felt like he was missing out on the last roundup for the core of a defense that has led the team to three Super Bowl appearances in the last seven seasons.
It certainly felt like it in a quiet locker room on Sunday night, with nose tackle Casey Hampton and defensive end Brett Keisel joining the injured list. Both will likely require offseason surgery and while Keisel will almost certainly return it's unclear whether Hampton, who will turn 35 before the start of next season and is scheduled to make about $8 million, will be afforded the same luxury.
The defense's oldest player, James Farrior, turned 37 a week ago and will take his time before deciding what to do about 2012.
Though new faces have emerged, particularly defensive end Ziggy Hood and linebacker Jason Worilds, the younger players understand filling the leadership void will be difficult.
''That'll be tough, but all the older guys, they installed the mindset of playing Steeler football,'' cornerback William Gay said. ''New captains are going to have to step up, guys that have been around, and it's just the same old thing: playing Steeler football. And that's what we're going to do.''
They'll do it with an offense that piled up yards but not points.
Ben Roethlisberger battled through a sprained left foot, a fractured right thumb and a badly sprained left ankle to top 4,000 yards passing for the second time in his career but the Steelers averaged 20.3 points per game, hardly enough in a league where the best teams put up video game numbers.
''We feel like we really have great potential to be a really good offense,'' Roethlisberger said. ''I told a lot of guys that. We can be great, we just have to put in the work in the offseason. A lot of that's going to fall on me.''
Particularly if veteran Hines Ward retires or moves on. He shot down rumors that he was hanging it up following a season in which he had just 46 catches, though he did collect the 1,000th reception of his career in the regular season finale.
He's become a mentor as he's aged, and he may have been too good for his own good. The maturation of Mike Wallace and the ascension of second-year receiver Antonio Brown - who set a team record for all-purpose yards - into one of the league's top young wideouts dropped Ward to fourth or fifth on the depth chart.
''We all know the direction in which we're going with the receiving corps,'' Emmanuel Sanders said. ''But, like I said, Hines is still a great addition, just the knowledge he brings to the room. You can't pay for that. You can't coach that. He just brings that well-being of how to be a pro into the room.''
It's the ''Steeler Way,'' even if the road didn't lead to a familiar destination.
The team spent most of the season playing from behind, getting beat down by rival Baltimore in the season opener then never really catching up. Each time Pittsburgh had a chance to take control of the AFC North - in Week 8 against the Ravens, in Week 14 against San Francisco - the Steelers would lose.
Now they're at home while the Ravens' season continues. The team stresses it's an anomaly, not a changing of the guard no matter who is wearing black-and-gold next season.
''It's tough to say right now, but we're very talented and we have a lot of young guys, so we have a good mix of experience,'' safety Troy Polamalu said. ''Time will tell.''