In Pittsburgh, a "down" year for the Steelers means a year without another Super Bowl ring, parade, or championship banner.
This season, it may mean something worse; missing the playoffs, an 8-8 record.
Is it blasphemous to say the Steelers will be a mediocre team? In Pittsburgh, absolutely. However, I still stand by my prediction and if I was going to lie and say this team had another long playoff run in them, this blog would be pointless.
The Steelers are implementing a brand new offense, with two rookie offensive linemen, and without their biggest deep threat. Willie Colon is already dinged up while rookies David DeCastro and Mike Adams continue to learn after missing OTA's.
The offense will also miss Rashard Mendenhall which may be a bigger deal than most people believe. Mendenhall had a rough season before tearing his ACL in the final game against the Cleveland Browns. Isaac Redman is a fan favorite due to his tough running style and productivity as a starter in the playoffs against the Denver Broncos. But, is he ready to carry the load for a full season? That remains to be seen and if he does go down with an injury, the Steelers will be forced to turn to Jonathan Dwyer. Yikes.
Ben Roethlisberger is another question mark heading into this season. He certainly hasn't been shy about voicing his opinion of new offensive coordinator, Todd Haley. Also, at the age of 30, can Ben's body hold up after taking a pounding over the last 8 seasons? Can he adapt to being more of a pocket passer than a gunslinger? Who will his weapons be? Mike Wallace still hasn't come close to signing a tender or negotiating a deal, leaving Antonio Brown to face the difficulties of being double teamed. Jericho Cotchery is a solid veteran but after than, the wide receiver corps falls off. Emmanuel Sanders is a terrific talent, but can't stay on the field. Derrick Williams, the fourth receiver on the depth chart, has been a bust since coming out of Penn State three seasons ago.
While the offense is still trying to learn, the defense is looking for the fountain of youth. The once-legendary rushing defense fell to 8th last season after being shredded by the likes of Ray Rice and Arian Foster. With Aaron Smith and Chris Hoke retiring and Casey Hampton likely starting the year on the PUP list, the defensive line could drop off this season. Ziggy Hood has been average while Cameron Heyward is an unknown, playing in just his second season. The Steelers have praised Steve McLendon but he won't be able to replace the likes of Casey Hampton.
The linebackers, however, will make or break this defense. Last year, Lamarr Woodley came into camp out of shape and virtually ended his season in late October with a hamstring injury just as he was starting to get back to old form. James Harrison may be a "young" 34 but he is still 34 years old. He will start the preseason on the PUP list and may have future issues down the road thanks to chronic back problems. Lawrence Timmons needs a bounce-back season after being downright invisible last year. At 32, Larry Foote is no spring chicken, but he should provide better services than James Farrior from last year. Three of the four linebackers have elite playmaking talent, it is all a matter of putting it together for a full season.
The secondary is a big question mark heading into this season as well. Troy Polamalu is still an elite safety and future hall of fame player, but, at 32, he may have a tough time getting through a full season. Ike Taylor should have another solid season; however, the other cornerback position is still up for grabs. The Steelers rave about Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen, but they're still too inexperienced to hold a starting cornerback position. Keenan Lewis will get a shot but he has been dealing with an injured shoulder.
The schedule doesn't bode well for the Pittsburgh Steelers either. Not only do they have to play the Baltimore Ravens and much-improved Cincinnati Bengals twice, they also have to face the defending Super Bowl champion, New York Giants as well as the Dallas Cowboys and Peyton Manning-led Denver Broncos; all on the road.
I hope I am wrong. I hope the offense improves in its first year under Haley while the defense enjoys maybe one last season with some of its cornerstones. But, for this team, this season, it appears there are too many questions that provide very little evidence of positive answers.