NFL Analysis: Pittsburgh Aims For A Turnaround Year

The Pittsburgh Steelers suffered through their first non-winning season since 2006 in going 8-8 last season and seeing a late-season drive for the playoffs come up short in disappointing fashion. In spite of some high-profile free-agent departures, the Steelers have been priced as a slight favorite to win a competitive AFC North. TheSportsNotebook’s NFL analysis looks to see whether that’s justified.

Any discussion of the Steelers’ failure to make the playoffs in 2012 must begin with the complete collapse of the running game. This organization’s reputation for a tough, run-first attack has outstripped the reality on the field for a few years now, but last season was the first time the rush became genuinely impotent. Pittsburgh was 28th in the NFL in yards-per-rush.

The good news is that the right side of the line is young, with solid up-and-comers in David DeCastro and Mike Adams, both 23-years-old. DeCastro’s missed much of last year, so I think we can expect an improved line. Jonathan Dwyer is a respectable back. I don’t think the Steelers’ running game will be as bad as it was in 2012, but at the same time, don’t expect to have the memories of Jerome Bettis running over people reawakened.

This means pressure remains on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to produce and the Pittsburgh passing attack was no better than average a year ago. The protection wasn’t good—though here too, the improvement of DeCastro and Adams will have a positive impact. Roethlisberger’s unmatched ability to break tackles mitigates some of that, but Pittsburgh was still in the league’s lower half at allowing sacks.

What’s more, deep threat Mike Wallace is gone to Miami via free agency. We know that in the NFL, a quarterback can, to a certain extent, make his receivers. I expect Big Ben to do that with the cast of mostly no-names he’ll be throwing to. But we also know—with the New England Patriots of the last few years being the prime example—that a quarterback can’t manufacture a deep threat. The Steelers need to find someone who can get downfield.

Pittsburgh’s defense remained one of the game’s best a year ago, and that’s in spite of Troy Polamalu missing nine games with a calf injury. Even the free-agent loss of outside linebacker James Harrison won’t hurt that much. The days since Harrison won Defensive Player of the Year are well behind him, and Jason Worldis had become as productive a linebacker as the 35-year-old Harrison.

Therefore pencil in the Steelers for another solid defensive year, but be careful about assuming improvement based on a healthy Polamalu. When you get to be 32-years-old, a calf injury isn’t all that shocking, so I don’t know that injury as just the luck of the draw.

The Steelers’ Over/Under win prop is posted in Las Vegas at 9.5. That’s a conservative number, and I certainly find it easy to see Mike Tomlin taking this team to a 10-6 record. My problem is that I think ten wins is about the ceiling, and if you told me the bottoming out would continue and Pittsburgh would go 7-9, I could buy that too. That gives me a little more room going Under. 

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