With the 2013 NFL season rapidly approaching, we’re taking a spin around the league for a closer look at all 32 teams. Track all of our Snapshots here.
The aging defense storyline has surrounded Pittsburgh the past few seasons, yet in 2012, and despite considerable injury problems, the Steelers finished first in total defense and against the pass.
More concerning for Pittsburgh were the struggles to score -- Pittsburgh finished in the lower third in total offense and points per game. The rushing attack in particular was below standard. In the offseason, it was Pittsburgh's goal to get younger and reclaim its identity as a perennial title contender.
• Biggest Storyline: Will the Steelers improve enough offensively to make the playoffs?
The Steelers now find themselves coming off an 8-8 season in which they both failed to make the playoffs and watched their hated division rivals win the Super Bowl. To be sure, the myriad injuries suffered by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger played an enormous role in the offensive struggles. Big Ben started just 13 games in 2012 and has now failed to make it through 16 games for Pittsburgh four years running.
Roethlisberger is one of the best quarterbacks in the league with a clean pocket according to Pro Football Focus, but Pittsburgh's offensive line was just slightly above average in pass-protection last year, not to mention near the bottom of the league blocking the run. The two go hand-in-hand; if the Steelers can run the ball more effectively, it mitigates concerns that defenses come after Big Ben with reckless abandon.
The loss of explosiveness with the departure of Mike Wallace, even with all of his inconsistencies, will test the creativity of offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Antonio Brown, who had 66 catches for 787 yards in just 13 games, will step into the role Wallace played, but as talented as Brown is, there's no substitute for the unbridled horsepower Wallace's speed brought to this offense.
Rookie wideout Markus Wheaton and running back Le'Veon Bell will be asked to step in right away and contribute, as both could potentially be starters by season's end. Wheaton provides an ideal fit with this group of wideouts as a somewhat unheralded college star who has a tremendous feel for route-running and finding holes in defenses, to go along with some underrated explosiveness.
• Most intriguing positional battle: Slot/third receiver
As noted earlier, the departure of Wallace means the pecking order at receiver must shift. Brown and Emmanuel Sanders become the top dogs, while a host of unproven players fight an aging Jericho Cotchery for the third spot in what is essentially a starting position in this offense.
Veteran wideout Plaxico Burress will have surgery on a torn rotator cuff, and didn't figure to be an integral part of this offense in his return to black and gold, but his ability to find spots in zones and be a red zone target haven't waned so much as to render him useless. Cotchery is a team favorite, but hardly brings what you'd call juice to the passing game.
That leaves the rookies Wheaton and Justin Brown, along with second-year man David Gilreath, who saw limited action in 2012. All three bring big-play ability and explosiveness, although Gilreath seems much better suited in the return game, a place where he was dynamic in college at Wisconsin.
Pittsburgh used a third-round pick on Wheaton, who many thought could have been a mid-second round pick based on his ability. He has 4.4 speed to take the top off defenses and appears to be the man the Steelers hope will slide into that third position.
• New face, new place: Jarvis Jones OLB
Given Pittsburgh's allergy to signing free agents, the Steelers depend on drafting well to develop their team -- something they do as well as any other team in the league. Don Banks took a rather in-depth look into the rookie from Georgia last month, but the potential impact of Jones, and the risk Pittsburgh took in taking him, cannot be understated.
When you have a good team, you can take flyers on talented players. A spinal condition and lack of elite measurables red-flag the former Georgia All-America, but he was the most dominating player, at least statistically, in college football last season and did it in the best league in the nation.
Chris Burke summed up Jones in his last Big Board prior to April's draft:
Is Jones the player we so often saw making plays at Georgia, even dominating at times? Or is he the one with injury questions who slumbered through a disappointing pro day? My gut says it's the former, but because of the uncertainty, he lands here.
The answer to that question will go a long way to determining how big an impact Jones can have on a defense suddenly looking for an outside rusher.
• Impact rookie: Le'Veon Bell RB
When Pittsburgh picked Bell out of Michigan State in the second round, making him the second running back selected, it was something of a shock. Fellow running backs Montee Ball and Eddie Lacy were considered by many to be better prospects, but the Steelers say they got the back they wanted.
Bell moves extremely well for a player listed -- perhaps generously -- at 244 pounds, although he doesn't always run with the rugged physicality of a player his size. That being said, he's an underrated pass-catcher and his 4.56 40-yard dash at the combine shows that he's not some plodding, lumbering power back (For what it's worth, fellow second-round pick Montee Ball ran a 4.66 and was considered a much nimbler runner).
The former Spartans star has already moved up Pittsburgh's depth chart and could end up being the missing piece to what was an extremely unbalanced offense last season, especially if he can get a handle on pass protection.
• Looking at the schedule: There's no escaping the difficulty of playing in a division as deep as the AFC North. The Ravens lost key cogs and have been battling injuries, but appear poised to remain a playoff team. The Bengals have gotten deeper and more explosive on offense coming off back-to-back playoff appearances. Even the Browns look to be improved.
The good news with an 8-8 season is being matched up with the weaker teams in the non-division portion of the schedule, which means Pittsburgh will get Tennessee (Week 1) and Oakland (Week 8). The Steelers also get the reasonably soft underbelly of the AFC East.
Pittsburgh faces the NFC North, having to go to Minnesota and then travel to Green Bay in late December. That means of the seven games against 2012 playoff teams on the schedule, Pittsburgh will play five on the road, with the other two being against the Bengals and Ravens at home.
If the Steelers want to make the playoffs, they had better do their work early in the season as the final stretch could be brutal. Pittsburgh's final five games are at Baltimore, Miami, Cincinnati, at Green Bay, and Cleveland.