With NFL training camps just around the corner, we’re taking a team-by-team look at how the offseason played out and what you can expect in 2012. Click here to read them all.
Pittsburgh has long been one of the NFL's steadiest and most reliable franchises. An offseason spent purging and restocking the roster will put that consistency to the test.
Two years removed from a Super Bowl loss to the Packers, the Steelers will be asking more of their young core of players than at any point in recent memory. That said, the Pittsburgh roster would still be the envy of a large number of teams in the league.
This season could go any number of ways for Pittsburgh, which lost a tiebreaker for the AFC North to Baltimore last season and then bowed out in the first round of the playoffs.
It's always Super Bowl or bust in the Steel City, but will expectations have to change this year?
2011 Record: 12-4 (t-first in AFC North; lost wild-card round game to Broncos)
Team Strengths: WR, QB, OLB, S
Team Weaknesses: RB, CB, ILB
Three Things to Watch
1. Will there be a leadership void?: Between them, Ward, Hoke, Smith, Farrior and Kemoeatu played 55 combined seasons with the Steelers. Somehow, Pittsburgh has to figure out how to replace those players, on and off the field, after a rash of retirements and cost-cutting moves this offseason.
Farrior, especially, had been a linchpin on Pittsburgh's defense, starting all but six regular-season games at linebacker since 2002. Meanwhile, Ward, a 1998 third-round pick by Pittsburgh, has long been one of the faces of the franchise and was the steady, veteran presence on a young and developing receiving corps in recent seasons.
Even if the salary cap-induced roster bloodletting helped Pittsburgh undergo a much-needed youth movement, it's impossible to plug that kind of experience and familiarity back into the lineup.
Because of that, the onus will fall on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to lead the way, even more so than in the past. He'll need some help from guys like LaMarr Woodley and Mike Wallace (if the latter ever signs his restricted free agent tender and reports). A host of veterans still remains: Troy Polamalu, Larry Foote, James Harrison and Heath Miller, to name a few. Still, given how much emotional roster turnover Pittsburgh has undergone in the last few months, some shaky moments are likely.
2. Can Isaac Redman hold down the fort at RB?: The torn ACL that Rashard Mendenhall suffered in Week 17 last season figures to have some long-ranging consequences for the Steelers. Peter King reported in June that Mendenhall likely will miss several weeks of the 2012 regular season, meaning he's a safe bet to start the year on the PUP list.
That outlook shifts all the attention to fourth-year back Redman, who churned out 121 yards rushing in Mendenhall's stead during Pittsburgh's playoff loss to Denver. Redman has shown himself to be a serviceable back when given the chance, notching 479 yards on 110 carries last season and averaging 4.5 yards per carry in his brief career.
What he has not done yet, however, is carry the load for an extended period of time. The three guys behind him on the depth chart (John Clay, Jonathan Dwyer and rookie Chris Rainey) have a total of 192 NFL rushing yards between them, so the onus is clearly on Redman.
Pittsburgh is not nearly as run-heavy as it used to be -- nor should it be with Wallace, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and others at wide receiver -- but a huge drop-off in the backfield would limit the team's offensive options.
If Redman struggles mightily, it also would make it easier for defenses to key on Roethlisberger, which won't make the quarterback feel too confident after he was sacked a whopping 40 times last season. Plain and simple, Pittsburgh needs Redman to be effective until Mendenhall can return.
3. How good will the rookies be?: If each NFL team's salary-cap situation were compared to a country's economic standing, the Steelers would have been Greece heading into this offseason. Pittsburgh found itself millions and millions over the 2012 cap, which not only led to the shuttling of guys like Ward (via semi-forced retirement) and Farrior, but more or less left the Steelers without the option of diving into the free-agent market.
So, the draft became hugely important for Pittsburgh's reloading efforts.
And the Steelers appeared to nail it. They snatched up Stanford guard DeCastro in Round 1, after he somehow tumbled to No. 24; they added Ohio State tackle Adams in Round 2; and then they rounded things out with Rainey, who's expected to contribute in the backfield and on special teams, linebacker Sean Spence and nose tackle Ta'amu.
DeCastro and Adams already are penciled into the starting lineup, while Ta'amu could see major minutes behind Steve McClendon at nose tackle. The DeCastro/Adams tandem will be asked to help upgrade a struggling offensive line that suddenly looks built for the future -- right tackle Marcus Gilbert was a second-round pick last year, and center Maurkice Pouncey a first-rounder in 2010.
Baltimore continues to remain a strong AFC contender, and Cincinnati came out of nowhere last year to challenge. Even as Cleveland continues its perpetual rebuild, Pittsburgh has its hands full in the division.
There remains enough talent here for the Steelers to make a run. Barring a complete collapse, they should be in the mix for a playoff berth, and their potentially explosive offense and playmaking defense will keep them a threat if they get to the postseason. If there was a year when Pittsburgh might take a step back, though, it would be this one.