2012 Record: 8-8
From Harris and Bleier to Bettis and Parker to....whatever you'd call this.
It's not that the 2012 Steelers were completely devoid of running back talent. It's just that the drop off from 2011 to last season is disconcerting, and far below Pittsburgh's norm.
Two seasons ago, the Steelers ran for 4.4 YPA, which was good enough for eleventh best in the NFL.
That average sunk to 3.7 YPA, good for fifth worst. Rashard Mendenhall dropped to 3.6 YPA on 51 carries. Jonathan Dwyer led all 50-carry players with 4.0 YPA, as well as 623 yards and two touchdowns.
The offensive line can partially field the blame for this breakdown in quality. Mike Adams and Kelvin Beachem struggled on the right side (in pass protection as well), while touted first round pick David DeCastro blew out his knee in preseason.
Second Half Collapse
The general rule for the Steelers these days is that they only miss the playoffs after they've won the Super Bowl. A year after getting tossed and turned by Tim Tebow and the Broncos, Pittsburgh's usual playoff invite was revoked, despite starting out 6-3.
After Ben Roethlisberger sustained a rare type of shoulder injury against the Chiefs on November 12, the Steelers would lose two of their next three games behind Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich. Batch was the general during an eight-turnover loss to the Browns.
Roethlisberger's return saw him preside over three straight losses, two of which were to non-playoff teams in San Diego and Dallas. A defeat by Cincinnati two days before Christmas ended Pittsburgh's season, the loss being the fifth in the last six games.
2013 Projected Wins: 10
Top 3 Rookies
-Jarvis Jones, LB (1/17): Dick LeBeau's aging defense is still mostly effective, so imagine how great it'll be with an edge-rushing linebacker with iron-strength to match frightening speed.
-Le'Veon Bell, RB (2/48): A true Steelers throwback: a 245-pound tackle-breaker with the added ability to leapfrog some defenders, and cut back on a dime to avoid others.
-Markus Wheaton, WR (3/79): The Young Money Crew loses Mike Wallace, but gains this half-pint that will at least replace Wallace's deep ball sprinting speed.
It's generally unlike the Steelers to go on desperation spending sprees and build teams akin to fantasy football squads. Instead, they remain a build-through-the-draft team, making good chemistry possible, and providing a sense of continuity on a year-to-year basis.
The main focus for Pittsburgh surrounded in-house maintenance. Emmanuel Sanders was signed to an offer sheet that prevented him from bolting to New England, while running back Isaac Redman and nose tackle Steve McLendon signed tenders to stay in town.
Plaxico Burress and Jonathan Dwyer each got re-upped for another year, while old man Larry Foote received a deal that takes him through 2016 (age 36). Tight end Matt Spaeth returns after two years in Chicago, and LaRod Stephens-Howling signed for a year.
Potential Starting Lineup
QB - Ben Roethlisberger
RB - Le'Veon Bell
FB - David Johnson
WR - Antonio Brown
WR - Emmanuel Sanders
TE - Heath Miller
LT - Mike Adams
LG - Ramon Foster
C - Maurkice Pouncey
RG - David DeCastro
RT - Marcus Gilbert
DE - Evander Hood
NT - Steve McLendon
DE - Brett Keisel
OLB - Lamarr Woodley
ILB - Larry Foote
ILB - Lawrence Timmons
OLB - Jason Worilds
CB - Cortez Allen
CB - Ike Taylor
FS - Ryan Clark
SS - Troy Polamalu
K - Shaun Suisham
P - Drew Butler
LS - Greg Warren
2013 at a Glance
Of the 21 projected offensive and defensive starters that were in the league last year (Bell excepted), nine of them were active for 13 or fewer games.
That group includes Roethlisberger, Polamalu, Brown, Woodley, and Taylor. Sanders and Foster were the only two offensive players that were active for all 16 games.
You can call it a one-year rut of misfortune, or you could interpret it as the Steelers' iron-clad exterior rusting a bit.
Roethlisberger's feeling the creaks and cracks in his body after nine grueling years playing a physical style at quarterback. If he has any comfort, it's in knowing that he has more say in what the playbook features.
Roethlisberger had his clashes last season with new offensive coordinator Todd Haley. This offseason, "Big Ben" has taken the liberty of suggesting alterations in a compromise. Other offensive players apparently spoke up, and there's a positive feeling emerging from Pittsburgh, at least publicly.
How well they play depends on the offensive line.
Adams is recovering from stab wound following a robbery attempt in early June, but is expected to make a full recovery. It was Adams' weakness in pass protection, DeCastro's preseason injury, and general continuity issues led to poor production from the running game. With that imbalance, Pittsburgh suffered mightily. In five games, the team scored 16 or less points.
The defense sees eight probable starters come off a year in which they were active for at least 15 games, so at least there's continuity there. Only Woodley (13), Taylor (12), and Polamalu (7) played in less.
But injuries may be secondary to team sentiment. An anonymous quote was registered against Woodley for a perceived lack of work ethic, leading to injuries. Clark and Foote spoke out about the comment, saying it creates unnecessary dissension.
Age is also a factor on this defense: five of the eleven projected starters will be 32 or older on opening day, including Taylor, Clark, and Polamalu in the secondary. Aging or not, that group gave up the least amount of passing yards in the league last season.
But Pittsburgh is a fountain of youth for the time-worn: defensive mastermind Dick LeBeau returns for his 55th straight year in the NFL as a player or coach.
After this season, however, there could be a number of key cogs not returning. The extensive Steelers' free agent list includes Clark, Keisel, Hood, Sanders, and Dwyer, among many others.
It might not be so bad for an 8-8 team to make few changes headed into a new year. It's another year for the younger players to acclimate themselves, especially if the offense really is being reworked by the prickly Haley to accommodate everyone's strengths.
Health is the biggest concern, as it was a thorn in the eye of Pittsburgh last year. The Steelers haven't missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons since 1999-2000. But with an improved offense, and a defense coached by LeBeau, the Steelers have another strong run in 'em.