The Steelers are a proud franchise, and rightly so. No team boasts more than Pittsburgh’s six Super Bowl championships, and the perennially great defense always has them in the hunt.

Last year the Steelers’ championship hopes were torpedoed by a late injury to star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, as the team went 7-6 in games Big Ben started and 1-2 in games he did not.

There is hope that second-year offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s offense will help keep Roethlisberger upright, though, and combined with an encore performance from last year’s top-ranked defense that could push Pittsburgh right back into the ranks of contenders.

Will the running game click? Will Roethlisberger thrive under Haley? Will the aging defense have another star performance? Read on for six bold predictions for 2013 in Steeltown.

#6 – Mike Wallace? Good Riddanceno more

Wallace in recent years has been widely regarded as the elite deep threat in all of football. It is a reputation he earned with eye-popping yards-per-catch totals in 2009 (19.4) and 2010 (21.0). Those lofty totals seemed unsustainable to most observers, and so they were.

In 2011, Wallace’s average decreased to a merely very good 16.6 yards-per-catch, and last year he fell to a frankly pedestrian 13.1.

Among players with at least 30 receptions, Wallace ranked only 50th in his signature category, keeping company with such non-entities as Kenny Britt and Donnie Avery.

Wallace turned his declining production into a five-year, $60 million contract with the Miami Dolphins, who apparently have no experience with high-priced receivers.

The Steelers, being a well-run franchise, would never dream of paying a wide receiver that much. They will be just fine, because…

#5 – Markus Wheaton Is Going To Be A Stud

Wheaton had a stellar college career, finishing as Oregon State’s all-time leading receiver. His track star speed and top-flight agility allowed him to gash opposing defenses repeatedly.

During training camp, head coach Mike Tomlin and many of Wheaton’s veteran teammates praised the rookie’s high football IQ and fantastic work ethic, saying that he was making it easier on everyone.

Wheaton has already been impressive in the preseason, and now the defensive veterans are saying he’s better than Wallace at “everything except speed.”

All signs point to Wheaton being a huge draft-day steal.

#4 – The Defense Will Finally Slip

Since the calendar flipped to the year 2000, the Steelers haven’t finished outside of the top ten in the NFL in total defense.

In that time, they finished with the #1 defense six times, the #2, #4, #5, #7and #8 defense once each, and the #9 defense twice.

The Steelers have been so absurdly dominant on defense that they have more seasons in the top 2 (7) than out (6).

During that time they have shuffled playmakers in and out at nearly every position and have produced multiple defensive players of the year.

This is looking like the year that age and injuries finally start to wear down this incredible unit.

For starters, the team has five starters aged 32 or older today, and three in the defensive backfield.

All-universe safety Troy Polamalu, 32, has missed time to injury in five of the last seven years and has played less than half the season twice in that span.

Famed bearded warrior Brett Keisel played in all 16 games only once in the last five years (last year).

Some players still in their twenties have exhibited slippage as well – former pass rushing maniac Lamar Woodley has missed time each of the last two years and in 2012 recorded only four sacks in thirteen games.

Of course the team has a slew of young players on hand to fill the gaps, but so does every other team in the NFL.

It all points to the Steel Curtain finally starting to show some rust.

#3 – The Division Will Be Brutal

The Ravens and the Bengals both made the playoffs last year. Both teams are solid on both sides of the ball. Both teams won key second-half matchups with the Steelers, as did the improving Browns.

The Steelers finished 3-3 in the division last year, and will be hard pressed to best that mark this year. Don’t expect them to.

#2 – They Will Go 2-4 Without Roethlisberger

Big Ben Roethlisberger has played in all sixteen games exactly once in his nine-year career. He has endured motorcycle accidents, concussions, sprained ankles, bruised ribs and assorted bumps and bruises due to a combination of his scrambling style and poor offensive lines.

A major benefit of Todd Haley’s offense is that it is supposed to help protect Roethlisberger by encouraging quick throws and providing a solid running game.

Despite perceptions to the contrary, that benefit hasn’t been evident in Steeltown.

Roethlisberger ate turf 30 times in his thirteen games last year, a pace which pro-rates to 37 sacks over a full season. Last year, 37 sacks would’ve ranked 16th in the league, or almost perfectly average.

Against the Redskins on Monday night, Ben took one sack in six dropbacks and absorbed a number of huge shots. Washington had the 23rd-ranked pass rush in the NFL last year, and one of the worst defenses overall.

If Pittsburgh can’t protect their franchise QB for one half against a mediocre defense in the preseason, what chance do they have against monsters like Geno Atkins and Elvis Dumervil when it’s for real?

When the inevitable happens, Bruce Gradkowski will not be able to save Pittsburgh’s bacon.

That is why…

#1 – No Playoffs Again

The playoffs without the Steelers last year seemed weird. Get used to it.

The AFC North has two better teams. The Steelers’ two best players, Roethlisberger and Polamalu, are constantly injured.

The offensive line offers no hope.

The defense already proved last year that it can’t carry the team to the dance by itself, and will inevitably be worse.

All that adds up to some sad towel-wavers in the ‘Burgh come January.